COLUMBUS – At the beginning of last season, Ohio State knew it would have to replace running back Carlos Hyde temporarily when he was suspended for two games after an incident in a nightclub.
This season the vacancy is permanent and the replacements are unproven or inexperienced.
Filling the hole left in the Buckeyes offense by the departure of Hyde for the NFL after his senior season is one of the biggest questions for OSU, which began practice on Monday.
Once he returned from the suspension Hyde, a second-round draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers, had the kind of year that would have put him in the Heisman Trophy discussion if he had played the whole season. He rushed for 1,521 yards in 12 games and 15 touchdowns.
The possible replacements start with sophomore Ezekiel Elliott, who gained 262 yards as a freshman, but 162 of those yards came in a 76-0 win over enormously overmatched Florida A&M. Rod Smith got 45 of his 117 yards for the season in that game and Warren Ball picked up 49 of his 76 yards season total against A&M.
Bri’onte Dunn is coming off a mid-career redshirt season and freshman Curtis Samuel, who enrolled in January, has been so impressive that Meyer said he “stole his heart” during a recent interview on ESPN.
“I’m a little concerned,” Meyer said about his running backs. “I see several talented players, but for some reason they haven’t played very well. I’m honest. When someone says why isn’t a guy playing, I can give you a lot of reasons, but he’s just not good enough to play. It’s not because he’s a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior. When you’re not playing it’s because you’re not good enough to play.”
Meyer says Elliott is not yet the designated starter. “He hasn’t earned it yet,” he said. And he says OSU will probably rotate running backs.
A hint of who is leading the running backs competition might have come from quarterback Braxton Miller. When he was asked about OSU’s ball carriers at last week’s Big Ten football media days, the first name out of his mouth was Elliott.
Smith, a senior, came to Ohio State with big expectations. But some fumbles early in his career and some off the field issues, combined with a lack of production, have pushed him to the background throughout his career.
The low point came when he missed the flight to the Gator Bowl in 2011 and barely kept his spot on the roster when Meyer took over. This year he did not participate in spring practice to concentrate on academics.
Smith, Dunn and Ball might be down to their last chance to earn a significant number of carries.
“I’m a little concerned,” Meyer said about the backfield situation. “I see several talented players but for some reason they haven’t played very well.
“We have three guys who have been here a couple years and haven’t played. It’s not because of Carlos Hyde. If you’re a great player, we can do something to get you on the field,” he said.
• SPRINKLE BACK: Redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Tracy Sprinkle has been reinstated to the team but will be suspended for the opener against Navy, Meyer said on Monday.
Sprinkle was suspended indefinitely after facing drug and rioting charges after being arrested in a brawl outside a Lorain bar earlier this summer. But following a plea to a misdemeanor charge of failure to disperse, a clean drug test and an Ohio State investigation, he is back on the team.
• EXTRA YEAR: Linebacker Darron Lee and defensive tackle Michael Hill received medical redshirt seasons from the NCAA. Tight end J.T. Moore’s playing career is over because of a knee injury and he will be a student coach this season.
• MOVING UP: Freshman linebacker Raekwon McMillan and freshman wide receiver Johnnie Dixon practiced with the veterans on the first day of practice.