Ohio State Football Season Review: Running Backs Come on Strong


Jan 12, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott (15) runs with the ball against Oregon Ducks defensive back Erick Dargan (4) in the 2015 CFP National Championship Game against the Oregon Ducks at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

 This is the second in a nine part series that will review each position group on the Buckeyes before taking a look at what the 2015 season may hold.  You can find previous installments below.






Following the departure of the first running back to rush for 1,000 yards under Urban Meyer in Carlos Hyde, as well as the graduation of Jordan Hall, a question mark loomed over the returning Ohio State Buckeyes running backs entering the 2014 season.  Sure the talent was there, but would that talent equate to production on the field?  After struggling in the season’s first two games against Navy and Virginia Tech, the running backs would turn a corner and become a vital cog in what would become a top ten rushing offense.

Ezekiel Elliott

This is the moment where I knew for a fact that Elliott would one day be a difference maker for the Buckeyes.  Seriously.  Watch it again and notice the speed and physicality of Elliott, then just a freshman; and this was while covering a kick against Purdue when the score was 49-0.  This speaks volumes to the type of culture Urban Meyer has created; it’s clear to see that Zeke has bought into that culture.  After tallying 262 yards during his freshman campaign while backing up a very productive Carlos Hyde, Zeke entered the 2014 season as the starter.

Elliott, as previously mentioned, started sluggishly in 2014.  Against Navy he carried twelve times for 44 yards and a score; and against Virginia Tech Zeke saw just eight carries as Urban and Tom Herman mysteriously abandoned  the run game against the Hokies.  Through the season’s first two games Elliott had only managed to rush for 76 yards.  The once dominant Ohio State run game, fueled the previous two seasons by Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde, was suddenly non-existent.  Herman, speaking after the Virginia Tech debacle, sounded like a man waving the white flag.  Addressing why Ohio State could not establish a run game against a Virginia Tech defense that was stacking the line of scrimmage, Herman replied “It’s damn near impossible.”

Things would turn favorably for Elliott, not to mention the entire Buckeye offense, starting the next week against Kent State.  With limited playing time as a result of the game becoming quickly out-of-hand, Elliott ripped off an impressive 9.29 yards a carry.  Over the next three games, against over-matched opponents in Cincinnati, Maryland, and Rutgers, Zeke would rush for 390 yards and two touchdowns.  These three games would serve to jump start Elliott’s 2014 season.

After churning out 109 yards and averaging 4.19 yards a carry in Happy Valley against Penn State, Elliott tuned up for the biggest test of the season so far against Michigan State by averaging 7.67 yards in limited playing time against Illinois.  The following week against the Spartans Elliott entered the national consciousness by running for 154 yards and 2 touchdowns against the vaunted MSU run defense.  The combination of speed and power that was coveted by Meyer during the recruiting process was on full display.

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During the final three games of the regular season, played against Minnesota, Indiana, and That School Up North, Elliot would average at least 5 yards a carry in each game and score three total touchdowns.  Zeke finished the regular season with 1,172 yards and 10 touchdowns.  These numbers seem even better after considering Elliott’s, and the offense’s, slow start during the first two games of the season; during the final ten games of the regular season Zeke would average just over 109 yards per game.

Heading into the Big Ten Championship game Elliott figured to see an increase in his carries.  Cardale Jones was making his first career start and Zeke would be there to lighten his burden, and was he ever; to the tune of 220 yards and two touchdowns on just 20 carries.  It was a complete performance.  “We knew Zeke, from the first day he got here, was a special cat,” senior tight end Jeff Heuerman said. “You’ve seen what he can do and he’s shown it the second half of the season. It’s been really special to watch, to play with him and to block for him.”

Elliott carried the momentum gained against Wisconsin into the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.  Against the highly touted Nick Saban led defense of the Crimson Tide, Elliott once more stepped up.  Setting a new career high with 230 yards, including a virtual game-clinching 85 yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter, Zeke became the first player to rush for over 200 yards against a Saban led Alabama defense.

Elliott would follow up his dominating Sugar Bowl performance with an even more impressive performance in the National Championship game against Oregon.  Zeke set new career highs across the board with 36 carries for 246 yards and 4 touchdowns against the Ducks defense.  “We knew that our O-line was bigger and more physical than their D-line and we just had to punch them in the mouth,” Elliott said. “The O-line, they came out, they played their butts off and they paved the way for me.”

Grade: A

Without Ezekiel Elliott Ohio State would not have won the National Championship.  For his efforts in the two biggest games of the year Elliott won both the Sugar Bowl and National Championship Offensive MVP awards.  His emergence during the three post season games, an emergence that coincided with Cardale Jones becoming the starting quarterback, was vital.  By the end of the season there was not a better running back in America.  Had he been eligible for the NFL Draft this year Elliott likely would have been drafted in the first round; even as the value of the running back has plummeted in recent draft classes.  Heck, there are people who think Zeke should sit out his junior season to avoid any possible injuries or additional wear and tear on his body.

“He’s a monster” -Urban Meyer

Elliott is truly a complete running back, combining strength and speed as well as exceptional vision; and he always seems to fall forwards.  In addition, Zeke possess excellent hands and is a threat as a receiver out of the backfield.  Urban Meyer summed it up nicely, saying “He’s a monster.”

Curtis Samuel

I remember where I was when Curtis Samuel committed to Ohio State.  Of course I know this makes me partially insane, but I can’t help it.  I fell in love with this kids highlight video.  The product of Erasmus Hall High School located in Brooklyn, New York, Samuel was New York’s Gatorade Player of the year as a senior.  After enrolling early in January of 2014, Samuel drew praise from Meyer during spring practice and had his eye on playing time as a true freshman.  “I wanted to get a head start so I was more ready to be a contributor in the fall,” Samuel said.  “I feel like coming in early will really help me.”

Samuel certainly contributed during the 2014, clearly defining himself as the backup running back behind Elliott.  His speed and power combination as well as his capability as a pass catcher make him a near Elliott clone, and Curtis certainly showed flashes of his obvious potential early in the season.  Samuel received more playing time early in the season as the coaching staff seemed to be feeling out how he and Elliott would mesh together; and as a result his carries would diminish with the emergence of Elliott as the season progressed.

Samuel’s best game came in Week 3 against Kent State.  He carried 15 times for 100 yards and two touchdowns, and added 4 receptions for another 40 yards as he mad the most of extended playing time during the Buckeye rout of the Golden Flashes.  Just twice more would Samuel receive more than 5 carries in a game, with one being during the blowout of Illinois.  Following the injury to Dontre Wilson, Curtis took over as the primary kick returner; a role in which he averaged a modest 20.5 yards a return.

Grade: B

 Samuel is an excellent understudy to Elliott in the Ohio State backfield.  He fits the offense like a glove and really showcased his talent and work ethic on special teams this year.  It will be interesting, with Elliott returning for his junior year, how much burn Samuel gets.  I would anticipate Curtis receiving more playing time earlier in the season, before Urban leans more heavily on Elliott as the season wears on.  Then again, with Cardale now the odds makers favorite to be the starting quarterback, I could see Samuel spelling Zeke more often as there will not be as many designed quarterback runs with Jones; which would enable the young running back to see more work.  However his 2015 season plays out, it is easy to envision Samuel becoming the starter at running back in 2016 and beyond, presuming Zeke declares for the NFL Draft following the completion of his junior year.

“I wanted to get a head start so I was more ready to be a contributor in the fall.” -Curtis Samuel

Rod Smith

Smith arrived at Ohio State in 2010 as a blue chip recruit.  After never rising above the “serviceable” level of performance Smith was dismissed from the football team on October 27 for the dreaded “violation of team rules.”  Multiple sources indicated marijuana was the issue.   I won’t spend too many words on Smith, only to say I wish him the best.

Grade: Incomplete

Warren Ball

Ball finished his redshirt-sophomore year as the third string back.  The local kid from nearby DeSales High School has yet to really make an impact for the Buckeyes.  Ball is a solidly built back at 6’1″ 224 to go along with decent, but not great speed.  One of the final players to commit to the Buckeyes before the tattoo scandal broke, Ball has never wavered in his love for Ohio State.  Unfortunately for Ball, his game is certainly more suited to the style of offense seen under Tressel than the offense that is currently run under Meyer.  Ball can expect to compete for carries during spring practice with classmate Bri’onte Dunn.

Grade: Incomplete

Bri’onte Dunn

Dunn, who will begin his fourth season with the Buckeyes when 2015 kicks off, is a curious case.  A former highly sought-after high school recruit, Dunn enjoyed playing time during his first season as a Buckeye; finishing the year with 133 yards and two scores.  Surprisingly Dunn would redshirt during his second year in the program.  Meyer did not want to waste a year of Dunn’s eligibility in a crowded backfield that included Carlos Hyde, Jordan Hall, and the emerging Elliott; Dunn was also widely presumed to be in the coach’s doghouse for a consistent lack of effort.  2014 brought very limited playing time for Dunn on the offensive side of the football, yet he gained praise from Meyer for his work on a variety of special teams units.  Moving forward Dunn looks to be buried on the depth chart, a reminder of how quickly former top recruits can be so suddenly relegated to the bench.

Grade: Incomplete

2015 Outlook

Not much suspense here with a position group that will bring back every contributing member for the 2015 season.  Barring an injury, Elliott will be the starter and get the vast majority of carries.  Samuel, after an impressive freshman season, will be the top backup and second option.  Ball and Dunn will be left to fight for garbage time carries, which, when looking over the schedule, may be plentiful.  Elliott will get legitimate Heisman Trophy hype throughout the season, and deservedly so after the way he finished 2014; and with a future star like Samuel waiting in the wings, the future of the running back position at Ohio State looks bright.