Ohio State running back Mike Weber stood silent with tears in his eyes, arms locked with his teammates as the Buckeyes sang “Carmen Ohio” after the Cotton Bowl win against USC.
It seemed to be a sign his time at Ohio State had just ended.
It was not.
About a week and a half later, Weber announced he would return to Ohio State. The emotions that led to many inferring he would leave were more the product of it being the end of the season, he said Friday.
“I think the emotions was just all bottled up from just the whole season and how it went down as far as injuries,” Weber said. “That was more of being proud of myself to fight back and be able to play and stuff like that. It was like everything put together really. It wasn’t just me deciding whether I would leave or stay.”
The decision to stay came as a surprise to many. Weber might be relegated to a backup role in 2018 behind freshman J.K. Dobbins, who led the team in both carries (194) and rushing yards (1,403). Another season as a backup at a position that is among the most physically demanding, when he could leave and have a chance to make money as a professional, seemed out of the question.
“I just felt like I had some stuff left over on the table to do here at Ohio State,” Weber said. “I got with [head coach Urban] Meyer and we had a good talk with [running backs coach Tony] Alford and my parents and I felt good about coming back and I feel like it was the right thing to do and that’s what I needed.”
When Weber talked with the coaches about the plans for the 2018 season, he wanted to learn about what would be his role. Though he was hampered by a hamstring injury for the start of 2017, Weber wasn’t able to match Dobbins’ carries once fully healthy. Dobbins finished each of the team’s last seven games with more carries than Weber.
But Weber believes the carries will start to balance out with the change of quarterback. Barrett was a mobile quarterback with a bulldozing mentality who could take the place of a third-down running back on short-yardage situations. Weber finished with fewer carries than Barrett both in 2016 as the starter at running back and in 2017 as the backup, despite averaging a combined 1.62 more yards per carry.
Next season, there will not be that bruising type of dual-threat quarterback to threaten him. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins is a pocket passer who will likely not be called on to plow ahead for a handful of yards or run the same read-options that Ohio State ran with Barrett. Freshman Tate Martell is a shiftier quarterback who would be able to do more in space and would not be as effective rushing up the middle.
“I just think the running will be more on me and J.K. and more passing down the field,” Weber said. “You want the ball in your hands. You want to show everybody what you can do and you want to help your team the best way you can.
“I feel like as the game goes on and situations go on, coaches call the plays and there’s only so much you can do as a player.”
There is no guarantee Weber won’t play second fiddle to Dobbins. However, he knows the change in quarterback will require a heavier reliance on the pair. When Barrett was injured against Michigan, Dobbins and Weber received nearly the same number of carries.
Then during the Cotton Bowl, there were several two-back sets where both Weber and Dobbins stood on either side of Barrett to give the Buckeyes a trio of potential rushing options.
Dobbins said Weber’s decision to stay creates an extra element for defenses to scheme against, not just added depth.
“It’s exciting because it’s going to take a lot of pressure off of just me, like they’re going to have to worry about the two of us because I’m sure coach Meyer will put in something that will have both of us on the field and that will be deadly to stop,” Dobbins said.
Weber is not returning to be the starter. At best, he will be the co-starter with Dobbins. At worst, he will watch Dobbins rack up about 300 carries and see action only when the explosive freshman needs rest.
But there is reason to believe Weber will produce more than the 626 yards on 101 attempts in 2017. He has one less rusher to compete against — Barrett — and will enter the season in full health.
It wasn’t an easy decision for Weber to come back. It might pay off. It might not. But now that he’s returning to the Buckeyes, he is just looking to help the team while simultaneously improving himself to improve his draft stock.
“I made a big jump from my freshman year to my sophomore year,” Weber said. “I got a lot faster, stronger, everything, but now [Meyer’s] message is really just to enhance that and go harder and get even better.”