From the start, little about Mike Weber’s Ohio State career went according to plan.
The day after the running back signed, his position coach, Stan Drayton, left for the Chicago Bears.
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Expected to be Ezekiel Elliott’s backup in 2015, Weber didn’t play as a true freshman because of a meniscus tear in his knee.
Weber earned Big Ten freshman of the year honors in 2016, but his hopes of building on that last year were largely dashed by a nagging hamstring injury and the emergence of freshman J.K. Dobbins.
When Weber passed up a chance to enter the NFL draft this year, some were surprised. But Weber had unfinished business. He wanted to leave a larger Buckeye legacy.
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If last Saturday’s performance against Oregon State when he gained a career-high 186 yards and scored three touchdowns is any indication, Weber is poised to do just that.
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Weber wanted to leave Ohio State before he ever arrived. After all, how would you like it if your boss left unexpectedly the day after you were hired? Weber, a Detroit native, was the object of a heated recruiting competition between Ohio State and Michigan won on signing day by the Buckeyes.
When Weber first heard that Drayton was leaving, he didn’t believe it.
“I thought it was a joke, actually,” Weber said.
Then he saw on social media that it was true. Hours passed before he heard from Ohio State.
“When I first got here, I was disinterested,” Weber said. “I was at a place where I didn’t want to be at anymore.”
The knee injury didn’t help. Not playing sent him into a funk. He missed classes and tutoring sessions.
“I was fighting anxiety and depression and things like that,” he said. “I was kind of filled with regret. (I thought), if I’d gone somewhere else, would I be hurt? I was blaming myself, blaming coaches. Everything you shouldn’t do I was doing when it comes to blaming.”
Drayton’s successor, Tony Alford, had recruited Weber as a Notre Dame assistant, so they weren’t strangers when he arrived. But by his admission, Alford is not particularly patient. The two butted heads.
“He had some growing up to do,” Alford said. “It’s typical of a young guy. He had to grow up a little bit more than some others. That’s not an indictment. That’s what it is.”
Weber said a deepening religious faith helped. So did his parents, who encouraged Weber to stick it out.
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Alford said the turning point came the summer of 2016 after Weber’s freshman year. He and veteran Bri’onte Dunn were expected to compete for the starting job after Elliott’s departure to the NFL. In July, Dunn was arrested after an altercation with his girlfriend and later dismissed from the team.
Before Dunn’s arrest became public, Alford called Weber. His message: You better be up for the job.
“To me, that’s when the light bulb went on,” Alford said. “OK. Here we go. I’ve got to get this right and I’ve got to get it right now. And he did. You’re still talking about a guy who’d never played a snap of college football. We thrust a lot on him, but the culture of the program helped him.”
Alford knew the transformation was real during training camp. While players were resting on air mattresses in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, Alford heard Weber dispense advice to freshmen Antonio Williams and Demario McCall.
“He said, ‘Do it their way, not your way. Their way works. If you try to do it your way, it’s going to be real hard,’” Alford recalled. “I kind of looked at him like, wow, he really gets it.”
Weber gained 1,096 yards that season. But it was a good year, not a great one. In the 31-0 College Football Playoff loss to Clemson, Weber dropped a third-down swing pass on the Buckeyes’ first possession and later fumbled twice.
Weber was eager to take the next step in 2017. The hamstring injury short-circuited that. He said he wasn’t fully healthy until late in the season. By then, Dobbins had become the primary runner.
Weber was torn about whether to leave for the NFL. But with J.T. Barrett to be succeeded by a passing quarterback, Dwayne Haskins Jr., Weber figured that there would be enough carries for him and Dobbins.
Once indifferent in the weight room, Weber is now one of the most committed workers there. Head strength coach Mickey Marotti said that pound for pound, Weber is one of the Buckeyes’ strongest players.
Weber has dropped 18 pounds from his high weight of 228. He said his body fat is 6 percent. With that, his speed has noticeably increased, as has his ability to break tackles.
On his first touchdown run against Oregon State, he slipped a tackle at the line of scrimmage then bounced off two more inside the 5 on a 16-yard score.
“That was a man’s run,” Alford said.
That describes the way Weber has become off the field as well. He is a mentor to the Buckeyes’ other running backs, calling Dobbins his little brother. He is on track to graduate in the spring with a degree in sociology.
As he has become more comfortable, Weber’s true personality has come out.
“Mike is hilarious actually,” Alford said. “He’s a funny dude. He’s a clown. He’s a jokester. He’s real loose. He doesn’t take things too serious. But he’s very observant about what’s around him and what’s going on. I’m proud of him and the way he’s grown up.”
Weber now is thankful for those earlier tribulations.
“I’m kind of glad I went through it,” he said, “because it helped me in the long run so that when I face situations outside of football, I know how to handle them now.”
Rutgers at Ohio State
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
TV: Big Ten Network
Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)