BALTIMORE – A statement that at first seemed like a diplomatic cop-out now looks like a fairly wise consideration.
When Ohio State coach Urban Meyer named his first depth chart of the season, he failed to name a true starter at either the running back or H-back positions – two spots on the offense that had suddenly attained more importance in the wake of senior quarterback Braxton Miller’s season-ending injury in fall camp.
But it turns out that with last year’s workhorse Carlos Hyde departing to the NFL in the offseason, Meyer opted to spread the running game out to quite a few contributors. The decision turned out to be an inspired one as a combined 132 rushing yards from freshman Curtis Samuel and sophomores Ezekiel Elliott and Dontre Wilson helped the Buckeyes to a 34-17 victory against Navy Saturday to begin the season.
The OSU football team began its 125th season with difficult circumstances as its defense faced an unusual, consistent offensive game plan and its offense – for the first time in 36 years – started a quarterback with no college game experience in a season opener.
With redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett starting under center, the backfield battalion had to combine to give the team the boost it needed – and boost them they did, but not at first.
OSU gained just 21 rushing yards in the first quarter against the Midshipmen, but things opened up after that. Samuel made his first significant impressions as a Buckeye with runs of eight and 11 yards in the second quarter, but he saved his best for the final period when he had two consecutive first down rushes.
Samuel finished with 45 yards on the ground – second behind only Barrett among the Buckeyes – and his bursts brought out some long-held praise from co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Ed Warinner.
“I’ve been on (Samuel’s) bandwagon for a long time. He’s a very explosive dude that has some power that he can generate behind himself and he is not scared by any stretch of the imagination, no stage is too big for him,” Warinner said. “So it’s exciting. We’ll continue to get him more and more involved as the season goes, but I thought for game one as a freshman he showed a lot of explosiveness and toughness.”
Samuel was named one of the three co-starters at the running back position, and though he was actually recruited as an H-back, Warinner said his play made it clear where his future lies.
“(We) found that (he could play running back) within the first two weeks of spring ball,” he said. “We were like ‘oh boy, we might have a real tailback here, and a tailback that’s extremely versatile and can do some things in space.’”
Elliott, one of the other starters at running back, came up just one yard shy of Samuel’s rushing total and grabbed the team’s only touchdown on the ground. Even after Samuel’s strong performance, Meyer answered didn’t say anything different than what the original depth chart said.
“I think (Samuel) did pretty good…he has a really nice future here,” Meyer said. “Is he our best running back? I think they’re two good ones.”
For as much as Samuel and Elliott caught the eye, it was the returning Wilson who may have the most expected of him. The H-back didn’t quite live up to his goals last season, but Meyer said the speedster prepared properly in the offseason, putting on weight to give him the strength to break tackles. Wilson rushed for 43 yards and recovered from an early drop to snag two catches for a total of 46 yards.
“That (role is) exactly what I did in high school,” Wilson said. “So I’m prepared for it, I’m ready for it and I’m glad I’m here to take that role.”
Going forward, the Buckeyes seem to have three playmakers in the backfield that love to get the ball – even if they have to share it.
“When you have a backfield like ours, you have a lot of weapons back there and we complement each other really well,” Elliott said. “You’ve got to get everyone some touches.”
“It’s pretty good to have somebody else that’s the same caliber as you once you come out and they come in, it’s like the game doesn’t lose a step,” Wilson said. “So that’s pretty good.”
OSU’s is scheduled to take on Virginia Tech in its season opener Sept. 6 at Ohio Stadium. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m.