Heading into the fourth year under head coach Urban Meyer's direction, things could not be looking brighter for Ohio State football. Virtually every media outlet has predicted Ohio State to be the favorite to win the 2015 national championship.
The roster is heavily stocked with talented players at every position; a case in point is that Ohio State has three players at quarterback in Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones who could start for essentially any other college football program in the country. The aforementioned players, along with returning junior running back Ezekiel Elliott, are mentioned as leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy this season.
Yet I have a painful, and somewhat embarrassing admission to make regarding the present Ohio State offense...
I truly did not anticipate it working out this well over the past few seasons. Quite frankly, I was actually concerned about the direction the Ohio State offense might take when Meyer took over the head coaching position in November 2011.
Before you become indignant at my past concerns, let me explain why I had them. While Meyer always had dynamic offenses in his previous coaching stops at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, I had a big concern — The quarterback being the dominant running threat in the offense, versus a traditionally dominant running back.
Let me expand upon my thoughts for you. Throughout Ohio State's illustrious football history, the old Woody Hayes mantra of "Three Yards And A Cloud Of Dust" have been associated with tremendous running backs - Archie Griffin. Tim Spencer. Keith Byars. Eddie George. Maurice Clarett. Chris "Beanie" Wells. I realize I am leaving out so many other talented Buckeye running backs, but you get the idea.
And when Meyer was hired, how many dominant running backs could be named at any of his previous coaching stops? Zero. Not even one 1,000-yard rusher, ever.
Sure, the offenses were explosive. Meyer relied upon the traditional “running back by committee” (RBBC) approach, with multiple players usually carrying the ball for maybe 400 to 800 yards in a season. But who was usually the leading rusher, or among the leading rushers, at these previous coaching stops?
While at Bowling Green in 2001, quarterback Josh Harris was the leading rusher; in 2002, Harris was only 70 yards behind leading rusher Joe Alls. After moving on to to Utah in 2003, Meyer continued his committee approach with quarterback Alex Smith in both the 2003 and ‘04 seasons; Smith wound up the No. 2 rusher in both seasons.
After moving on to to Florida in 2005, Meyer continued his committee approach, albeit with mixed results. Things really started to percolate in 2006, when Meyer recruited some guy named Tim Tebow to quarterback his offense. Tebow emerged as the leading rusher for Florida from 2007-09, and was the second- leading ground gainer in ‘06 for Meyer's first national championship team.
Please do not misunderstand me when I write that the quarterback as a rushing threat in Meyer's offense was or is a bad thing. I have long been a proponent of the option as a tremendous way to keep opposing defenses off-balance. During Hayes' tenure, quarterbacks such as Rex Kern and Cornelius Greene were always considered a part of the offensive attack.
My concern for Ohio State heading into the 2012 season was the lack of a traditional plow-horse tailback. The kind of player such as the aforementioned Byars, George, Clarett, or Wells, who could be counted upon to carry the ball at least 20 to possibly 30 times a game, when the field is muddy and passing is almost impossible. The kind of running back who could rise to the occasion, even when the opposing defense was completely focused upon shutting the running game down.
At the beginning of the 2012 season, it certainly seemed as though my concerns, which were voiced by other Ohio State observers, might be legitimate. In the season opener against Miami (Ohio), Miller carried the ball 17 times for 161 yards. After the game, even Meyer stated that 17 carries by his starting quarterback were too many.
By the conclusion of the season, Miller was the leading rusher with 1,271 yards, yet Carlos Hyde had emerged as a dominant rushing threat in his own right, rushing for 970 yards. In 2013, Hyde finally delivered a 1,000-yard rushing season by a running back under Meyer, finishing with 1,521 yards, while Miller also rushed for 1,068 yards. While Miller was the catalyst of the offense, perhaps Meyer realized that a stocky, bullish-type runner was needed within the B1G for his offense to truly thrive.
In 2014, with Hyde off to the NFL and Miller out for the season, new players had developed within Meyer's offense. Ezekiel Elliott ran for 1,878 yards, while quarterback J.T. Barrett contributed 938 yards of his own. In the few games Cardale Jones played in, Jones was able to add 296 yards rushing during the Buckeyes' run to the national championship.
As for 2015 and beyond? Let us just say that if there are any running backs that may be concerned about not being a focal point of the Ohio State running game, it certainly does not seem to have affected the recruiting efforts. Incoming freshman Michael Weber signed with the Buckeyes despite Elliott's return, along with other players such as Curtis Samuel, Bri'onte Dunn, and Warren Ball. Other top running back recruits have already verbally committed for both the 2016 and ‘17 classes.
The moral of the story for this Ohio State fan? A rush to judgment is often a mistake. In this circumstance, Buckeye fans are the welcome beneficiaries of Meyer's offensive philosophies and approach, as the results over the past few seasons have demonstrated.
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a diehard Ohio State fan. Minnich also writes and podcasts for menofthescarletandgray.com, a site dedicated to Ohio sports with a special emphasis on the Buckeyes. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.