Each of those years, the Buckeyes had a starting tailback who lasted the entire season without missing extensive time because of injury. Antonio Pittman was the bell cow in each of the first two seasons and his understudy, Chris Wells, did the honors in '07. Along the way the Buckeyes reached three BCS bowls and played for two national titles.
The 2008 season was the exact opposite. Wells entered the year as the starter but missed three games because of injury and couldn't finish the last two games. Backups Maurice Wells, Boom Herron and Brandon Saine all missed at least one game because of injury.
For Ohio State running backs coach Dick Tressel, that circumstance wasn't so much unfortunate as it was due.
"I think that that's more typical than we were used to the previous couple of years," Tressel said.
Running back is among the hardest positions to play simply because of the beating a player takes on a regular basis. There's no better indication of that than Wells, whose 2007 season included a nagging ankle injury and a broken bone in his wrist that needed surgery once the campaign concluded. This past year, there was the famous foot injury as well as hamstring and concussion problems.
While Wells developed a reputation of being somewhat injury-prone, the fact is that injuries pile up when a back carries the ball 20 or more times per game – or even the 30-plus Wells did on occasion.
With that in mind, enter the 2009 recruiting class of running backs at Ohio State, a list that includes star Miami prospect Jaamal Berry, a fellow Floridian in bruiser Carlos Hyde and the shifty Jordan Hall from Jeannette, Pa., who Tressel said would start as a tailback.
The Buckeyes return just two scholarship tailbacks in Herron and Saine, so it stands to reason that at least one of the entering backs can expect to see his hands on the football at some point in 2009.
"Watching them play, I think they have the ability," Tressel said. "I'm positive they have the ability. If you ask them, they'll tell you they have the ability. And a couple of them better be ready to play because this year we had a stable and not one of the four scholarship tailbacks was ready to play every game."
Both Berry and Hyde come in with four-star credentials. Berry enters Ohio State as the No. 8 tailback in the entire nation despite a senior season that was slowed by a wrist injury. The Miami Palmetto product still led his team to the second round of the playoffs and played in the Under Armour All-American Game.
"Jaamal does a good job as a powerful, speedy tailback," head coach Jim Tressel said. "He's a good football player."
Hyde is the only player in the Buckeyes' class to be rated the No. 1 player at his position, though Scout lists the Naples product as a fullback and not a tailback. But the 6-1, 230-pounder's 1,653 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns has the Buckeye coaching staff thinking he'll be a ball carrier in the mold of Beanie Wells.
"I see a runner, a guy that is a quiet force," Dick Tressel said. "He really is a tough guy that just wants to play and finishes plays, so that makes him really valuable as a ball carrier. You need to have a guy like that because the defenses in the Big Ten are so good and they're committed to defense."
Hall is just 5-10, 190 pounds, but Terrelle Pryor's high school teammate enters having scored 21 touchdowns on offense last season – 18 on the ground – and averaged 8.5 yards per carry.
While that trio will be leaned on to provide depth at the tailback spot, the running backs coach hedged when asked if tailback was such an easy place to play for a youngster.
"If they have to be the guy, then you get nervous," Dick Tressel said. "When Beanie Wells came in, if he had to have been the guy and Antonio Pittman wasn't here, that would have been hard on him because people would have more opportunities to jump on his freshman weaknesses. If you go back and check the newspapers on Beanie, there were a couple of times people weren't happy with him as a freshman. That would have been a harder issue if he had to have the whole thing handed to him.
"We have enough guys that these young guys will be able to contribute when they're ready. That's the key."
When it comes to getting his new trio of backs ready, Tressel said that the key is to start by focusing on what the players are comfortable with and then go from there.
"I think that first you have to be patient," he said. "You have to give guys the opportunity to earn what to do. Never is a guy going to play as well as he can play until he understands what he is supposed to be doing."