As the college football offseason slowly creeps along, I continue to pretend that it ain’t so and list what I’m looking forward to from Ohio State in the fall. In my first column of this series, I said that I was looking forward to a truly breakout season from Marvin Harrison, Jr. Today, I’m expressing my excitement — and worries — about the Buckeye running game. New offensive line coach, some new faces on the line (I hope), and returning running backs, especially TreVeyon Henderson.
Henderson in 2021
Going into the 2021 season, we had all heard of freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson; he was, after all, the No. 1 running back in his recruiting class. And we had a glimpse of his speed in the spring game, even though that game was not full-go, but we hadn’t seen him against an opponent. I, for one, expected the old war horse, Master Teague, to be the Buckeyes’ premier running back in 2021, and I knew that the running game, which was bad — except for three wonderful Trey Sermon efforts— in 2020, would need more than Teague could provide to be first-rate. Furthermore, the quarterback (whoever) was untested. Question marks on offense.
The Buckeyes began removing those offensive question marks against Minnesota in the season’s first game. Second-year player Miyan Williams got the start at running back, gaining 125 yards on only nine carries, one of which was a 71-yard, first-quarter scamper that gave the Bucks a 7-0 lead over the Gophers. C.J. Stroud emerged as the starting quarterback and had a solid game that included a late touchdown pass to Chris Olave to seal the win for Ohio State. And Henderson? Well, he carried the ball only twice – for 15 yards. In the fourth quarter, though, he showed us all what he brought to the Buckeyes, as he scored on a 70-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown. After that, we all wanted to see more of TreVeyon Henderson.
And we did. Henderson and Williams split the carries in the loss to Oregon; Henderson ran a dozen times for 54 yards, and Williams gained 77 yards on 14 carries. In the third game, however, against Tulsa, Williams didn’t play, and Henderson became the No. 1 running back, a slot he would hold for the remainder of the year. In that game, he ran for 270 yards on 23 carries (a ridiculous 11.74 per rush average), with his longest run being 54 yards. The total yardage set a new Ohio State freshman single-game rushing record, beating Archie Griffin’s long-held mark.
By the time that the 2021 season ended, Henderson established another Buckeye freshman record with 19 total touchdowns — a record held previously by Maurice Clarett, set in the championship year of 2002. Henderson played in all 13 Ohio State games in 2021 and gained a net of 1,248 yards on his 183 rushes, falling only slightly short of J.K. Dobbins’ freshman season rushing record of 1,274 (2017).
Henderson in 2022
So TreVeyon Henderson is now really familiar to all Buckeye fans. We consider him something special, look at his odds for winning the 2022 Heisman, and can’t wait to see him running against the Irish. What will his season look like?
New coach, new line, new schemes
Hiring former UCLA offensive line coach Justin Frye was a necessity for Ohio State. Despite Henderson’s efforts (and Williams’s too), the running game was simply unreliable. It couldn’t be counted on to pick up the short-yardage first down, to provide a scoring threat in the red zone, or to fuel a long drive in the fourth period to run the clock. The Bucks found themselves having to resort to their passing game in all of these situations.
I would certainly expect Frye to introduce new blocking schemes for his line. Of course, he’ll need a more mobile group of linemen to accomplish that goal. But I expect to see more pulling from the line and, consequently, more outside runs for Henderson. Let’s face it: he’s not really a power back, and running him between guard and tackle might waste some of his ability.
I would hope, too, to see more traditional screen passes to the running backs. Because of the line’s immobility (I presume), Ohio State’s screen passes increasingly became wide receiver screens. Lined up in trips, one of the receivers would drop back, catch the pass, and count on one of the other wideouts to get enough of a block to give him some running room. Henderson’s a really good receiver, and I expect to see him more in that role.
If you look at Henderson’s game-by-game production in 2021, you’ll see that a lot of his yardage, and much of his fantastic 6.8 yards-per-carry average, came from long runs – big plays. The 54-yard run against Tulsa, 44 against Rutgers, 68 against Penn State, 57 against Purdue. It’s Henderson’s big-play capability that makes him great. The running game needs to run plays that put him in position to break loose. I know that it’s a cliché to say that Henderson can go all the way on any given play. And, while that’s true, he surely has a better shot from some plays, rather than others.
A little help from his friends
In 2021, Henderson had only three games where he carried the ball 20 or more times. There are lots of reasons that he didn’t have the load, say, of Dobbins or Clarett. OSU had a great passing game that reduced the number of running plays. Williams had 71 carries, and Teague ran 67 times. And, probably, confidence in the running game waned as the season wore on. I wonder, though, how durable Henderson would be with 20, or 25, carries a game. He’s not a really big guy. But he’s got help.
I’ve argued before that Henderson actually plays better, gains more yards, when he’s fresh. And I’m on record for liking Miyan Williams. Williams, in 2021, had a higher average per run (7.2) than Henderson’s. He had fewer yards lost — of course, he also had fewer carries — and his longest run of 71 yards was longer than Henderson’s long of 68. Williams is bigger, and he runs harder. The two backs complement each other well, and the Buckeyes should use them both.
I’d like to see Stroud run occasionally on called quarterback runs. I’d like to see him under center so that Henderson can get a running start on the play, and so that Stroud could sneak it on occasion.
In 2021, Garrett Wilson ran the ball four times on end arounds. He gained 76 yards, for a 19-yard average. Even if you remove his 51-yard rushing touchdown, he still averaged eight yards on the other three carries. I would think that Marvin Harrison, Jr., Jaxon Smith-Njigba, or Emeka Egbuka would have the same success. Giving the receivers the ball a couple times a game might open up some inside lanes.
Sure. Henderson’ biggest games were against weaker opponents. Obviously, that fact might be on him, or it might be on the line. His biggest yards-per-carry games were against Tulsa, Akron, Indiana, and Rutgers (in that order). Henderson rocked Penn State for 152 yards on 28 (season high) carries and a 5.43 average. But if you remove the long run of 68, Henderson’s average drops to 3.11 per carry. Against Michigan, Henderson averaged only 4.35 yards on 17 carries; against Utah, he had a 4.89-yard average on the same number of runs. Against the stout Nebraska run defense, he gained 92 yards on 21 carries, a 4.38 average.
Some of these numbers are pretty pedestrian. Can Henderson be counted on to run for five, or six, or seven yards consistently? Especially on a first down, to get a series going? Can he kill the clock in the fourth quarter? Can he score from the seven, on a third-and-goal? Or is he a big-play runner who needs space to make his cuts and demonstrate his speed?
After last season, I’m not sure that I can answer those questions. That’s why I’m looking forward to 2022. Let’s see a new running game. Let’s see how Henderson (and Williams) can best be used to maximize their skills and to complement what will, certainly, be a super passing game.