Ohio State football history highlights one tailback. What about now? – The Columbus Dispatch

  • September 16, 2022

Ernest Hemingway might have been a better listener than writer, which is saying something. Papa’s advice to mankind, beyond living life to its fullest, was to listen completely when people talk.
“Most people never listen,” Hemingway said.
Too often we only hear. But when we listen, we learn.
Listen to Ohio State football coach Ryan Day talk about platooning his two tailbacks, TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams:
“It’s gone about the way we expected,” Day said this week in preparation for Saturday’s Game against Toledo. “If you’re starting to lean on one guy too much, then that can hurt you late in the season, so we split the carries the best we can and keep them fresh week in, week out.”
Learn anything?
Based on Day’s comments, fans can expect to see Williams in the backfield almost as often as Henderson. Interesting. And slightly odd. 
Listen, it’s not that rotating running backs makes no sense; keep them fresh for when November weather can subvert a passing game that under perfect conditions is so otherworldly it should join the Avengers. The issue is more that Ohio State history does not exactly adhere to the “keep them fresh” formula, which makes me wonder what’s going on here. Maybe nothing. Maybe something. 
Yes, there is the adage that every offense needs “a pair and a spare,” meaning having two tailbacks good enough to play meaningful minutes and one serving as insurance in case of emergency. One starter goes down to illness or injury, the other steps in without missing a beat. If both tap out, the third is a solid placeholder until one of the other two returns. 
But seldom in OSU history has the pragmatic approach played out in full, because when you find an ultra-talented tailback you ride him all season. A sturdy backup certainly is important, because injuries happen. But splitting carries feels foreign in a program where traditionally one tailback has been the go-to guy.
Over the past decade, it was Trey Sermon late in 2020, J.K. Dobbins in 2017-19, Mike Weber in 2016, Ezekiel Elliott in 2014-15 and Carlos Hyde in 2013, even when Urban Meyer was using his quarterbacks (Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett) as running backs.
Going back further, Dan “Boom” Herron, Beanie Wells, Antonio Pittman and Maurice Clarett took most of the snaps. 
Then there are the 20th-century legends, including Eddie George and Keith Byars. Nothing against Pepe Pearson and John Wooldridge, but they mostly were rental plans in case George and Byars could not go.
And, of course, Archie Griffin was the featured back in the mid-1970s, even though fullback Pete Johnson often got his hands on the ball. More on that in a minute.
Through two games − yes, it’s early, but a trend is developing − Henderson has 25 carries for 178 yards (7.1 a carry). Williams has 22 carries for 130 yards (5.9). Henderson averages 1.2 yards more per carry but has only three more attempts, which raises the question of whether Henderson is good enough to be the guy.
 A five-star recruit out of Virginia who 247Sports rated the nation’s No. 1 running back, the sophomore has shown glimpses of greatness, rushing for 1,248 yards on 183 attempts in 13 games last season, averaging 6.8 yards per carry and 96.0 yards a game. But sometimes he lacks burst and vision. He has elements of both, but to what level of consistency has not been fully revealed.
Williams was the clear No. 2 last year, finishing with 508 yards on 71 attempts, less than half as many as Henderson, yet appears to have gained ground. Or has Henderson lost ground? Regardless, Day sees Williams as more than a mere contributor.
“He’s ahead of where I thought he would be, if you said six months ago where I thought Miyan would be,” Day said of the third-year tailback from Cincinnati. “I thought he had a really good spring and preseason, and because of that he’s playing well.”
As a fellow sports writer observed, “Every time someone talks about what a great surprise Miyan Williams, isn’t it a slap at Henderson?”
A couple of points: First, Day’s default preference is a pass-first offense, even if he keeps emphasizing a need to establish the run; seeing is believing, and Henderson’s 183 carries last season were the fewest by a featured back in a full, non-COVID season since Mike Weber had 182 in 2016. Some tailbacks improve as they get more carries. Maybe Henderson is one of them. But as things stand, he would get even fewer attempts this season.
Compare Henderson’s 183 rushing attempts in 2021 to some of OSU’s legendary tailbacks, including Elliott (289 in 2015), George (328 in 1995), Byars (336 in 1984) and Griffin (262 in 1975). Sharing was not part of their vocabulary.
Second, and this ties back to Griffin and Johnson alternating carries under Woody Hayes, it is possible that Day is driving toward a different kind of running game than his most recent predecessors implemented. Where Jim Tressel tended to feature one tailback, and Urban Meyer liked his running quarterbacks, at least until Elliott forced his hand, Day’s approach may be more along the lines of what Woody wanted, a 1-2 punch with a “Mr. Inside” (Williams) and “Mr. Outside” (Henderson) giving defenses two different looks. He used a form of that the last few seasons, with Master Teague serving as battering ram.
Listen again to Day.
“They’re (both) running hard and violent,” he said of Henderson and Williams. 
During the offseason, Day preached toughness, having been disappointed last year by the Buckeyes’ lack of “edge” in losses to Oregon and Michigan. It has been assumed his disgust mostly was with the defense, but OSU netted only 64 rushing yards against the Wolverines. Day wants his tailbacks to bowling-ball their way to yardage and knows that doing so requires two bodies, not one. Especially if either one is excellent but not exceptional.
That’s what I’m hearing through listening. What about you? 
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