It’s no longer “J.K. all day” in the Ohio State backfield.
With former Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins heading to the Baltimore Ravens this fall, the Ohio State backfield is tasked with replacing one of the most productive running backs in Buckeye history. In his three seasons with the Buckeyes, Dobbins amassed the second-most yards in program history with 4,459 along with the fifth-most touchdowns with 43. He is the only running back in Ohio State history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons.
“It’s a concern when you lose so much production,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said in a March 2 press conference. “That position, when it comes time for the fall, is going to have to step up in a big way.”
Along with the loss of Dobbins, the Buckeye running back room has already dealt with an Achilles injury to redshirt sophomore Master Teague. Despite running backs coach Tony Alford saying Teague is on track with his rehab, his playing status this season remains up in the air.
If Teague is unable to play, it will be another crushing blow to the Buckeye backfield. He rushed for 789 yards and four touchdowns in a rotational role behind Dobbins last season.
However, the Buckeyes would still benefit from Teague’s leadership — something Alford said he relied on heavily while the players were away from campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Master is really the only guy who’s played an extensive amount of football so I’ve relied on him a lot for leadership,” Alford said in an April 22 conference call with media members. “He’s done a really outstanding job of reaching out and engaging the younger guys.”
The Buckeyes are also hoping that sophomore Marcus Crowley will be able to return after suffering a torn ACL in the Buckeyes 73-14 victory over Maryland in week nine of the 2019 season. Crowley rushed for 237 yards and a touchdown on just 25 carries in his freshman campaign.
With injuries to Crowley and Teague, the Ohio State running back room was in a shallow state with sophomore Steele Chambers being the only healthy running back on scholarship.
However, on March 14, former Oklahoma running back Trey Sermon announced that he would be joining the Buckeyes as a graduate transfer.
“When Trey became available, we did a lot of research,” Day said in an April 15 conference call with media members. “The people at Oklahoma had such great things to say about him. We know; we played against him and saw what he could do on the field. He’s a really good player.”
Sermon played a vital role in the Sooners’ offensive success in his three seasons with Oklahoma. The balanced back rushed for 2,076 yards and 22 touchdowns during his time in Norman, Oklahoma.
He will also provide the Buckeyes with key playoff experience as he played in College Football Playoff games in two of his three years at Oklahoma.
Alford recruited Sermon out of high school and said that he followed his career closely while he was at Oklahoma.
“I recruited him coming out of high school, Sprayberry High School down in Georgia, so I had a previous relationship with him.” Alford said. “I would like to think that the relationship that he and I fostered years ago played a little part in this.”
Sermon is likely to step into the starting role this season, but it’s unclear whether he’ll dominate the carries or if the Buckeyes will look to a running back-by-committee approach.
The Buckeyes had experience with both approaches during Day’s tenure as offensive coordinator and head coach. In 2018, Dobbins and then-senior Mike Weber shared the backfield as both surpassed 170 carries. Dobbins then took on a much more dominating role in 2019, when he became the first Buckeye with more than 300 rushing attempts since Eddie George in 1995.
If Ohio State takes a committee approach, Chambers, fifth-year Demario McCall and true freshman Miyan Williams may need to step into larger roles this season. Chambers and McCall both played in limited snaps last year, amassing just 37 carries combined.
Williams joins the Buckeyes as a three-star recruit out of Winton Woods High School in Cincinnati. He rushed for 5,823 yards and 68 touchdowns in his high school career.
McCall has seen his role diminish over his four years with the Buckeyes. In his freshman season, he carried the ball 49 times. Over the next three seasons, he had just 40 total carries combined.
Day said that McCall was primed to get snaps at both running back and in the slot as a wide receiver during the spring practices, however they were shut down after just three due to COVID-19.
“It’s something that we’ve always tried to find that role for him where he can be a running back and also be a matchup problem for teams,” Day said. “He’s going to play some running back. He’s going to line up at slot and do both of those things.”
Chambers made the most of his 19 carries in 2019, gaining 135 yards and a touchdown. With this strong production in limited carries, Chambers may be primed for a breakout 2020 season with an increased role.
“He’s a guy that you can see is going to be a good player. He’s a big back. He’s a big guy and wants to improve on his skills.” Alford said. “I thought the three practices that we did have in the spring, he was showing that he had definitely improved from the previous fall.”
With still plenty of uncertainty at the position, one thing will be for sure: everyone will need to be prepared to contribute.
“I’ve said this when J.K. was here, with Mike Weber and things like that, we don’t have any preconceived ideas of that we’re going to just run one guy,” Alford said. “They’re all going to get ready to play and they’re all going to be prepared to play.”