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Football: The curious case of Demario McCall, Ohio State’s enigmatic playmaker

Ohio State freshman running back Demario McCall (30) runs in a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Rutgers on Sep. 30. Ohio State won 56-0. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

Not many people can slow Demario McCall down.

The sophomore H-back has dazzling speed. He averaged six yards on 63 carries and 22.5 yards per catch on six receptions in his first two seasons at Ohio State.

But last year, McCall dealt with an obstacle that not only slowed him down, but shut him down, ending his season nearly before it even began. A day after the 2017 spring game, he underwent groin surgery to repair a sports hernia. He never fully recovered and said it continued to bother him “on-and-off.”

After serving as running back Mike Weber’s backup as a freshman, many people expected McCall to take a significant offensive role in 2017. H-back Curtis Samuel and wideouts Dontre Wilson and Noah Brown left for the NFL, opening extra touches for playmakers like McCall. His anticipated leap never happened, though.

McCall’s health prevented him from taking a major role in Ohio State’s offense. Instead, the Buckeyes relied upon Weber and freshman J.K. Dobbins at running back and Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill at H-back. The team also relied on Campbell and Weber as primary kick returners, and Hill as the primary punt returner.

McCall did not touch the ball for the first three weeks of the season, then he caught one pass against UNLV in the fourth week of the season. The next week against Rutgers, McCall racked up a team-high 103 yards on 11 carries, including a 48-yard touchdown, and a 35-yard touchdown catch.

Even after his dominance of the Scarlet Knights, head coach Urban Meyer expressed skepticism about McCall’s health.

“He’s got more in the tank than what I saw,” Meyer said after Ohio State’s game against Rutgers. “So, you know, in that one where he broke away, usually he’s out. We’re still fighting through that thing. He’s doing a good job trying to fight through it.”

McCall had three carries the following game, but never played again the remainder of the season. The Buckeyes opted to use a medical redshirt on McCall instead of hoping he could finally overcome the groin injury, Meyer said.

Ohio State redshirt freshman running back Demario McCall (30) waits to return a kick in the third quarter of the Ohio State- UNLV game on Sep. 23. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

The health issues were exacerbated by the difficulties McCall was already experiencing as he attempted to transition to H-back from running back, the position he played in high school.

McCall said the coaching staff caught him off guard a few weeks into the season when he was told he would move away from running back to become a full-time slot receiver. That shift required a mindset adjustment because, as McCall said, “Once a tailback, always a tailback.”

“I still had to work on myself becoming a receiver and not a tailback because I had the mindset of ‘I’m a tailback, but I’m going to help the receivers.’ That’s one thing that I had to change,” McCall said after the Cotton Bowl. “Now that I know that I’m a receiver, I had to put more work into jugs, route-running, top ends, just things like that.”

Whether McCall will be able to show off those improvements remains uncertain. The same players as last season — Hill and Campbell — will presumably remain ahead of him on the depth chart entering next season. And given his diminutive 5-foot-9, 195-pound frame and Meyer’s penchant to play receivers who have blocking skills, McCall must overcome inexperience, injury and stature to earn playing time.

The Buckeyes struggled to find a consistent top option in the passing game last season. Not many players have a higher top-end speed than Campbell, but he struggled to catch the ball. Hill has great hands, but lacks explosion. On the outside, wideouts Terry McLaurin, Austin Mack, Binjimen Victor and Johnnie Dixon each had standout moments, but no one made consistent plays.

McCall might be the missing playmaker if given the opportunity.

But regardless of the amount of touches he receives, McCall has only one goal in 2018, and it does not involve carries, catches or returns.

“Physically, I want to be 100 percent healthy,” McCall said. “Without being 100 percent healthy, you’re a step behind. And that’s one thing I don’t want to be is a step behind because I was a step behind or two this year. It’s not a good feeling.”

The speedy McCall is not used to being a step behind. Against Rutgers on Sept. 30, the only players a step behind wore Scarlet Knight uniforms.

He might not have a clear path to playing time, but McCall’s inarguable talent with a regained burst offers Ohio State an intriguing weapon in 2018 it could not unleash last season.

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