Remember when NFL wideout Keyshawn Johnson wrote the book "Just Give Me the Damn Ball" after his rookie season? Johnson was widely panned, but he was just living under the offensive credo that big players want the pigskin in their hands so that they can try to do big things.
And for the past four years, the Ohio State football team has had one player, a bell cow, at the running back position that was expected to take the responsibility of bearing the load, thus resulting in a clear situation in which that No. 1 back got his touches above all others. In 2005 and 2006, that player was Antonio Pittman. The past two years, the job belonged to Chris Wells when healthy.
But going into the 2009 season, it looks like the Buckeyes could have a running back situation in which two players split the lion's share of the time. Both Brandon Saine and Dan Herron are members of the class of 2007 who have experience in the Ohio State offense, and running backs coach Dick Tressel said his hope is to make sure both are ready to go come Sept. 5 when the Buckeyes host Navy.
"We'll plan to have both of them as interchangeable parts," said Tressel, "so the team feels that way that when one of those guys is in the huddle, it's just like having the other one in the huddle and everybody believes in them."
While Herron seems to have the inside track on a starting role based on his play as a redshirt freshman last season, Saine looked good during spring football and confirmed he was at 100 percent after an injury-plagued 2008 as a sophomore.
His recovery has resulted in a battle for carries as the Buckeyes – who also boast two talented freshmen in Jaamal Berry and Jordan Hall as well as converted fullback Jermil Martin – try to figure out the best way to replace Wells. So far, those involve say they're fine with the prospect of sharing the load if the situation demands it.
"The reality is you really can't be out there every play or you wouldn't make it three games into the season," said Saine, who has been banged up each of his two seasons at OSU. "(Splitting carries) is a really good thing. We're good friends, and it's going to be fun to play with each other."
One might expect Saine to have such an outlook because any amount of carries would be welcome after he was limited to just 26 rushes for 65 yards a season ago. Then again, Herron knows what it's like to have time on the ball regulated; he ran 89 times for 439 yards and six touchdowns last year while spelling Wells.
Two of his biggest runs came after Wells had already made a major impact. One play after "Beanie" ran for 42 yards on OSU's first offensive play of the second half against Michigan, Herron raced the ball the final 49 yards to give the Buckeyes a 21-7 lead to ignite what turned into a rout.
Then against Texas in the Fiesta Bowl, Herron ran for a late touchdown to give the Buckeyes the lead on just his fifth carry of the game. Wells had toted the rock 16 times before a concussion ended his night.
"You do kind of get into a rhythm the more carries that you get, but you have to make the best of what you get," Herron said. "You just have to do what you can."
For the backs to put aside their personal goals for the common good would be impressive to someone who knows what it's like to be a standout rusher in the Big Ten. Big Ten Network analyst Howard Griffith was the No. 2 man in carries as a sophomore at Illinois in 1988 before leading the team in rushing the next two seasons.
Griffith said that sacrifice can be a hard thing for a running back to handle.
"If I was really good and I could run the ball, I wouldn't like it because, to me, when you have to rotate you're deficient in something," he said. "As a back, you have to embrace it. If that's what's going to happen, you always need to put the team first. That's really where you find out a lot about the guys on your team as well. If you're a ‘me' guy and you're having to share, you're not going to last very long."
So far, that doesn't seem to be a problem.
"Coach Tressel has been doing this for years, so I think he knows the best thing for us," Herron said. "I just play the role that I have to play. I want to get a lot of touches and a lot of carries. I want to be the man and everything, but he's the man so we have to do what he wants."
Tressel admitted that having one player who can carry the load like a healthy Wells is nice, but he added that he thinks both Herron and Saine can run the ball 18 to 20 times per game. That might not sound like much, but Tressel said the plan is to keep all backs in that range in order to keep them fresh and healthy unless the situation dictates otherwise.
"All of a sudden we have two kids that have been in our program a couple of years that everybody believes in both of them and both are talented," Tressel said. "That's a pretty good deal. It's to be seen whether that's better than having one great one. I hope it is."