Developing depth at running back, wide receiver a major key for Ohio State football
Ohio State’s two top running backs are coming off injuries. At wide receiver, four freshmen are trying to work their way into the rotation.
Talent isn’t the question for Ohio State at those positions. They are filled with four- and five-star players. With Master Teague III and Trey Sermon expected to share time at running back and Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson leading the receivers, the Buckeyes are set at the top of the (still-unrevealed) depth chart.
But given the uncertainties that accompany this coronavirus-affected season, developing depth is important.
Coach Ryan Day said Wednesday that the only Buckeye who’ll play every meaningful snap is quarterback Justin Fields. Otherwise, it’ll be a priority to give backups snaps to develop depth.
The early cancellation of spring practice and the following months during which players couldn’t be at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center put a crimp in their development. Zoom meetings and individual workouts can do only so much.
“We constantly roll guys,” Day said, “and the question really becomes: Is he game-ready? Do we feel confident putting him in the game? If we do, then we're going play depth. If we don't, then that's harder.
“That's where the depth is critically important, especially this season with all the unknowns with the virus and all the things that can come down the road. That’s something we're still talking about. Who are the guys who are game-ready? There are some guys who are game ready right now, but there's still a good portion that aren't.”
Day didn’t specify the positions he was referring to, but adding depth is crucial at running back and receiver.
Teague is returning from an Achilles injury sustained on the first day of spring practice. Sermon, a transfer from Oklahoma, is coming off knee surgery.
Marcus Crowley emerged as the third running back as a freshman last year behind J.K. Dobbins and Teague. But a knee injury ended his season, and running backs coach Tony Alford acknowledged that Crowley had what he termed a minor setback in his rehab.
Though Alford said Crowley “is coming back strong,” he doesn’t have a timetable for his return.
But Alford is confident that redshirt freshman Steele Chambers, true freshman Miyan Williams or even sophomore walk-on Xavier Johnson can provide depth. Alford said he’d be comfortable using Chambers now.
“Steele Chambers also had a really good growth spurt as far as his maturity in our offense,” he said. “He's eliminated some of that apprehension that he had as a young guy that is natural and normal. He's grown up a lot.”
Chambers is a bigger back, approaching 225 pounds.
Williams is listed at 5 feet 8 and 227 pounds, and Alford said his body type serves him well.
“Miyan is tough,” he said. “He will put his face on you. He’s a high-collision guy. He doesn’t mind contact.”
That’s if defenders can spot him. Alford joked that Williams looks “2½ feet tall.”
“When he gets up in the line of scrimmage in the hole, they'll lose him behind all those bigger bodies,” Alford said.
Williams was a late addition to the 2020 recruiting class after higher-ranked players committed elsewhere.
At wide receiver, the Buckeyes loaded up on blue-chippers this year with Julian Fleming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Gee Scott Jr. and Mookie Cooper.
Explosive sophomore Jameson Williams is right below Olave and Wilson in the pecking order, but the freshmen will get their chances. Add slot receiver/running back Demario McCall, fellow seniors Jaylen Harris and Elijah Gardiner, and sophomore Kamryn Babb, and it’s an extremely deep group. That’s important because the Buckeyes have used a six-man rotation at receiver for several years.
Safeties coach Matt Barnes raved about the unit his players compete against in practice.
“There are just so many weapons at receiver now,” he said. “There isn't one of them that's average. They are extremely good.
“I've been very fortunate in this profession to be in some good places with some great players, and I've never seen a receiving corps that is anywhere even close to resembling the amount of speed and talent that these guys have.”
Added Day, “I've been pleased with how they run routes, learn the plays, learn the intricacies of the position.”
But he cautioned that since the Buckeyes have been in pads for only two months, any definitive statement would be premature.
“Playing the position is different when you have pads on, and we won't really know until they catch the ball and get hit and tackled in a game on a consistent basis,” he said. “That's the biggest thing that keeps you up at night.”