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Trey Sermon persevered to get his chance to play football for Ohio State

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
At 6 feet 1, Trey Sermon is taller than most recent Ohio State tailbacks, but the senior transfer from Oklahoma can cover a lot of ground quickly with his deceptive speed.

During the months of limbo, Trey Sermon had more reason than most to worry.

The Ohio State running back left Oklahoma as a graduate transfer this spring, only to have the coronavirus pandemic force all Buckeyes off campus. Sermon also was continuing his rehabilitation from knee surgery that had marked an early end to his junior season at Oklahoma.

Unable to be with his new teammates, Sermon trained in Texas with no way of knowing if he’d ever play for the Buckeyes. It certainly looked unlikely when the Big Ten postponed the fall season in August.

“It was really tough,” Sermon said last week in his first media availability as a Buckeye. “My mindset at the time was that I just have to focus on getting better. I have to stay ready because once the opportunity does come and they say we get to play, I didn't want to be behind.”

The Big Ten did reinstate the football season, and Sermon is more determined than ever to make a splash. He pronounced himself fully healed.

“This is the best I've ever felt in my entire career,” Sermon said.

If not for a back injury in high school, Sermon might have been a Buckeye all along. Ohio State’s interest in him coming out of suburban Atlanta cooled after Sermon was hurt. But he and Buckeyes running backs coach Tony Alford stayed in touch during Sermon’s career at Oklahoma.

Sermon ran for 2,076 yards and scored 26 touchdowns as a Sooner, including a score in Oklahoma’s 31-16 victory over Ohio State in 2017 that sparked Baker Mayfield to his Heisman Trophy season. But Sermon’s time in Norman was mostly spent as a role player.

When Master Teague III injured his Achilles in Ohio State’s spring practice and Ohio State needed an experienced runner, it was a natural fit. By all accounts, Teague has recovered from his injury. He and Sermon are expected to share the load.

“I think he's a great addition to the team and to the (running backs) room — a high-character guy, very disciplined,” Teague said. “And he learned our offense very, very quickly. He's looking good.

“We're excited to have him. It’s just another chance to compete, another chance to make each other better and make everybody better in the room. I think he's going to be a great complement to the room.”

Alford said Sermon’s dedication to learning Ohio State’s playbook has been impressive. They’ve had late-night phone calls and texting exchanges because Sermon wanted to pick Alford’s brain. He’s even gone to Alford’s house for further instruction — socially distanced, of course.

“We’ve spent countless hours together,” Alford said.

At 6 feet 1 and 215 pounds, Sermon is tall for a running back, especially compared with some of the more compact ones the Buckeyes have had lately, including Teague. Alford has preached the importance of Sermon keeping his pads low.

“I feel like I'm definitely getting better at it,” Sermon said.

Because of his size and running style, Alford said, Sermon’s speed is deceptive.

“(It) doesn't look like he’s really going and all of a sudden you look up and he's covering a lot of ground,” Alford said. “He presents a lot of issues. Trey is really good coming out of backfield catching the ball and running routes, and he's a very capable and willing blocker from the film that we watched. I think he’s a tough guy.”

Sermon didn’t arrive in Columbus as a stranger to all of his teammates. He and quarterback Justin Fields played against each other in high school and had the same personal trainer, Charles “Tuna” Burhanan.

If Fields wins the Heisman this season, Sermon will have played with three winners of college football’s most prestigious individual honor. Kyler Murray succeeded Mayfield and won the award in 2018.

Few players have a chance to play for two elite programs. Sermon knows about the standards set at both, including by Ohio State running backs.

“There’s always great running backs coming through here such as J.K. (Dobbins) and Zeke (Elliott),” Sermon said. “Once I found out there was an opening, I just wanted to take advantage of it and be a part of this team.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch