With Ohio State gearing up for its season-opener against Indiana on Aug. 31, the Buckeyes are game-planning for the Hoosiers. After Friday’s practice, the media was able to speak to running backs coach Tony Alford, redshirt sophomore Mike Weber and a few backup running backs. Here is what we learned.
Weber still recovering from hamstring injury
Weber injured his hamstring just over four weeks ago and has been limited in practice since then. Alford said Weber, despite his lack of practice time, would be healthy enough to start against the season-opener against Indiana, Aug. 31.
“You know, we’ll monitor and bring him along at the rate we think we need to,” Alford said Friday after practice. “He feels good, so we’re going to keep going with the process that we’ve been going. It’s going pretty well. So, he’ll be ready.”
Since his injury, Weber said he hasn’t been playing full contact yet. In the meantime, he said he has been watching film, taking mental reps, walking through his steps and rehabbing.
“I’m not 100 percent yet, but I’m getting close,” Weber said. “They’ve been holding me back all camp to make sure I don’t have problems with it throughout the season. I’m just listening to them and taking it day by day.”
Last year, Weber took 182 carries for 1,096 yards, reaching the end zone nine times, and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Despite those accolades, coach Urban Meyer believes the young running back must step up and make a major improvement this year.
“I’m hoping you see a different back,” Meyer said in a press conference July 26. “He was good. He wasn’t premier.”
Weber’s inability to practice at full-go with the first-team offense calls into question whether the starter has made the leap that his head coach anticipated or if it is even possible given the lack of reps.
McCall primarily with H-backs
One of last year’s backups to Weber, sophomore Demario McCall, might have finally found a position to stick with. The young athlete spent most of his time last year spelling Weber. But without H-back Curtis Samuel, who left Ohio State early to head to the NFL, the Buckeyes might turn to McCall as a hybrid back.
McCall said he has been working nearly exclusively with the H-backs in the receiver room for the past two weeks. However, he said he might still play running back this year, even mentioning he took a few snaps at the position during Friday’s practice.
Alford compared McCall’s situation to that of Samuel last year as he has worked with running backs and receivers, familiarizing himself with both position groups.
“When he’s in the game, we’re hoping to have a guy that can make some explosive plays for us,” Alford said. “He’s a year more mature and bigger and he’s obviously gained a lot of weight which has helped him.”
McCall said he weighs about 192 or 193 pounds, which is 20 pounds more than he was when he came to Ohio State. Since he arrived as a freshman, he knew he had to gain weight. McCall said he expects to be up to 195 pounds by the time the season begins.
Last year, McCall finished fourth on the team in rushing – behind Weber, Samuel and then-redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett – with 49 carries for 273 yards, scoring three touchdowns. He also caught four passes for 84 yards and a score.
This year, he will likely be much more involved in the passing game, as Samuel, who led the team with 74 catches for 865 yards, was in 2016.
When asked to describe himself on the field, McCall answered with just two words, “Athletic. Playmaker.”
Mike Weber’s maturity is at the “opposite end of the spectrum”
When Weber came to Ohio State, his maturity on and off the field was a problem for Ohio State and its coaches. But, that has completely changed.
“He’s been so attentive in the meeting rooms, even with stuff that you know he knows. He’s taking notes and he’s trying to learn even the finite details,” Alford said. “When he wasn’t allowed to be in (due to his hamstring injury), he’d stand right next to me and be kind of talking to me, ‘What about this, what about that?. Did you see this, did you see that?’”
Weber’s position coach said the starter has has a better understanding of the full picture, heading into his second season lining up next to Barrett in the backfield.
“His attention to detail has still been at the top of the charts,” Alford said..” I don’t know what else I can ask of him that he hasn’t provided.”
Depth of running back room has helped
In the spring, McCall was primarily used as a running back, despite many people speculating he might be the best option to slide in as Samuel’s replacement at H-back. That strategy was turned on its head recently since McCall has spent most of his time with the receivers.
But, the reasoning behind the position change makes sense when you consider freshman running back J.K. Dobbins’ breakout spring and fall camps. Alford said that he realized Dobbins’ potential around two weeks ago. That timeline coincides with when McCall’s time was allotted primarily to the H-back group.
“You have a little more comfort in allowing (McCall) to leave the room more and learn another position that would be good for him and for our football team,” Alford said. “But at the same time, you feel like you have enough depth in the running back room that you’re able to do that and cross-train a little bit more.
Along with Dobbins, sophomore running back Antonio Williams has worked hard and had a good offseason, according to Alford.
“(Williams) seems much more comfortable in what we’re asking him to do,” Alford said. “(His) blocking, he’s making plays, his body weight, all those things are right. He’s gotten faster and trimmed.”
Last year, Williams was buried on the depth chart, rushing just six times for 28 yards. This year, he’ll once again be a backup, this time behind Weber and Dobbins. But unlike last year, Alford and the coaches feel confident in the North Carolina product. That seems to have resulted in the coaches moving McCall from running back to H-back.
“Remember now, when we started this thing last year, no one in our room had ever taken a college snap, Alford said. “And now, you’ve got some seasoned guys that have played a little bit.”
Antonio Williams dealing with being the odd man out
If you have spent a year on a team, like Williams has, and a freshman, such as Dobbins, comes in and passes you on the depth chart, that could have a detrimental effect to the mind of the player who was passed on the depth chart.
But Alford has a simple answer to how he handles that type of situation and, according to the coach, it seems to be working.
“Here’s the deal, if you don’t like the lot that you’re in, change. Get better. And he has,” Alford said. “But don’t come in and (say), ‘Well I don’t like my situation.’ Well I can’t help you. Get better. Improve. Study. And he’s done those things.”
After Friday’s practice, Williams admitted he was frustrated at the beginning of last year, but quickly adjusted, acknowledging he could learn a lot while sitting on the bench.
“I think that, you bring a young guy (in), J.K. coming in, that ramps up everybody,” Alford said. “They see somebody else making plays, well I better make mine too. And (Williams) has.”