Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott, left, is one of a number of options the Buckeyes are relying on in the backfield to replace Carlos Hyde. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)
Columbus, Ohio — Without brawny Carlos Hyde and his 1,521 yards rushing, many Ohio State fans expected the worst out of the tailback position this season.
So far, it’s been a bright spot.
“Last year, we had a guy who was a 20- or 25-carry guy,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. “We have some pretty capable players. We also don’t have that body type to go just slam it in there so many times. We’re going to wait and see.”
Rather than one power back to shoulder the load, Meyer has at least three players he can count on at tailback, not to mention speedsters such as Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall at the H-back spot.
Linebacker Chase Williams, who will lead Virginia Tech up against the Buckeyes on Saturday night, doesn’t believe No. 8 Ohio State has lost much without the graduated Hyde and with the season-ending injury to QB Braxton Miller.
“It seems like a similar offense. They’re fast. They’re athletic,” he said. “They’ve always got somebody they can plug in who can go out and make plays.”
The Ohio State coaching staff was pleased with the job done by all of the backs in Saturday’s 34-17 win over Navy, starting with Ezekiel Elliott, who gained 44 yards on 12 carries including a 10-yard touchdown run.
Elliott, a sophomore out of St. Louis, is the team’s leading returning rusher after gaining 262 yards in 11 games last year. He’s roughly 10 pounds lighter than the 235-pound Hyde and less of an inside-the-tackle runner. But he’s still trying to copy aspects of what Hyde gave the Buckeyes.
“(I’m following) just a little bit of his style,” Elliott said during fall camp. “Just how much of a bruiser he was and how good he was on contact. That’s something I want to add to my game.”
But it’s not as if Elliott has a lock on the position. He’ll get his carries, but unless he just goes off statistically, he’ll likely share the spot.
Rod Smith — a fifth-year senior who at one point was barely on the roster — is now in the thick of things at the position.
Meyer has long said before players get critical time at the skill positions, they first must lay it on the line on special teams. Based on that, Smith has made a dramatic climb up the depth chart.
“Rod Smith had the play of the day,” Meyer said of the Navy game, bypassing linebacker Darron Lee’s 61-yard fumble return or Devin Smith’s 80-yard TD catch from J.T. Barrett. “He held a block on a punt return for 11 seconds. And the way we do our business here, that entitled him to some carries.”
Meyer, in his 13th year as a head coach and 29th coaching at the college level, called it “one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen.”
Rounding out the top three candidates at tailback is flashy freshman Curtis Samuel, who had a fine college debut. He collected 45 yards on just seven carries, coming in against a tired defense with a distinct advantage in quickness and speed.
Samuel, out of Brooklyn, New York, believes he can provide a jolt to the running attack.
“Just being able to take a little tight zone play and turn it into an explosive play of more than 12 yards,” he said.
Despite what the fans might think, the top three tailbacks are confident. They don’t believe there’s been any falloff at the position.
“I have to say the expectations are high,” Samuel said. “We have a goal that we want to reach. We’re chasing it.”