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Player to Watch: Dallan Hayden deserves at least a piece of the RB pie in 2023

As injuries impacted the Ohio State RB room in 2022, Hayden was given opportunities and excelled against multiple Big Ten opponents. Will this lead to consistent carries in 2023, or will Hayden take a back seat to now-healthy vets?

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Every day from now until the start of the season, Land-Grant Holy Land is highlighting Ohio State football players that you should be watching this season. Check out all of our ”Player to Watch” articles to get ready for the season opener against Indiana.

Dallan Hayden began his Ohio State career as somewhat of an afterthought. That might be putting it harshly, but entering the Buckeyes’ 2022 fall camp at least, the true freshman from Memphis was not expected to play much or contribute in any significant way. Previous statements are in no way meant to ‘dump on’ Hayden or even question his talent and/or potential because both appear to be vast.

But facts is facts. He was a true freshman, added relatively late to OSU’s recruiting class, projected to sit and learn behind (at least) TreVeyon Henderson, Miyan Williams, and Evan Pryor.

Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

But then injuries happened. A whole lot of them, in fact. Pryor went down with an ACL before the season and Henderson was banged up throughout, as was Williams. Running back went from a position of great strength for the Buckeyes, to a big, fat question mark.

Massive credit goes to Henderson and Williams, as ‘thunder and lightning’ attempted to battle and play through their various ailments for some time. However, both were clearly compromised, and Ohio State’s running game suffered as a result. Things became so bleak that Chip Trayanum and Xavier Johnson – a former linebacker and a current wide receiver – were thrown into the mix at certain points.

But no matter where Ryan Day and OSU turned, there was simply no replacing a healthy version of the team’s dynamic duo. That is, one could argue, until the Buckeyes featured Hayden (or he was forced into serious action) against Indiana and Maryland.

I am choosing to ignore Hayden’s performances against Toledo and Michigan State (for now) because he was not a starter and/or primary ball carrier in either of those games. Yes, he led Ohio State in both yards and carries against Toledo, but he was the third RB to enter the game. And then he was the clear backup to Henderson at Michigan State. It was not until the Indiana game that Hayden was truly featured as a 1A or 1B back.

And oh, did he produce. With Henderson out of commission against the Hoosiers, Hayden toted the rock 19 times for 102 yards and a score. Now, it should be pointed out that Williams and (Xavier) Johnson averaged 9.8 and 71.0 yards per carry in this same game, but Hayden still deserves plenty of credit for his performance. Then, with Henderson back but terribly ineffective and Williams on the shelf against Maryland, it was Hayden who kinda/sorta/maybe saved the Buckeyes’ bacon.

OSU actually trailed the Terps at halftime, and Henderson was just dreadful in this one, likely due to injury. He carried the call 11 times for 19 yards, which led to Hayden getting the nod in the second half. And frankly, the true freshman carried Ohio State’s offense. Because not only were Henderson and Williams out, but C.J. Stroud was also having a bit of a rough go in College Park.

Hayden proceeded to run roughshod over Maryland, to the tune of 146 yards and three TDs, on 26 second half carries (27 total)! The Scarlet and Gray escaped with a 43-30 victory, but without Hayden, they may have suffered a brutal upset.

So where does that leave Hayden heading into the 2023 season? Well, pretty much where he was heading into the 2022 season: Third or fourth on the RB depth chart, with no clear path to significant playing time... despite single-handedly carrying the Buckeyes to at least one victory as a true freshman.

But unfortunately, talent can get buried in Columbus. Such is the result of bringing in multiple four and five-star recruits at every position. That being said, there are several reasons as to why I believe Hayden will continue to play a role for OSU in 2023 and beyond.

First and foremost, the kid can play. While Hayden’s 2022 totals (553 yards, 5.0 YPC, 5 TD) might look ‘pedestrian’ by Ohio State standards, keep in mind that he was a true freshman forced into action rather suddenly. And if you remove garbage time stats and/or games in which Hayden played a minor role, then his numbers look much better. At least in terms of efficiency.

There were basically four games in which Hayden was featured or used as part of a legitimate rotation (10+ carries) and not to simply grind clock (behind a reserve OL). In those four games – against Toledo, Michigan State, Indiana, and Maryland – he averaged 19.25 carries and 106.5 yards. Those are big boy numbers against primarily Big Ten teams.

Are they Heisman numbers? No. Are they better than those of Williams or Henderson? Also no. But they are deserving of something, namely a seat at the OSU RB table.

Beyond Hayden’s own talent and/or ability is the fact that RBs get beat up. I mean, duh, Buckeye Nation saw this firsthand last season. However, the 2022 campaign was no anomaly. It was the norm. Expected, even. Things only seemed worse because Ohio State lacked proven depth.

But guess what? Guys are going to banged up this season, too. So it’s a good thing that Hayden and others are still in the mix. At least the Buckeyes should have plenty of options.

Lastly, I would not be surprised if OSU leans on their running game a bit more in 2023. Especially with Kyle McCord, who is thus far unproven, presumably taking over at quarterback. To do so, Hayden and others will need to be prominently involved. Henderson and Williams cannot carry the load all by themselves. Nor should they be forced to. To maximize the running game and its potential, Ryan Day and Brian Hartline need fresh, explosive runners. And Hayden has already proven that he can be one of those.

Dallan Hayden may or may not be ‘the guy’ at any point during this upcoming 2023 season. But it certainly cannot be ruled out. And if he does take center stage, Ohio State fans should be brimming with confidence that he can replicate his previous success and possibly even carry the Buckeyes to a victory or two.