COLUMBUS — There were plenty of questions surrounding the running back position at Ohio State before spring practice.
Master Teague, who gave J.K. Dobbins breaks and became a top-10 rusher in the Big Ten a season ago, was returning with Steele Chambers and Marcus Crowley.
Then the first practice happened, and while Crowley was already on the shelf rehabbing from a knee injury last season, Teague’s Achilles decided he was done for the spring as well when he went down. The only healthy scholarship back available then was Chambers. But when it rained, it poured, and Ohio State only practiced three times before the coronavirus ended the spring period.
Where does that leave the Ohio State running back room? The roller coaster continued in March when accomplished Oklahoma graduate transfer running back Trey Sermon picked the Buckeyes — he’ll join the team whenever football activities resume on campus.
Crowley and Teague will be working back from injury. Sermon will be learning a new playbook and recovering from his own setback a season ago. Chambers and true freshman Miyan Williams will be healthy and ready to go. Will the Buckeyes employ running back-by-committee strategy into the 2020 offense alongside Justin Fields?
“I said this when J.K. here with Mike Weber and things like that — we don’t have any preconceived ideas that we’re going to just run one guy so we have to get this guy ready,” Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford said. “They’re all going to get ready to play. They’re all going to be prepared to play, and we’re going to do whatever we need to do to win games. If that’s with a committee approach, then that’s fine. If it’s not, then it’s not.
“To say what that’s going to be right now, I think that’s premature on my part. I think we’re going to go through and see how we do. We’ll do whatever we need to do to win games.”
Winning games shouldn’t be an issue for the Buckeyes. They return three starters on the offensive line and have second-year starter and Heisman Trophy frontrunner Justin Fields, who can throw to a crop of talented wide receivers. Fields can also be a dangerous weapon with his legs, so that’s a remedy for some running back questions if it needs to be. But Ohio State coach Ryan Day loves to run the football with his backs, so they have to be ready.
Ohio State is confident all of its rushers will be.
“From all indications, [Crowley and Teague are] both doing well in rehab,” Alford said. “They’re attacking this thing the way we want them to and the way we’d expect them to.”
Those two will need to be ready. After the spring of Steele Chambers was cut short, and with no timeline of a return to the practice field for anyone, the Buckeyes may return to camp with a full stable of capable backs. Chambers could return to the pack while Sermon shows more of what he was capable of in the Oklahoma offense and either Teague or Crowley becomes healthy.
While Sermon may grab the headlines, Teague is fresh off an impressive first season in the complementary role. Chambers is healthy and ready for more carries. Crowley has something to prove this season. Williams is a back the coaching staff has praised, and he hasn’t even been on campus yet.
The committee approach may not be ideal, but as Alford said, if it wins Ohio State games and helps the offense, it’ll prove to be a decent strategy in 2020. What could the numbers look like for a committee-approach backfield?
Sermon was rarely a feature back in a talented stable at Oklahoma, but he has proven he can be a feature back when called upon. In a 2018 game against Texas Tech, Sermon had 26 carries for 203 yards and three touchdowns. That’s proof there, even if it was against a shoddy Red Raiders defense that was not Big Ten-caliber. But he might not need to carry the load alone.
Teague is capable of busting long runs after pounding the defense from time to time, and he’ll have to prove he can be a feature back if he wants the bulk of carries — assuming he’s able to return at some point early in the season, which isn’t a certainty. And the rest of the field will likely receive carries while fighting for playing time early in the season, and the coaching staff will side with whoever has the most productive September stretch.
Sermon isn’t likely to have the 301 carries J.K. Dobbins had last season, but he could have a season that looks like Dobbins’ 2018, when the Buckeyes were nearly able to have two running backs top 1,000 yards. He also is a versatile weapon out of the backfield and can catch plenty of passes from Fields, who makes every receiver he throws to look great.
It’s easy to find a season in which Teague at least matches his rushing total from last year, and with a committee approach, he would certainly be on pace to top that total. As for the others, their numbers will be determined on how they do in fall camp and into the early season.
Sermon: 211 carries, 1,356 yards, 12 rushing touchdowns; 13 catches, 101 yards, two touchdowns
Teague: 164 carries, 697 rushing yards, seven rushing touchdowns
Crowley: 30 carries, 251 yards, three rushing touchdowns
Chambers: 25 carries, 235 yards, two rushing touchdowns
If Justin Fields adds to the math as a rusher, the Buckeyes should be fine when it comes to running the ball this fall.