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Ohio State running back production remains consistent, even if recruiting has been quite the opposite

Timely hits have covered up consistent recruiting misses, but is RB depth reaching a tipping point for the Buckeyes?

Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

First and foremost, folks, let me preface (the duration of) this piece by saying that I genuinely hope I do not come across as that fan. You know the one: Points out a problem but fails to offer a solution. Complains just to hear their own voice. Believes they could do a better job than paid, professional coaches and that Ohio State should have a national championship at least every other season. I really, really do not want to come across as anything less than an appreciative and adoring fan who bleeds Scarlet and Gray...

That being said, it is time to have a frank conversation about recruiting. Specifically at the running back position. Simply put, it has fallen off in recent years. And while it is not fair to point the finger at one person or coach – especially without also recognizing their (his) great achievements – it does feel like a critique of recent performance is warranted.

So let’s not beat around the bush any longer, this is a Tony Alford recruiting critique. He is a well-regarded, highly respected running backs coach who players and coaching peers seem to love. He has spent the last 15 years employed by either Notre Dame or Ohio State, two of the top four programs in college football, historically speaking. And he has recruited, developed, and/or coached a plethora of 1,000-yard rushers and Doak Walker candidates.

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Alford’s resume is undeniably impressive. But college football is a what have you done for me lately business. Few if any coaches earn (or remotely deserve) tenure — unless they happen to work in Iowa City. And if we are being honest, Alford’s resume is looking a bit spotty these days. Longevity and loyalty jump off the page, but so does his lack of recent notable achievements.

Since 2018, Alford has landed or helped land the following players for his position room: Jaelen Gill, Brian Snead, Master Teague, Steele Chambers, Marcus Crowley, Miyan Williams, TreVeyon Henderson, Evan Pryor, and Dallan Hayden. None of these players were signed as part of the 2023 recruiting class, and only one (Hayden) joined the program in 2022. So that is one RB in the last two classes combined, and for what it’s worth, Hayden was RB24 in his class and a bit of a late add — after OSU beat out schools such as Illinois and Tennessee (before they were good again)... No offense to Hayden, who might be the next great Buckeye back when given ample opportunity; just stating facts.

The first five players mentioned above were... let’s say less than impactful. Unless we’re including Chambers’ contributions at linebacker. Sure, Teague played a role, especially as a leader, but few would call his career “great”. And the last four players have experienced varying levels of success, but only Henderson can claim a 1,000-yard season. This means that Alford’s last nine RB recruits have produced just one 1,000-yard campaign.

Now, in all fairness, Pryor has been injured. Hayden is still very young and showed great promise. And Snead, well, he punched his own ticket out of Columbus. But this is not some blip on the radar. We’re talking six (!) recruiting classes worth of evidence here. Including one class without a single signee!

The Buckeyes’ running game has not fallen off dramatically, due in part to Alford’s ability to develop, for which he deserves full credit. But there is a big, BIG difference between “not falling off” and thriving. The former might be good enough for Ryan Day’s squad to warrant College Football Playoff consideration, whereas the latter could have (potentially) helped C.J. Stroud and his receivers defeat Georgia in last season’s semifinal game.

Obviously, injuries were the real culprit for Ohio State’s lack of consistent running game against UGA – and I would take a healthy Henderson/Williams/Hayden trio over most – but I am using an extreme example from a pivotal moment to further my argument. Which is: OSU should be able to recruit RB better. They need to. Because it’s great to hit on Henderson, develop the heck out of Williams, and see potential in Hayden, but swings-and-misses have far outnumbered base hits and home runs for more than a minute now. And if that trend continues, RB depth will become a major problem.

Imagine a 2024 season without Henderson and Williams. Both will be draft eligible, and my guess is that both will enter. Now go a step further, and let’s say Hayden or Pryor gets banged up. Or say one is unhappy and has left the program. Could you really blame them after two or three years of watching and waiting? At any rate, there is a scenario in which Ohio State enters the ‘24 season with one or even zero experienced backs. And no depth behind them! Said predicament would be the result of poor recruiting efforts in 2021 and 2022 (for the ’22 and ’23 classes).

Again, in the interest of fairness, I must point out that OSU loaded up with Henderson and Pryor in 2021 and hit on Williams, so there was not a huge need in the Hayden (’22) class. But therein lies (part of) the problem. Misses between 2018-2020 created a void. The Buckeyes were aggressive in filling said void, landed two absolute blue-chippers, but then fell back into a pattern of swings and misses.

Hayden was the only back signed in 2022, despite Gi’Bran Payne (Notre Dame) and Kaleb Johnson (Iowa) being viable in-state options. The latter would go on to rush for 800 yards as a true freshman for the Hawkeyes. Then came “The Great Whiff of 2023”. At one point or another, Ohio State was in on Cedric Baxter Jr. (Texas), Rueben Owens (Texas A&M), Justice Haynes (Alabama), Mark Fletcher (Miami), and Richard Young (Bama) — five of the top seven RB in the class. The Buckeyes even secured a verbal from Fletcher before he flipped to the Canes. But OSU ultimately missed on every one of its RB targets, and rather than plan for the possibility of missing out on a top prospect, Alford and company just punted, I guess? No new RB, no additional depth, no good.

To make matters worse, Ohio State just watched elite in-state RB and 2024 target Jordan Marshall commit to their bitter freaking rival, TTUN! Of all places... This means the Buckeyes are once again in search of an RB and currently without a 247 crystal ball (for one) in the ’24 class. They do seem to be in a good spot with James Peoples out of Texas, but Buckeye Nation heard similar rumblings about Young et al. last spring and summer.

OSU RB depth is dangerously close to a tipping point. A current strength could easily become a future weakness if the Scarlet and Gray fail to land at least one back in this year’s class. And that ultimately falls at the feet of Alford. He has done a great job of developing this current group, but has also given himself little to no margin for error. Here’s hoping he can find the right “Peoples” to kick-start the Buckeyes’ momentum.