It was not exactly an auspicious debut to Herron's redshirt freshman season for the four-star tailback from Warren, Ohio, but the Buckeye faithful saw a different player by the time the season came to a close.
After missing three games in the middle of the Big Ten slate because of a concussion, Herron came back to score touchdowns in each of the last four games of the season. Twice he broke the plane of the goal line against Michigan and against Texas in the Fiesta Bowl he scored what would have been the game-winning touchdown had the Longhorns not rallied.
Of the young Buckeyes who improved and matured throughout last season, perhaps none showed the ability to ace the learning curve as well or as quickly as Herron.
"Definitely the improvement showed up at the end of last year when he took one to the house against Michigan and made a big play against Texas to put us ahead," running backs coach Dick Tressel said. "You knew he had those kinds of abilities, but then it's a whole different deal after you've made those plays a couple of times. You come back, the guys believe in you, you believe in yourself and you can get the most out of your ability."
Herron agreed that a simple factor led to his end-of-season performance, one that Tressel alluded to: confidence.
"That was a big thing," he said. "Coming in, that was my first year playing last year, and I had to get into the groove of things, the feel of things. Toward the end of the year, I could say that was one of the things that grew on me, getting comfortable, and I was able to just go out there and play."
He had shown those abilities during a decorated high school career at Warren Harding, earning All-Ohio status by rushing for 1,434 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior for a team that made the regional semifinals. Those numbers helped make him Scout's No. 27 running back in the class of 2007, 16 slots behind classmate Brandon Saine.
Upon arrival at OSU, Herron found himself behind Saine on the depth chart and relegated to a redshirt role. Constant praise from the coaches – who toyed with using Herron because of injuries to Saine and others – flowed based on Herron's work in practice and on the scout teams, but playing time never came in 2007.
Herron was simply hopeful to earn playing time a season ago before an injury to Chris Wells in the opener moved him into the starting lineup. In Wells' stead against Ohio, USC and Troy, Herron ran 43 times for 195 yards (a 4.5-yard average) and a touchdown.
He finished with 89 carries on the year for 439 yards (a 4.9-yard average) and six touchdowns. He also saved his best for last, racing for a 49-yard touchdown on Ohio State's first drive of the second half against Michigan to key the Buckeye rout and then adding the late score against Texas with 2:05 left when he barged in from 15 yards out after making a safety miss at the line of scrimmage.
"It was confidence, no question," Tressel said. "It's not like he learned anything new or did anything different than he had been capable of doing. When you're out there, you can't be worrying about anything other than playing, and you grow into that."
Now, belief is not an issue for the 5-10, 193-pound sophomore. He's at his best picking his way through defenders and finding the hole, and despite his size, he continues to sport a between-the-tackles running style that fits with his nickname, "Boom." Reports from the team's offseason work indicated that Herron was among the team's best workout warriors, continuing to add muscle to his frame.
Herron enters the year poised to earn a starting role after Wells left for the NFL, and he says he's much farther ahead now than he was going into last year's breakout campaign.
"Last year it was still kind of a learning year," Herron said. "I can say now that I've been out there and had the experience. I feel more comfortable. I just learned a lot more of the game. It's just more comfortable for me."
He's also taken the time to mentor youngsters like freshman Jaamal Berry, continuing to earn him notice from people like head coach Jim Tressel.
"Boom is a kind of guy who can be a good leader," the ninth-year head coach said. "He's a tough football player. People love to follow people who produce and play the game tough and play it with the intensity and class that he does."
Tressel added that he thinks Herron could be a 1,000-yard back this season. How that goes will depend on a number of factors, including how the carries in the young but talented running back rotation break down, but Herron said he's ready to fill a starting role in 2009.
"I think so," he said. "That's really all up to the coaches, but I think I've gotten stronger working with the strength staff and everybody and working with Doc and being in the film room, just the little things. I feel like I'm pretty comfortable and ready to go.
"I want to be one of the best. Ohio State has a great tradition of running backs and I just want to keep it going."