COLUMBUS — Demario McCall has played several different roles since he arrived at Ohio State.
He’s been benchwarmer. He’s been a garbage-time superstar, scoring a couple touchdowns against Rutgers two seasons ago. Last year, he was a kick returner and a special teams contributor, a position he struggled with at times.
But as Ohio State’s training camp rolls along, McCall is hoping that over the next three weeks, he’ll earn a new title he hasn’t had yet: Backup running back.
J.K. Dobbins, the proven All-America caliber back, can’t take every carry. Another back has to emerge. McCall hasn’t carved out a role in the offense in his first two seasons. He now has a chance.
“We really don’t have a legitimate backup running back right now,” coach Ryan Day said. “We don’t have that. We have a lot of guys battling for it, but we do not have a legitimate backup running back right now.”
If Day has ever delivered a call to action, that’s a big one.
McCall began training camp in an familiar spot. He missed spring practice due to an injury. McCall has had injury trouble since his freshman year, but that hasn’t tampered outside expectations for the in-state product. After missing the spring, he has to work his way back into the rotation — one he was absent from in the crucial early portion of preparations for the season.
After Mike Weber announced his intentions to enter the NFL Draft, the job became wide open. It’s there for the taking, and it’ll be assumed by McCall, Master Teague, Steele Chambers or Marcus Crowley.
Each potential backup running back presents a certain wrinkle to the Ohio State offense. McCall’s rough start to his career hasn’t knocked his confidence.
“I can be a tailback and a receiver,” McCall said in the spring. “I feel like last year playing mostly receiver will actually make me a better tailback. Last year it was more find the mismatch, go find a linebacker to try and guard me, because that’s going to be tough.
“Hopefully I play a big role in the offense. I hope so. They’ve got me in the tailback room, I’m a tailback now, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to be put in the slot sometimes. Me and J.K. [Dobbins] splitting time, just being an athlete, being in the slot sometimes, special teams — just a ballplayer.”
McCall doesn’t have to have game-changing ability to become the backup running back behind Dobbins. As Ohio State transitions back to a dual-threat quarterback in Justin Fields, the carries between Dobbins and Fields will be split. Dobbins ability to handle the complete workload won’t force him out of many plays.
But when Dobbins needs a break, whoever Day and running backs coach Tony Alford decide as their backup ball carrier will be trusted to get the job done.
Can the coaching staff trust McCall, who has had fumble issues in the past? Well, ask McCall. He thinks his biggest year is ahead of him.
“I’m anxious to see what the future brings,” McCall said. “I’m definitely physically ready and emotionally ready to take on whatever they’ve got planned for me. I feel like this year is going to be my biggest year. I definitely should have a breakout season this year.”
McCall’s been a wild card so far at Ohio State. But in practice, during garbage time and when he gets on the field, the flashes are there. Ohio State isn’t looking for flashes. The Buckeyes have to have a consistent backup to spell Dobbins.
What would that look like if it were McCall giving Dobbins a break?
“He brings a knowledge of the offense, for one. He could be a matchup nightmare,” Alford said in March. “Here’s a guy who is adept at running routes and understands the concepts — truly understands the ins and outs of the concepts from the receivers position — and obviously understands it from the running back perspective as well.
“All of a sudden you put in the backfield and shift him out to some empty sets and make linebackers go out there and cover him? That’s a matchup problem, we’d like to think. ”
McCall’s Ohio State career started with potential, and it hasn’t gotten much further. He’s battled injuries and fumbles. He’s been largely inconsistent. If asked, Demario McCall will talk with certainty about breaking out in 2019.
As far as earning an opportunity to do so, step one is pretty simple.
“The first thing he’s got to do is he’s got to become the backup running back,” Day said.