Mike Weber entered his Ohio State career having to fill some big shoes.
Earning the starting running back job in 2016, his redshirt freshman season, with the departure of Ezekiel Elliott, Weber was filling in for a back who ran for more than 1,800 yards in consecutive seasons and went No. 4 in the NFL Draft.
Three seasons later, and Weber, now a redshirt junior, is following in his predecessor’s footsteps, forgoing his final season of eligibility for the 2019 NFL Draft following the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.
But Weber will not leave the program the same way Elliott did before Weber ever played a snap.
In Weber’s first season, he broke out for 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns, enough to help Ohio State reach the College Football Playoff for the second time.
A hamstring injury to begin his redshirt sophomore season was enough to permanently change the outlook for Weber’s collegiate career.
Weber missed the opening game against Indiana in 2017, allowing then-freshman running back J.K. Dobbins to earn the start and make an impact.
And make an impact he did.
Dobbins ran for 181 yards in the victory on 29 carries, enough to earn him a sizable role in the offense for the rest of the season. In 2017, Weber only earned more carries than Dobbins once, rushing 18 times for 82 yards against Nebraska.
The running back duo continued to split carries this season, with Dobbins entering the Rose Bowl at 223 carries, and Weber with 157.
Dobbins said he’s had no issue with the strategy.
“I am not a selfish person. I am a team player first,” Dobbins said. “Whatever the team needs to do to win a game, that’s what we’re going to do. If it’s him getting 30 carries and I get five, and if we win, im fine with it.”
Now, splitting carries or not, Weber is a game away from the end of his Ohio State career, and, unless he has the second-highest rushing game of his season, recording 162 yards against Michigan State on Nov. 11, he will end short of 1,000 rushing yards for the second straight year.
Weber said he still believes he hasn’t reached his full potential, and that his season did not go exactly as planned.
“I felt it was OK. Decent. I did what I could with the opportunities I had, and I just want to finish strong,” Weber said. “You start it, got to finish it.”
Having to finish what he started is why Weber will still be playing in the Rose Bowl instead of following in cornerback Denzel Ward’s footsteps from a season ago.
Ward decided to forgo the Cotton Bowl to avoid injuries heading into the draft. Defensive end Nick Bosa did the same by deciding to pull the plug on his Ohio State career this season, a few weeks after he sustained an injury in the team’s third game of the season against TCU.
Weber said in a tweet he has to finish what the team started this year, which includes a 12-1 record, a third-straight win against Michigan in Weber’s tenure and a Big Ten Championship, Weber’s second.
But Weber has a chance to do something more: To finish his Ohio State career as the back it looked like he could have been his freshman season.
With 142 yards, Weber can get the second 1,000-yard rushing season in his Ohio State career. With a big game in head coach Urban Meyer’s final game, Weber can prove he is worthy of a high-round pick in the NFL Draft.
Weber said on Wednesday before he made his announcement he would leave for the NFL, he wants to send his head coach out win a victory.
“That’s something that we take a lot of pride in,” Weber said. “I feel like he deserves it and so do we. So that’s the No. 1 goal.”
Though Weber has not been able to top his Second Team All-Big Ten season, he has made his mark in the backfield for the Buckeyes.
The redshirt junior heads into his final game with 2,580 rushing yards and 24 rushing touchdowns, averaging 5.5 yards per carry or more every season. He leaves with a 32-5 record in games he played in and he leaves a back who has faced adversity and a split backfield over the past two seasons.
Weber sees the Rose Bowl as just another opportunity.
“Every day is an opportunity. I just have to take advantage of it,” Weber said.
This time, it is Weber’s final opportunity to cement his legacy in an Ohio State uniform.