No coach will ever complain about the problem of trying to find carries for a pair of explosive running backs, especially in the case for Ohio State.
Ohio State prepares to head into the Spring Game on Saturday with sophomore J.K. Dobbins and redshirt junior Mike Weber — the two most recent of the four freshmen running backs to rush for more than 1,000 yards in program history — both trying to edge one another out for the most snaps.
And while they always seem to get along well, they are competing fiercely for who is going to finish the 2018 season with the most carries.
Running backs coach Tony Alford wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If they didn’t want the ball and they didn’t want to play and they didn’t want to compete, then why the hell do I want them? I don’t want to be around you as a person,” Alford said.
During last year’s spring practices, Ohio State had a clear answer to who was going to carry the football. Though the team often leaned on quarterback J.T. Barrett for rushing yards, it was clear the overwhelming majority of the handoffs would be going to Weber, who was fresh off his 1,096-yard campaign.
But a hamstring injury limited Weber’s time in the summer and ultimately held him out for a lot of the earlier games in the season, pushing him behind Dobbins who took the chance at regular carries and ran with it.
As the season progressed, the issue became finding enough carries for three capable runners between Barrett, Weber and Dobbins. Weber does not believe that will be an issue in 2018.
“I feel like Coach [Urban Meyer] has a lot of more trust into his running backs and we’ve got less of a running quarterback now and we should get the ball a lot more,” Weber said Monday. “J.T. did a lot of the running. There was a lot of games that he had more carries than both [Dobbins and I] combined.”
Barrett outcarried Weber and Dobbins in just two games: the team’s losses to Oklahoma and Iowa.
Next year, however, that is far less likely to happen. If redshirt sophomore Dwayne Haskins takes the mantle of quarterback as Weber hinted, he will not have the legs to be used on a read-option or be an effective scrambler on a regular basis in the same way Barrett was.
The ball will more frequently be put in the hands of Ohio State’s dynamic duo of running backs.
“It’s the moment I’ve been waiting for since I got here to put the team on my back in the game and just be the workhorse,” Weber said. “That’s one of my goals and I asked for it. And hopefully I get it this year and show a lot of people what I can do.”
But the carries will not all be Weber’s. Last season, he outcarried Dobbins in just two games and averaged exactly 1 yard fewer per carry. Part of Weber’s diminished returns can be attributed to his hamstring injury, but Dobbins showed he will make things happen with the ball in his hands.
Weber looked faster and stronger later in the season, including in a breakout game against Michigan State in which he rushed for 162 yards on just nine carries while Dobbins took 18 carries for 124 yards. Just as it had been for much of the season, there was not a clear strategy for how the backs were used in the game. Both were used in short-yardage situations, early in drives and near the goal line.
More than anything, it just seemed the two alternated based on who was tired and needed a break. Moving into 2018, Alford said there is not really a set plan in place for how each back will be used.
“It just depends on the flow of the game and how things are going, and if we go back to that week [against Michigan State], that worked in our favor,” Alford said. “It’ll be a week-by-week deal. They’re both going to play, and they’re both going to play a lot.”
After the Michigan State game when it appeared Weber was fully healthy, speculation arose that Ohio State might deploy a two-back set with both Dobbins and Weber standing beside Barrett in the backfield. It wasn’t until the Cotton Bowl that the scheme was used.
“I think we’ll do the two-back thing regardless of quarterback,” Weber said. “Because we started it toward the end of the year last year. We just couldn’t get to it the way how the game went. I feel like we can get a lot to it this year.”
Both Weber and Dobbins will receive ample carries during the season. They each have proven they can make things happen with the ball in their hands.
But Alford is not going to give them the ball just because both have flashed greatness in the past and feel they deserve the carries. If he feels one is better, that running back will outcarry the other in a game. In another game, the two might split them evenly.
It is all about trying to find the best way to win the games. Alford said he is not going to give someone carries based on past successes or to keep someone happy in the locker room.
“I’m not in to keep people happy. And the guys that deserve to play are going to play. There’s going to be a lot of competition,” Alford said. “It’s not about keeping guys happy. Guys who produce are going to play. Guys that earn the right to play will play. And that’s not about keeping people happy. You’re happy when you win.”