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What a difference a year makes for the Ohio State running backs

Tony Alford and company discusses how things are shaping up for the OSU RB room.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Things looked markedly different for the Ohio State running backs as they prepared for spring practice this year than they did in the lead up to 2020’s camp. Of course, we are (hopefully) in the latter stages of the coronavirus pandemic this year, as the first whispers of COVID-19 were just beginning to creep into discussions in the weeks just prior to the start of last year’s spring ball.

But putting the devastating effects of COVID on individuals, teams, and sports aside, the Buckeye RBs have done a nearly complete 180 from where they were just over a year ago. Last season, after the first day of camp, there was only one healthy scholarship ball-carrier on the roster, Steele Chambers. Between a thin 2020 running back recruiting class and injuries to Master Teague and Marcus Crowley, there wasn’t much that position coach Tony Alford could do.

Fast forward a calendar year, and what was a position of need in 2020, is now one of the deepest — if not still unproven — spots on the roster. The Buckeyes added Miyan Williams to the RB room after he graduated high school in spring 2020, and Trey Sermon joined over the summer following his transfer from Oklahoma, but between guys finally getting healthy and two stud true-freshman, there’s a lot of potential bursting to prove itself from that group.

On Tuesday, Alford and many of his running backs virtually met with the media, and the position coach stressed that they are looking to do everything that they can to get his stable of young backs as many reps as possible this spring. With three equally young quarterbacks who also all need to get in as much work as possible, there should be a ton of opportunities for the RBs to prove themselves.

“Highly competitive,” Alford said of his players. “It’s a great room ... [a] great group of kids.”

He added that while Teague has earned the right to be the presumptive starter, that the team is more than open to rotating running backs as necessary, including the early-enrollee freshmen TreVeyon Henderson and Evan Pryor. Alford said that both have shown up to campus “hungry to learn,” and that — despite their lofty rankings — are ready to be coached.

Even though both true-freshmen are used to being stars, they are happy to be Buckeyes together. Alford said that after Pryor — the 82nd ranked player in the country — had committed to OSU, at least one school was trying to negatively recruit Henderson — the No. 22 ranked player in the country — by saying that Ohio State clearly didn’t want him that badly if they had already taken Pryor in the class.

But what that school didn’t realize was that Pryor was the player most actively recruiting Henderson to join him in Columbus, and the connection between them obviously paid off. The two both enrolled early and are roommates, even though both are fighting to get on the field as early as possible. While they are working to impress Alford in practice, their competitiveness doesn’t end when they leave the Woody.

Pryor said that everything the pair of RBs does turns into a competition. “If Trey cooks something,” Pryor said, “maybe I’ll cook something, see what tastes better.”

What is also nice about the duo is that they bring different skill sets to the position. On the initial OSU roster, released on Monday, Henderson came in at 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, while Pryor was also 5-foot-10, but only 197 pounds.

Henderson said that his style is to look for contact, and that he was looking forward to putting pads on for the first time on Wednesday. ”When the pads come on,” Henderson said, “it lets you know who’s real and who’s not.”

His roommate on the other hand has a much different approach to carrying the ball. He said that his ability to make people miss is what sets him up to be a productive back at the college level. “My goal is to go to the end zone every time,” Pryor said.

Between Teague, Chambers, Williams, and Crowley, the Buckeyes are only returning 678 RB rushing yards from the 2020 season, and 514 of those came from Teague. So, one of the goals for Alford and his room in the spring has to be to figure out who is going to be able to provide a steady and consist running game to support whomever ends up behind center when the season opens in September.

“It’s all about putting people in competitive situations,” Alford said. “Guys are going to get their opportunities.”

And those opportunities should carry over from the spring into the fall. No matter which highly touted QB ends up calling signals for the Buckeyes when they take to the field, there will undoubtedly be a bit of a feeling out period, especially with the Oregon Ducks visiting The Horseshoe on Sept. 11. So, having the consistency of a steady running game, should allow C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller, or Kyle McCord plenty of time to get his bearings as the Buckeyes newly installed QB1.