In 2005, then-sophomore Antonio Pittman went the distance as OSU's lead tailback. The Buckeyes never found a suitable change-up back.
But, with Pittman on the shelf this spring, three other scholarship tailbacks are getting a chance to prove what they can do. Sophomores Maurice Wells and Erik Haw and early enrolling freshman Chris Wells are getting all the work they can handle.
"We're certainly excited about this talent," Tressel said. "If you look at the group, you'd say, ‘We've got guys of all shapes and sizes and skills.' I think that makes you smile and puts us in a situation that whatever the team needs, we can do it in a couple of different ways. Hopefully, they will all be healthy, so it is really exciting.
"With Antonio Pittman not in the lineup, a lot of guys have gotten a lot of turns and a lot of opportunities to grow that they might not have gotten otherwise. I think Pitt is far enough along that this little bit of spring practice he has not had will not stop him from being as good as he can be. It may help the other guys in their pursuit and just add to the arsenal. Hopefully they can all pull together and make me look like a great coach."
The 5-11, 195-pound Pittman remains the top choice at tailback. But Tressel hopes the added depth will allow OSU to give Pittman some breaks during the 2006 season and keep him strong for the stretch drive in key games and/or the season.
"There is no question that there were a couple games last year where Pitt was tired," Tressel said. "That's never best to be tired and we can keep him out of that situation. We're going to get everything out of Antonio Pittman. We're going to have him fresh and going full speed."
Tressel shed some light on what Pittman, hobbled by a hamstring problem, has been able to do this spring.
"We haven't put him in a full contact situation," Tressel said. "We got to a point where we were far enough along that we were not going to be able to give him a lot of quality reps as a ball carrier or as a blocker. He was probably 90 or 95 percent in terms of his health. For us to get that extra 5 percent just so he could get one or two reps, we were like, ‘Is it worth it? We said no.'
"He has banged into some guys and done some drills. But we have not put him into that position where we've put him in there against extremely quality competition and give a full exertion, something like where he's had to take on a Marcus Freeman in the open field."
Tressel said it was unlikely that Pittman would play in Saturday's spring game.
"We'll put that on the table tomorrow morning to see if he will be able to be drafted," Tressel said. "The number of reps that he would have in the spring game with minimal preparation, you have to ask if that's worth the chance that he would put extra stress on a hamstring. If push comes to shove, we'll decide and not Antonio because he would want to go play."
Tressel praised Pittman for being a leader this spring.
"He's helped them get better, which is exciting," he said. "Pitt has been a great leader. He's talking to them. But I think he's smart enough to know he better be ready to fight in the fall."
Tressel is certain Pittman will be full-go in the fall.
"I'm confident he'll be able to come back from this," Tressel said. "This moves his hard work back to a more prime time. He got injured and missed some of our early morning workouts and missed some of the spring. He's going to make up some of that time in May and June. That will even better prepare him physically for the fall. We've got those 29 fall practices to get ready to carry the ball, so he'll get plenty of turns."
And The Rest
On national signing day, Tressel let the comment slip that Chris Wells, the nation's No. 1 prep prospect in 2005, reminded him of former Cleveland Browns legend Jim Brown. After working with the 6-1, 225-pound Wells for three weeks, the veteran coach did not back off that compliment.
"He looks just like Jim Brown to me," Tressel said. "I think back to early days watching TV, that kind of guy was toting the mail for the Browns. Now, he's a freshman at Ohio State University. The growth to that caliber of player is still in front of him. But he represents those kinds of skills and that kind of physique and that way of carrying the ball. I'm excited to watch him in hot pursuit of those kinds of skills and abilities.
"I think he has really taken it upon himself to be a learner and a listener. He's gone out of his way to make sure he has done all of the studying and thinking about the game as he possibly can. He has carried the ball well. He falls forward. He's done a good job of that. In all honesty, he's in a whole new world that he has to learn. He's doing a great job of working through it.
"He's certainly a guy with high hopes and high expectations. For him to play really well is what everybody expects.
"I'm very satisfied that Beanie has done the things that he needs to do and he is where he should be. He is definitely not behind. He has learned a lot. He has battled through it and is so much better for him because of it."
But Tressel was just as excited about the progress of Maurice Wells (5-10, 190), who has spent much of the spring working with the first team in Pittman's absence.
"Mo Wells is very comfortable with what he's been asked to do," Tressel said. "He's super on the aspects of catching it, running it and blocking. He's able to go fast because he knows what to do. He is an elusive guy. He will make you miss. If we have a spread formation to try and take advantage of Troy Smith, you're setting it up for Mo Wells also. He's got a burst. If you give him a draw or a delay handoff and get out with a pass, he is pretty good for us."
And Haw (6-1, 212) has also used this spring to solidify his spot.
"Erik is an outstanding ball carrier, as those other guys are," Tressel said. "There are all of those aspects of the game and you are competing with other guys. His growth this spring has been outstanding, but it's every play and every down. He got better and this was a good spring for Erik."
Haw's off-the-field problems a year ago were well documented. Tressel likes what he has seen of Haw so far this spring, but wants to see him become a more consistent all-around back.
"His forte, in his mind and in his heart, is carrying the leather," the coach said. "That's where running backs all start and then they have to grow from there to become a great pass blocker and a get-one-more-yard guy as well as a get-a-touchdown guy and all of those things that make a whole coaching staff and a team real confident to say, ‘Yeah, let's run this guy out here. He'll help us win the game.' "
Mo Wells Could Get Mo Carries
Maurice Wells was the closest thing to a backup tailback the Buckeyes had a year ago. He logged 61 carries for 199 yards on the year in limited action. But he has stepped up his game and shown the staff he can be counted upon.
"I'm out there trying to work hard to impress the coaches," Wells said. "Everybody is working hard to get better as a team."
Wells believes the Buckeyes will be able to spread the wealth this fall.
"I am sure they will find ways to get players the ball if they feel they deserve it," he said. "I think there is room for everybody to play and the best person will get on the field the most. Everybody is working hard to get better and just get that extra edge over the next person."
So what has made the difference this spring for Wells after such a tough debut season?
"I'm just more comfortable now," he said. "I have a year under my belt. As far as my steps, I am more comfortable with that. I've been in the weight room, too. We have strength coaches and they work with you on parts of your body that they think you need help on. I'll continue to do that through the summer, so by the fall I should be ready to go.
"The year under my belt, I think, really helped me. I am anxious to start this next season and to see how much I have really improved."
Wells discussed the rotation at tailback.
"It's been pretty much even," he said. "We run three or four groups and roll everybody in with each group. I have run the majority of the time with the ones. Chris (Wells) gets some of the ones every now and then."
White: Top Fullback
Fifth-year senior Stan White Jr. and junior Dionte Johnson are the only scholarship fullbacks in the fold this spring. They were joined this spring by walk-on Trever Robinson and will add incoming freshman Aram Olson in the fall.
By all accounts, the fullbacks are getting more involved in the running attack and the offense.
"Any time you can be out on the field and help your teammates, I know my teammates and my coaches appreciate it," White said. "The announcers and the fans may not see it. They may be watching Troy (Smith) do his moves. But I get pleasure out of knocking guys down for sure.
"With Dionte and myself, we have some experience at the position. We want to do some great things."
White discussed the three tailbacks who have gotten most of the work this spring.
"Just to see Mo Wells and to see how he's improved since last year, that's been good to see," he said. "I have really seen an improvement in how he's played. I can see his development. Pitt is another great back and we expect him to be one of the best in the league, if not the country.
"Beanie is coming in. He's 6-1 and 235 pounds. He's just coming in out of high school. I think he's going to have a great career here. He's just going to punish people.
"Erik Haw is a very fast back. He has some very good moves. He has busted a few big runs, especially that one in the jersey scrimmage."
White said it has been hard on Pittman to be on the sideline.
"He is a competitor and he wants to be out there," White said. "He's coaching guys up every chance he gets. He's doing every drill he can. He's itching to do everything he can to help our team."
White talked about the strides Pittman made for his sophomore year.
"The more comfortable you are, the more the game slows down," he said. "I think that was true for Pitt last year. Instead of just running to your left and using your athletic ability, maybe you can see that backside linebacker coming over the top and you're able to make that cut. The holes just seem that much bigger and the game is slower for you once you've been in the system a lot more."
White predicts some big things for OSU as it works on building the running attack.
"I expect our running game to be the best this year that it has been, really, since 2002," he said. "Watching the guys we have, we have depth we haven't had here in a while. On second or third down when we need to get a blow for a guy, the next guy can come in there.
"We have different styles of backs. We'll have speed backs and powerful backs. I think we'll take some pressure off of Troy. Our receivers should be able to do some great things if the defense has to put extra guys in the box to try and stop the run."