Great Expectations For OSU Running Backs

Ohio State will always have a reputation for being a team that loves to run the football. The Buckeye offense has certainly opened up in the past year, but the running game will definitely be a huge part of this year's team as the backfield looks deep and talented. Charles Babb has more on the expectations for this year's Buckeye running backs.

Not since the height of the John Cooper era has there been such excitement – and depth – at the running back position for Ohio State. Stan White, Dionte Johnson, and Aram Olson will man the fullback position as bruising hitters. Maurice Wells, Chris Wells, Antonio Pittman, and Erik Haw will look to terrorize defenses from the tailback slot by running around, through, and over the opposition.

White, a redshirt senior, is aware of the buzz but refuses to quiet the discussion.

"I expect our running game to be the best it has since 2002," White 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 breather for a guy, the next back can come in and do the same thing. I think we are going to have different styles of backs. We are going to have speed backs (and) power backs. I think we are going to take some pressure off Troy and let the wide receivers do great things because guys will be in the box trying to stop the run."

This would be welcome news for a quarterback and receiving corps asked to carry too much of the load since 2003, and the defensive unit might faint in sheer ecstasy.

The running game at Ohio State has probably not been hale and hearty since 2001 and the departure of Jamar Martin. A much overlooked but critical cog in any rushing attack, to say in recent years the Buckeye fullbacks have struggled would be like saying Nelson Rockefeller gave away a couple of dollars here and there. Converted high school tailbacks, contact without the football wasn't nearly as attractive as ‘toting the rock' for a touchdown to several of those asked to step in after Martin. They missed blocks, missed time with injuries, and they even struck out hanging onto the pigskin when given a chance to carry it. Undoubtedly the coaches were either ready to pull out their hair or in their weaker moments, make a deal with the Devil for one healthy, reliable blocking fullback.

This isn't the case with White.

A former linebacker, he embraces the physical challenge of his position and understands the concept of team first.

"Any time you can be out on the field and help your teammates – the coaches and teammates appreciate it," he said. "The announcers and fans may always not see it; they are always watching Troy do his moves, but I get pleasure out of knocking guys down for sure."

If you doubt his sincerity, the goal line mauling of Michigan's Prescott Burgess for Pittman's winning touchdown in Ann Arbor is convincing proof. After being hit by White and a teammate, Burgess watched from his backside as Pittman and the Buckeyes celebrated all the way to the Fiesta Bowl.

For their part, Johnson and Olson are fullbacks in the traditional sense. From the day they stepped foot on campus and during to their recruitment, they understood their role. They are on the roster to knock down or go through linebackers for tailbacks. The better they can clean out the hole, the more likely the Buckeyes are to clean their opponent's collective clock. The more defenders they drive into the ground, the more likely they are as an individual to earn additional playing time.

"I think you need a full spectrum in the world of football right now," said running backs coach Dick Tressel. "I think you need to have a full spectrum, and if you are going to have tailbacks capable of carrying the ball 25 times in a game you better have personnel around them capable of blocking for them for that many carries. You need a quality fullback piece."

Speaking of the tailbacks, not since Archie Griffin in 1974 have the Buckeyes returned a junior rusher with over 1,350 yards. Pittman's improvement down the stretch (along with White's) was the missing ingredient that took the Buckeye offense's family recipe, opened their store for business, and put opposing teams in bankruptcy. Pittman's touchdowns against Michigan and Notre Dame were the final daggers plunged into their heart; they ended the contest for all intents and purposes and allowed the defense to simply play the ‘bend but don't break' shell game to run out the clock. Expectations are high for this still developing back who has a legitimate shot to lead the Big Ten in rushing.

However, with Pittman out recovering from an injury, Maurice Wells has been logging most of the carries and impressing along the way.

White commented, "Just to see Mo Wells and how he has developed since last year – this spring I have really seen an improvement in how he has played. I'm excited to see his development."

With only 199 yards on 61 carries as a freshman, the jury has still been out on this much ballyhooed recruit from Florida. Nor did it help his case that the roster spot he occupies meant Javon Ringer and Tyrell Sutton played at Michigan State and Northwestern instead of their home state team. Between the two former Ohio High School stars, they racked up 2,291 yards on 372 carries with 21 touchdowns (averaging better than 6 yards a carry).

Worse was the label by some that he was ‘too small' to be a major contributor in the Big Ten. Never mind that neither Ringer nor Sutton are any larger, the love affair with big backs at Ohio State goes back a long way with fairly recent luminaries as Eddie George, Keith Byars, Robert Smith, Raymont Harris, and even Maurice Clarett.

Does size play a role in playing a role?

"I don't know; I feel I am big enough," Wells disputed. "I think if you are an athlete and the opportunity is there to make a cut, to make a play, you are going to make it no matter what size you are – if you are 230 lbs or 185 lbs. Taking the hits is another thing. All you have to do is work on your body, get into the weight room and tone your muscles. That's more protection than anything."

Taking his own advice, Wells took action this off-season and determined to take his game (and perhaps the entire offense) to the next level. He added muscle to his frame to take the pounding necessary to merit playing time, and he has been turning heads all spring. His toughness and ability to take a hit without injury has to impress.

The results of his work and performance have left him feeling better about his role: "I'm happy with what I have done. I don't want to be too happy because I think when you get happy you get complacent. I think there are things I could have done here and there to make help my game, but from what you guys say the coaches are saying I am playing well. I think I am playing well, but there is room for improvement."

All of this doesn't even touch the running abilities of ‘the other' Wells or Haw who have both garnered heaps of praise from teammates. Haw's run during the jersey scrimmage and Wells's propensity to run through would be tacklers while leaving cleat marks on the jersey are serious indications of tailbacks who won't just deserve but will probably by virtue of performance demand more carries this fall.

How in the world can a coaching staff keep all of these players happy?

"You probably don't," admitted Tressel.

So what is the key to making as many as possible satisfied with their role?

First, Tressel believes they must eliminate turnovers.

"We have all these good players, to make them happy we have to have the football," Tressel said. "That's the first place to make offensive guys happy – make some first downs. Then everyone gets their turn with the ball. That's why I say don't fumble it."

Second, they are going to have to be mature and recognize each one will play a role for this team. They must be ready in the case of an injury or the need for a breather for someone in front of them on the depth chart. Each one is going to have to improve and show the coaches – they are prepared mentally and physically so that this team is successful.

Tressel continued, "The question is – to give here what do you have to take over here? It's always a balancing act in this team sport. Everybody sacrifices a little bit, and at the running back position it can change fast. Someone can pull a hamstring fast. We have to make sure what we are doing is best for the offense at this point and time, keep getting better every chance you get, and then you have to believe and be ready to go."

If the 2006 running backs are able to handle those assignments, their individual and collective improvement will likely birth a growing sentiment; it is time for the running game at Ohio State to reclaim its rightful place as the centerpiece of the Scarlet and Gray offense.

According to White, "We want to be one of the best running teams in the league. We want to take pressure off our great receivers. Last year the wide receivers and Santonio spread out, and that's when we ran the ball. We want it to be – we're going to run the ball until you put eight men in the box, pack it down, have one-on-one coverage on the outside, and make it easier on the wide receivers. We want to lead the offense, take pressure off Troy, and take pressure off the wide receivers."

Maurice Wells echoes those words: "I think it is our coming out year. Last year we were more of a passing offense, but the running backs are showing that along with the passing – we can run too. We have a lot of guys who can run the ball."

This coaching staff does not appear to disagree. Their recruiting over the past three seasons speaks volumes, adding three quality tailbacks and two true fullbacks following disappointing 2003 rushing results. Those efforts are starting to pay dividends, and it might finally be time to cash in those options for a big payday on the field.

Said Tressel, "Ohio State football is tough football. We're not going to forget that. It has been all along. We are going to make sure we have tough players in place to continue that tradition. When you show up in Ohio Stadium strap it up. I'm confident we can load that field up with running backs, run the ball, but I think that is to be determined, and we are going to do what it takes to win."

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