Ohio State football has an incumbent starter, plenty of other options at running back
No one in Ohio State’s backfield has logged more career carries than Master Teague III, the incumbent starter at running back who emerged atop the depth chart last fall despite injuring his Achilles tendon in the first spring football practice last March.
The experience leaves running back coach Tony Alford to peg him as the starter less than a week into the start of spring practice.
“If we had a game tomorrow, he would become the starter,” Alford said Tuesday.
The Buckeyes are six months from playing in their 2021 opener at Minnesota, leaving Alford with ample time to settle on a rotation before doling out carries.
The ultimate pecking order at running back is one of the more intriguing offseason competitions at Ohio State. Despite a veteran presence brought by Teague, the Buckeyes have a handful of options with five other running backs on scholarship ahead of next season.
They range from talented freshmen including TreVeyon Henderson, the first five-star RB prospect to sign with the program in more than a decade, to Marcus Crowley, a third-year sophomore who proclaimed himself to be 100% after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in late 2019.
There’s also Miyan Williams, an effective redshirt freshman who provided a change of pace when he spelled Trey Sermon during the Buckeyes’ win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
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“Guys are going to get their opportunities,” Alford said.
The most pressing immediate challenge for the coaching staff might be finding enough opportunities. Will there be enough repetitions in the few weeks of spring practice to fully evaluate the running backs?
Alford said it’s a larger group than he has worked with at any point in his career, but he expects to be detailed in practice planning, working with offensive assistant Reilly Jeffers to script a more precise distribution of carries among the backs.
“So nothing gets lost in the shuffle,” Alford said. “We don’t have time.”
His communication with the six of them is likely to be as significant. Alford said he expects to be frank with all of them and warn that their workloads could change between practices.
“They need to understand that,” Alford said, “but I think if you’re upfront with them in transparent and honest conversations, as we go through the spring these guys will tell you there are times I’m going to say, ‘Listen, today this guy is going to get more reps here. Or tomorrow it’s going to be this guy. Today it might be you.’
“Because there are certain things I have to design to see. It’s all about putting people in competitive situations. If I know that this guy needs a little bit more pass protection, I gotta see if he can do it. Then you’re out of this drill and this guy’s in this drill because I’ve got to check his water on this and see how he does.”
No matter whether Teague holds on to the starting job or is surpassed by an underclassman in the rotation, the Buckeyes remain likely to split carries.
Over the past decade, only two running backs have averaged 20 or more carries per game — J.K. Dobbins in 2019 and Ezekiel Elliott in 2015. And even as Dobbins averaged 21.5 rush attempts two years ago, Teague still had a fairly prominent role in the backfield, averaging 10 carries per game.
Nonetheless, Teague is hopeful to grow his role and emerge as the team’s next bell-cow back.
“Of course I want to be that guy,” Teague said, “but we’ll continue to make each other better and compete. Whatever is going to be what’s best for the team, that’s going to be my role. We’ve got a lot of depth, a lot of guys. That helps us in practice and helps us stay fresh, so I think it’s good for the overall health of the unit and the team.”
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Alford hopes for continued development from Teague, especially making plays in space, dodging defenders when he reaches the second level of a defense and turning quick bursts into longer runs.
He had a couple of breakaway runs last season, including a 41-yard touchdown in a win over Indiana, that showed explosiveness. But he largely is known for his tough-running style rather than being a home-run threat.
Even with areas for improvement, Alford acknowledged Teague overcame significant obstacles in reaching the field last season following his Achilles injury.
“To come back from that injury the way he did, a lot of guys couldn't pull that off,” he said.