The speculation, debate and conversations about Ohio State never end, and Lettermen Row is always ready to dive into the discussions. All week long, senior writer Austin Ward will field topics about the Buckeyes submitted by readers and break down anything that’s on the minds of the Best Damn Fans in the Land. Have a question that needs to be tackled, like the one today about Ohio State and the rushing attack with Justin Fields? Send it in right here — and check back daily for the answers.
How will the running game be and who will be the starting running back
— Derek Jones (@derek_jones44) May 11, 2020
One way or another, the Ohio State rushing attack is going to be potent yet again.
Figuring out exactly how the Buckeyes are going to do it is a bit more challenging to figure out for the moment. But considering all the talent they’ve assembled at the skill positions, the creativity of the coaching staff and the potential to have the best offensive line in the country, Ohio State is going to have no issue racking up yards and points.
And that’s without even factoring in perhaps the most dangerous dual-threat quarterback in the country.
If it comes down to it, Justin Fields could elevate the ground game by himself. The trick for the Buckeyes is figuring out exactly how much running it needs from the most important player on the field and how much it’s willing to gamble with his health by exposing him to extra hits.
Fields isn’t invincible, and the knee injury he suffered in November was just one of a dozen what-if scenarios in the Fiesta Bowl that slipped away from the Buckeyes. Now, Fields was hurt on a play that was designed as a pass against Penn State, and he still did more than enough even while limited to put Ohio State in position for a win over Clemson. But he clearly wasn’t himself physically, and the mobility of Fields is probably only a necessity against elite competition as an X-factor.
Both Ohio State and Fields seem to recognize that fact, since he seems to operate with unspoken restrictions on his legs against competition that can’t hope to match up with the three-time defending Big Ten champions. Removing sacks from the equation, Fields averaged less than eight carries per game last season — with only the high-stakes slugfest in sloppy conditions against Penn State reaching the season high of 18 attempts. Again taking out sacks, Fields was called on for double-digit rushes only two others times in his first year with the Buckeyes. Considering what he can do with his legs, that’s both pretty remarkable restraint by the coaches and a reminder that Fields prefers to use his arm to carve up opponents whenever possible.
So, what does that mean for his workload this year? Much of that depends on how Trey Sermon acclimates to the system when campus opens to allow him to join the Buckeyes in person and the rehabs of returning running backs Marcus Crowley and Master Teague. The relentless production of J.K. Dobbins was just as important in keeping the carries at a minimum for Fields, and with the relative inexperience at tailback heading into the season, it’s possible Fields could shoulder more of that load early — particularly in Week Two against a fellow College Football Playoff contender in Oregon.
“There’s a give and take, a calculated risk every time that happens,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said last season. “Again we don’t want him taking shots or to expose him. But at the same time, he’s a talent and he’s a load. It’s not like he’s skinny or he’s going to take too many shots, and he actually delivers the blow on some guys. That’s the way he’s built. He’s big and strong, which really helps.
“But certainly we don’t want to be in a situation where we have to run him too much. But when you get in the red zone or you get in those certain situations where it’s such an advantage for us, then if we’ve got to go win the game we’re going to do it. And he understands that and he’s been great about it. And he’s shown the toughness that we need to do that.”
Fields has also been more than willing to do anything asked of him by Ohio State, even when he wasn’t at full strength.
In some form or fashion, he’s too physically gifted to just ignore as a rusher. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, opponents know that and have to prepare to slow him down as a rusher whether he runs or not. That’s one of the extra perks of having Fields at quarterback, a list that kept growing with every start during his debut season with Ohio State.
The Buckeyes should have no problem building another prolific rushing attack without relying too much on their quarterback. What’s the ideal approach with Justin Fields? If they can continue to keep him at an average of around eight carries while only leaning heavily on him three or four times, that’s probably another championship formula for Ohio State.
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