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Five Questions as Buckeyes look for running-back reload

Trey Sermon-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football
Ohio State running back Trey Sermon has arrived for the Buckeyes. (Sammy Silverman/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

Five Questions as Buckeyes look for running-back reload

COLUMBUS — The challenge was already a little daunting for Ohio State heading into the spring.

One of the most productive running backs in school history was gone, one of the candidates fighting to replace him was already injured and Ryan Day walked out of the opening practice having seen the top returner at the position get hurt as well.

Day knew exactly what he was saying when he stood at the podium in March and assessed his tailbacks early in the post-J.K. Dobbins Era for the Buckeyes.

“Yeah, we’re one injury away from a little bit of a crisis right now,” Day said. “But in the end when it comes to September, we’re going to be OK.”

Ohio State still doesn’t know exactly what that unit will look like by September, but it’s certainly been trending in the right direction over the last couple months — most notably thanks to the talent infusion provided by Oklahoma graduate transfer Trey Sermon.

The Buckeyes are now set to welcome freshman Miyan Williams to campus. Marcus Crowley should be near a return from his knee injury, and Steele Chambers had a taste of first-team reps during the pandemic-shortened camp in the spring. Then there’s the wildcard with Master Teague as he tries to recover from the torn Achilles he suffered during that opening practice, and his return would provide even more depth for a group that has the potential to be one of the best in the country again.

How can Ohio State fill the void left by Dobbins and keep the rushing attack rolling? Lettermen Row is kicking off Running Backs Week with Five Questions for the position.

Tony Alford-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford has a unique challenge this season. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Is Trey Sermon ready for stardom?

Everything wound up falling perfectly into place the second time Trey Sermon and Ohio State were looking to join forces. And the Oklahoma transfer has every tool needed to become a breakout star in the Buckeyes system.

Before his knee injury shortened his final season with the Sooners, Sermon was continuing to show his impressive burst, physical rushing style and versatility that makes him a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield. He finished his career in the Big 12 with 25 touchdowns and more than 2,000 yards of offense, and his veteran experience will also give him an edge now that he’s able to join the Buckeyes and prepare for training camp. Sermon is still going to have to compete for the job, but he has all the makings of being a weapon who can push Ohio State over the top.

When will Master Teague return for Ohio State?

The first crack at the starting gig was supposed to go to Master Teague coming off his solid work in the backup spot last season. The redshirt sophomore took a big step forward a year ago, using his one-cut, straight-ahead rushing style to serve as a change-of-pace option when the Buckeyes needed it.

But Teague’s opportunity was short-lived thanks to the Achilles injury, and even the most optimistic timeline for his recovery would likely have him unavailable during training camp. Ohio State has had multiple players in recent years recover from similar injuries in the spring and contribute by the fall, but that’s certainly not a guarantee in Teague’s case despite the encouraging signs in his rehab thus far. The status of Teague will be one of the most closely-watched stories for the Buckeyes as the season creeps closer.

Marcus Crowley-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State running back Marcus Crowley is coming back from a knee injury. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Can Marcus Crowley restart momentum for Buckeyes?

Arguably the closest match on the roster for the all-around skills J.K. Dobbins brought to the position, Marcus Crowley made enough of an impression during his first year on campus that Ohio State pulled his redshirt and seemed ready to add to his workload down the stretch.

Then in the midst of an impressive shift late in the blowout win over Maryland, Crowley went down with a knee injury and his debut campaign was over. That might have wound up being a more significant loss than it seemed at the time, because Teague was starting to fade a bit against stiffer competition late in the season and the Buckeyes were stretched thin in the College Football Playoff without Crowley around to lend a hand. The Florida native was a somewhat overlooked recruiting gem for Tony Alford, and with Crowley expected to be fully cleared for workouts this summer, he’s an intriguing candidate to help pick up the slack for the Buckeyes.

Will Ohio State use committee approach at tailback?

Tony Alford often jokes about not having access to a crystal ball, an artful dodge to the seemingly annual questions about how he’ll distribute carries to the tailbacks. And this year in particular, there was really no way for the respected running backs coach to know what the best approach would be when he was simply trying to get through spring camp with one healthy scholarship rusher on the depth chart.

The Buckeyes have had mixed results with splitting the workload, and odds are they won’t be in a hurry to recreate some of the issues that seemingly slowed the rushing attack when Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins were sharing touches two years ago. It can’t be ruled out that Alford could mix and match the personnel on hand this year, tinkering with different packages and highlighting the various strengths of his tailbacks. But the ideal scenario remains finding one guy who can do everything the Buckeyes need, and Sermon likely will fit that bill.

Can younger Buckeyes make push for reps?

Steele Chambers didn’t get the stage to himself for long, though he did enough during the opening week of camp to prove to Ohio State that his physical approach to the position could be effective. Miyan Williams wasn’t even on campus yet to help the short-handed Buckeyes yet, though the injuries certainly helped motivate him this spring to get his body ready for the transition to the college game.

Ohio State believes in both of those guys, and if the injuries linger for some reason, the coaching staff wouldn’t panic about turning them loose in the backfield. But they’re both still inexperienced at this point, and assuming the Buckeyes do report for camp with a healthy Crowley along with Sermon, it’s probably going to be a challenge for them to make a big jump into the rotation.

Austin Ward

Austin Ward is Lettermen Row's senior writer covering Ohio State football and basketball. The award-winning journalist has covered the Buckeyes since 2012, spending five of those seasons working for ESPN after previous stints at the Casper Star-Tribune and Knoxville News Sentinel.