- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- With spring practice in the books and Ohio State heading into its offseason conditioning program, BuckeyeNation is looking back at the players who boosted their stock with the program the most during those 15 invaluable workouts. The offense will go first this week, followed by a handful of defenders who will be in line for heavy workloads this fall as well.
Who: The Buckeyes had no need to stage a competition for the top job in the backfield with Carlos Hyde returning, and the athleticism Rod Smith brings to the table helped him stake an early claim to the backup job. But there were plenty of eyes on the young running backs trying to avoid getting crowded out in a stable of rushers that appears quite well stocked, and both Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball made cases to stay in the conversation heading into training camp. Dunn has already shown what he can offer after contributing on a limited basis as a freshman last fall, but Ball was more of a wildcard thanks to the foot injury that forced him to redshirt. While they certainly aren't carbon copies of each other, Ball and Dunn have similar body types and generated some positive buzz for their futures with hard-nosed running and an ability to break off some productive runs when space opened ahead of them. That only adds to the flexibility for the Buckeyes on offense.
Spring progress: Dunn wasn't pressed into duty much last season, but he did use his 25 carries to prove he's got potential with the football in his hands, picking up 133 yards and scoring a pair of touchdowns. He was also briefly an option on special teams, but the Buckeyes were looking for more focus and energy from Dunn during the spring as it gauged how much it could use him in the fall. The results, for the most part, were encouraging. The same was true for Ball, though he had much more to prove after suffering the physical setback during training camp last August. With Hyde held out of a handful of drills throughout camp in order to give the Buckeyes a chance to look at the other candidates for work behind him, Ball made the most of his opportunities and didn't give any more ground after missing his chance to shine early last season.
Jockeying for position: Hyde is the clear front runner, and Smith will take a lead into August as the second option in the backfield. But the Buckeyes appear to be much more comfortable with their depth at running back than they did a year ago, with Dunn and Ball locked in a tight battle to squeeze into the third spot -- which could get the winner on the field with coach Urban Meyer toying with some full-house packages.
He said it: "Warren Ball has shown the capability to be an explosive football player at times. I love the way he attacks defenders, I love the capability of hitting a home run from time to time. Bri'onte just brings that low pad level, move the ball 4 yards every time kind of demeanor. I think it's a fit for both of them, but I don't want them to be situational backs, though. I want them to present themselves as guys that can be in there in any given situation, and I think that might be what separates them in the future." -- running backs coach Stan Drayton
Closing number: The passing game was the top priority for the Scarlet squad in the spring game, leaving Dunn with few opportunities to generate momentum heading into the summer as a rusher. The sophomore finished with just two carries for 8 yards, but he did add 61 yards on five receptions out of the backfield and was a valuable weapon as a check-down target. Ball had more work for the Gray, and he averaged more than four yards per carry while getting the ball 11 times, also chipping in 17 yards on two receptions.
4dBrian Bennett and Josh Moyer