Ohio State football: Replacing J.K. Dobbins will be a large task for returning running backs
As Ohio State opens spring football practice next week, The Dispatch will preview each position group. Today: Running backs.
Returnees: Steele Chambers, redshirt freshman; Marcus Crowley, sophomore; Demario McCall, senior; Master Teague III, redshirt sophomore
Departures: J.K. Dobbins
Early enrollees: n/a
Summer enrollee: Miyan Williams
Ohio State’s running game was built around J.K. Dobbins last season, breaking from recent trends.
Tailbacks had split carries in recent seasons, but Dobbins averaged more than 20 — the first to take on such a workload since Ezekiel Elliott’s final season in 2015.
Given Dobbins’ heavier load, the Buckeyes ran the ball 62% of the time in 2019, their heaviest rush emphasis since Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson were brought in as offensive co-coordinators in 2017.
In their first two years running the offense, the Buckeyes had been closer to a run-pass split (57.2 rush percentage in 2018 and 50.4 in 2019).
In light of this recent history, it’s worth reviewing the current collection of running backs as Ohio State works to find someone who can step in for Dobbins, who had a particularly prominent role in the offense — and piled up 2,003 rushing yards — before leaving for the NFL.
The obvious replacement is Teague, last season’s backup who ran for 789 yards, seventh-most in the Big Ten, earning all-conference third-team honors. He returns as a redshirt sophomore.
But Teague piled up most of his yards late in blowouts, which involved matchups with other reserves. Of his 789 rushing yards, 684 came in the second half. Can he shoulder a larger workload and perform as well in higher-leverage situations?
Teague ran into some trouble when he spelled Dobbins in the loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal. He picked up only 9 yards on seven carries.
The early guess is the Buckeyes follow a blueprint that looks similar to 2017 and ’18, seasons in which Dobbins split carries with Mike Weber.
That means another running back will be needed to complement Teague, though it will be someone without much of a track record. After Teague, no other returning back had more than 25 carries last fall.
Marcus Crowley had 25 carries for 237 yards, Steele Chambers had 19 attempts for 135 yards and Demario McCall finished with 18 carries for 122 yards.
McCall presents an intriguing option. He enters his senior year in search of a breakout. Injuries have limited him in previous seasons, along with position switches to receiver. Most of his recent playing time has come on special teams as a returner.
But he was in line to be the backup to Dobbins late in training camp last August, before Teague recovered from a hamstring injury and took over at No. 2 on the depth chart.
McCall, though, might not ultimately have the size to see a steady diet of carries. He is listed at 5 feet 9 and 195 pounds, but he has athleticism and a good burst of speed that could make a strong pairing with Teague, who is a more hard-nosed runner.
Of Teague, Day has been quick to mention on multiple occasions that he “runs downhill.”