The plight of the backup running back position at Ohio State took something of a parabolic arc this season.
Throughout fall camp, head coach Ryan Day challenged someone to step up and become the player who could give junior star J.K. Dobbins a rest in a potentially crucial situation.
Ohio State found its man in redshirt freshman Master Teague, who, without even a mention from position coach Tony Alford about having the backup spot just a week before the Buckeyes’ opening game, racked up a Big Ten seventh-best 789 yards on the ground.
Entering the College Football Playoff semifinal, Teague was beginning to gear up for the new role of Buckeye starter come 2020.
“It’s starting to hit me a little bit,” Teague said. “It’s getting close to that time, so I just want to be ready, do all I can just to help the team any way I can.”
But when his most important reps of the season came after Dobbins limped back to the locker room following an ankle injury in the Fiesta Bowl, Teague couldn’t produce. He ran for just 9 yards on seven carries against Clemson.
Still, Teague appears the frontrunner to replace a man who set the all-time single-season rushing mark at Ohio State, even if the program is losing more than it gains.
“J.K. does a great job of leading him. Even at practice, he’s always on him, making sure he’s doing stuff right, so next year, there’s no doubt in my mind he’s gonna be ready,” redshirt sophomore offensive guard Wyatt Davis said.
With an injury that kept him from practicing in fall camp, Teague seemed to possess the same, if not worse, prospects to capture the backup job as redshirt junior DeMario McCall and freshmen Marcus Crowley and Steele Chambers.
But after running for 7.4 yards per carry in the season’s opening three games including a 106-yard performance against Indiana, Teague quickly found solid footing.
Teague had 100-plus total yards three times and rushed for at least 75 on six occasions to go along with four trips to the end zone.
“He just runs hard, man. He’s a hard runner, puts his nose down, and take a couple guys with him,” Davis said. “I would definitely say he probably surpassed everybody’s expectation.”
For a man who had no hard time running over opposing defenders for most of the season, Teague faced challenges gaining traction during the final stretch of the Buckeyes’ season.
In the final three games when Teague took a handoff –– Penn State, Michigan and Clemson –– the Tennessee native had his worst games of the year, running for barely more than 2 yards per carry to gain just 45 yards on 21 attempts.
With Teague’s Clemson performance particularly worrisome, the Buckeyes may see more of a run-by-committee approach out of the backfield in 2020.
With McCall not showing signs of improvement, Crowley established himself as the next most productive back for the Buckeyes this season, averaging 9.5 yards per carry on 25 attempts.
However, an injury against Maryland ended Crowley’s season early, which could mean a leg up for Chambers to get a head of steam for the backup job this offseason.
“Master, he’s definitely a guy that works hard. He really worked hard in the offseason, so if I take that same mentality, I think I can do the same thing,” Chambers said.
Both Chambers and Crowley entered as four-star prospects, and they’ll have a season of experience in the program before three-star Cincinnati native Miyan Williams arrives on the scene as the Buckeyes’ lone running back recruit in their 2020 class.
For a team that ran the ball nearly 20 more times a game than it passed this year, Ohio State may be facing more of a question mark at the running back position than it did before Dobbins joined the program.
If the team hopes to have similar success running the ball, its backs must all adopt the philosophy that Teague echoed all season long.
“I just wanted to be there because if you get in, you gotta be prepared, no matter if you’re warm or not,” Teague said. “You gotta get in there and make plays and help prepare for excellence.”