Ohio State stopped existing as mostly a running backs school sometime after Eddie George hoisted his Heisman.
Before George there was Archie, Tim Spencer, Keith Byars, Carlos Snow and Robert Smith, not to mention for older-timers Chic, Les, Vic and Hop.
After Eddie, it’s not that the running back position was devoid of talent Pepe Pearson, Maurice Clarett, Beanie Wells and Carlos Hyde were not exactly rag dolls; and a guy named Ezekiel Elliott was pretty good, too. It was more that the Buckeyes’ offensive identity began to shift.
Quarterback Troy Smith won the Heisman in 2006 and a succession of dual-threat QBs followed him to the front row of fans’ consciousness, including Terrelle Pryor, Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett, who while not gifted as an elusive runner still played a central role in Urban Meyer’s offense. Especially on surprise, surprise third-and-short.
The game was changing, too. Woody Hayes favored ground-and-pound; Earle Bruce added creativity (re: a passing game); John Cooper brought Ohio State into the modern passing era with receivers Joey Galloway, Terry Glenn and David Boston.
Jim Tressel added Chris Gamble and Santonio Holmes. Tresselball still ruled the day win a national championship, you get to do what you want but no one would confuse Tress’ offensive philosophy for Woody’s, even if the punt became the most important play in football.
Jump ahead to Meyer’s spread offense, which relied on quarterback run-pass options. But at least for about 1½ seasons Elliott made playing tailback at OSU seem cool again. Sure, it was decidedly uncool not to give him the ball on 4th-and-1 against Michigan State in 2015, but these things happen.
The impact Elliott had on the Buckeyes went well beyond sprinting 85 yards through the heart of the South. He brought prestige back to the tailback position and made recruiting easier for running backs coach Tony Alford.
But not easy.
Case in point: Alford, generally considered an excellent recruiter 247Sports ranks him No. 1 nationally for his 2021 class recruiting did bring in four-star J.K. Dobbins in 2017, but swung and missed on two five-star recruits in the 2020 class: Bijan Robinson, who committed to Texas, and Kendall Milton, who went with Georgia.
It can be debated whether those misses help explain why Alford’s recent salary increase was smaller than other Ohio State coaches, but no question he needed to secure some big recruiting points in the 2021 class. And he did. The Buckeyes last week received commitments from five-star prospect TreVeyon Henderson of Virginia and four-star Evan Pryor out of North Carolina.
Henderson, ranked No. 2 at his position by 247, is Ohio State’s first five-star running back recruit since Beanie Wells in 2006. Pryor is rated No. 6 among running backs.
Toss in Trey Sermon, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma who may begin the season as OSU’s starter while Master Teague recovers from an Achilles injury, and Alford suddenly is back on top.
"Tony is one of our best recruiters on staff and always has been," said Mark Pantoni, who coordinates Ohio State recruiting.
It wasn’t all Alford. Pantoni stressed that recruiting is a team event involving the position coach, head coach Ryan Day, offensive or defensive coordinator and himself.
Still, Alford deserves specific credit for bringing Henderson into the fold. Henderson’s high school coach, Ricky Irby, said Alford’s relationship with his player was "the determining factor" in Henderson choosing Ohio State.
Sermon’s decision to transfer from OU to OSU is just as big a deal. Coming from a "quarterback school," he still saw reason to hop into the Horseshoe, despite Day’s specialty in coaching quarterbacks his last two QBs, Dwayne Haskins Jr. and Justin Fields, were Heisman finalists. You don’t think running back recruits see that and wonder how prominent their role will be in the offense?
Alford must convince them they have meaning in the offense. For today’s recruits, that means mentioning Elliott, J.K. Dobbins and a run game that was 62% of the offensive plays last season. Ohio State football has changed, but tailbacks still matter.