Way Too Early Look: 2011 Running Backs

Herron may face an uphill battle to get his carries back once he returns from suspension.

The Buckeyes will be breaking in a new QB for the first five games in 2011. With a new QB throwing to an extremely inexperienced group of receivers, the running backs will be the focal point of the offense and Tressel will rely heavily on them to win games in September.

With the suspension of returning starter Boom Herron (216 carries, 1155 yards, 16 TDs), Ohio State will also be breaking in a new running back (or three). Unlike the QBs, however, the prospect of a new RB is mostly an exciting one for Buckeye Nation, particularly given the pool of talent waiting to show what they’ve got.

Fans got a glimpse of young players like Jaamal Berry (32 carries, 266 yards, 1 TD) and Jordan Hall (37 carries, 161 yards, 2 TDs) early in 2010, but once the Big Ten season was in full swing, they were relegated exclusively to special team duties.

Hall and Berry represent the lightning in Ohio State’s ground attack, but the Buckeyes can also bring the thunder. Carlos Hyde received limited opportunities last season (24 carries, 141 yards), but at 6′ tall and 238 lbs. he provides some muscle in short yardage situations.

Speaking of muscle, out of all the backs, the one that has not seen the field at all may receive the most buzz this offseason. That would be redshirt freshman Rod Smith. He was signaled out by many (including his teammates) as the most impressive back on the roster during bowl practice.

At 6’3″ and 220 lbs. it is easy to see why some fans are already comparing Smith to past greats like Eddie George. High praise indeed, and while comparisons to Heisman trophy winners are obviously premature, Smith is certainly a player to keep an eye on this spring.

With the quartet of Hall, Berry, Hyde and Smith, Ohio State has the talent and depth necessary to establish a dominating rushing attack in 2011. The most exciting thing may be the combination of speed and power that the different backs bring to the field.

If things go well, Herron might even have trouble breaking back into the starting lineup when he returns from suspension.

Here’s a closer look at each player.

#7 Jordan Hall

Junior

5’9″ 195 lbs.

If I had to guess who will be on the field for the first offensive snap against Akron, Jordan Hall would be it. He may not be the most exciting prospect of the bunch, but he is the most experienced and reliable. In Jim Tressel’s book, those two attributes go a long way.

Although Hall does not have game breaking speed, he is a well rounded back with great vision, balance, and instincts. He also has deceptive strength given his limited size. He can run between the tackles if necessary, although not quite as effectively as some of the bigger backs on the roster.

In many ways, Hall is similar to Herron in terms of running style. He won’t light the world on fire, but if you keep feeding him the rock, he will get you the yards you need.

In a backfield full of inexperience, having a consistent and relatively experienced player like Hall will be beneficial for the younger players.

#4 Jaamal Berry

RS Sophomore

5’10″ 200 lbs.

After injuries sidelined Berry during his freshman season in 2009, the talented youngster burst back onto the scene with 8.3 yards per carry in 2010. Berry was by far the most explosive RB on Ohio State’s roster last season. Without seeing a number or name, you could just tell when Berry was in the game due to the explosiveness and excitement he brought every time he touched the ball.

Berry was so impressive in his limited appearances that many fans were clamoring for him to start, or at the very least get more carries early in the year. As Herron picked up his performance late in the season, most fans were placated, but the impression Berry left remains.

With elite speed and explosive quickness the likes of which Columbus has not witnessed in some time, Berry has a tremendously high ceiling and expectations will be through the roof for him. Hall may have more experience, but Berry is arguably the most talented back on the roster.

#26 Carlos Hyde

He changed his # mid-season.

Sophomore

6’0″ 238 lbs.

If you could judge a player’s performance based on looks alone, Hyde would be the next Beanie Wells.

He looks the part on the field, but the production just hasn’t been there to date. Then again, the opportunities to produce just haven’t been there either. Like the rest of the backs, the opportunities for Hyde will increase drastically in 2011.

As mentioned, Hyde is a big back that provides the Buckeyes with plenty of muscle in short yardage situations. He runs with power and quick feet, which allow him to make cuts in traffic and to break tackles when necessary. He won’t overwhelm anyone with his speed, but Hyde may be the best ‘between the tackles’ runner on the roster.

Since Hall and Berry represent smaller, quicker running styles, Hyde may find a niche as the go-to back in short yardage situations. Best case scenario: Hyde masters the infamous ‘Dave’ play and turns it into a yardage machine. Where smaller backs would get bottled up in traffic (which is what almost always seems to happen) Hyde could break through.

Consistently finding success with short yardage ‘Dave’ plays seems almost too good to be true, but hey, it’s the offseason and we can dream.

#24 Rod Smith

RS Freshman

6’3″ 220 lbs.

The unquestioned star of ‘showtime’ (bowl practice set aside for the younger players to show what they’ve got), Rod Smith received rave reviews from his teammates. Unfortunately, few outsiders are privy to watching practice, and following a redshirt season, it is difficult to assess where Smith is at compared to the rest of the running backs.

Based on pure talent alone, it seems likely he could compete for playing time right away in 2011. However, as the case of Jaamal Berry showed us last season, sometimes it takes more than pure talent to crack the starting lineup at Ohio State.

How well Smith picks up the playbook, and specifically how well he picks up the pass blocking schemes, could be the difference between being a part of the ‘pair and spare’ and mop up duty.

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Given the ‘pair and a spare’ philosophy that Jim Tressel likes to use, I would not be surprised to see one of the ‘quick’ backs and one of of the ‘big’ backs receiving a majority of carries once the season rolls around. Then again, the level of talent in the 2011 backfield is unprecedented (at least during the Tressel era), so who knows how the coaches will deal with the potential log jam.

On the one hand, too much talent and not enough carries to go around is a good problem to have. On the other, transfers are a very real possibility.

Regardless, the battle for the starting spots this spring will be intense. Like the quarterbacks (and most positions this offseason), the progress of the running backs will worth tracking closely.

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