The bitter taste still lingers for Mike Weber. And that’s just the way he wants it.
His first season as Ohio State’s starting running back was a success in some ways. Faced with the task of succeeding Ezekiel Elliott, Weber rushed for 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns and earned 2016 Big Ten freshman of the year honors.
But his season mirrored the Buckeyes’ as a whole by ending with a thud. In the 31-0 loss to Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal, Weber dropped a third-down swing pass on the opening possession to set the tone, then later fumbled twice. He gained a total of only 50 yards against Michigan and Clemson.
“I’m still getting over it, actually,” he said last week of the disappointing finish. “I know we have to put it past us, but I’m using it as fuel. I think we all do.
“That bad taste in our mouth won’t get out until we play that first game. That’s how I look at it.”
Throughout last year, OSU teammates and coaches praised Weber for the way he had grown up after a bumpy first season on campus. That has continued as he approaches his redshirt sophomore season.
“He’s growing up,” running backs coach Tony Alford said. “He’s a real dude, if you will. He has been a lot of fun to work with because he’s a much better pro than he was as far as handling his business and his approach to the game, his approach to how he takes care of his body, and his approach to the younger players in the room as far as trying to help them. It has all changed.”
Ohio State’s offense will have some new wrinkles this year with the hiring of Kevin Wilson as offensive coordinator. Weber said that he already has watched film of Tevin Coleman, a 2,000-yard rusher at Indiana when Wilson was head coach of the Hoosiers.
“He put in a few plays that I was asking for last year,” Weber said. “Last year, I felt we were a little predictable when it came to our play-calling. This year, it’s more creative. It’s different. It’s what defenses haven’t seen from us, and that’s what I’m excited about.”
Weber also believes his pounding running style is well-suited to the changes Wilson has brought.
“I feel he will run the ball more and find different schemes and ways to run the ball because he’s more of a ‘grit’ guy,” Weber said. “He has coached a lot of grit backs in the past, and that’s something we as running backs appreciate.”
Weber headlines what should be a deeper running backs unit. A year ago, freshman Demario McCall showed flashes in cameos but was too light — 170 pounds when he enrolled — to do more. This year, early-enrollee freshman J.K. Dobbins already has surpassed redshirt freshman Antonio Williams in the pecking order.
“The best thing that can happen is competition,” coach Urban Meyer said, “and we didn’t have much of that last year at that position.”
But Alford said the gap between Weber and the others remains sizable. That should change as the younger players get experience, and Alford is counting on Weber to facilitate it. When McCall or Williams isn’t getting a rep, Alford said, it’s Weber’s job to make sure that Dobbins is by his side for tutoring.
“Coach Alford is doing a good job of helping me lead the guys,” Weber said. “Everything that comes with being a leader, I’m taking on this year.”