- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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Breaking down the Ohio State roster as offseason conditioning wraps up, training camp draws closer and the program turns its attention to the opener on Aug. 31 against Buffalo.
Next in line: Charges won’t be filed against Hyde, but the asterisk will stick around just to note that he won't be around for at least the first three games after coach Urban Meyer suspended him anyway on Tuesday. The senior will clearly still be the feature back when he returns, but Smith will slide into the top spot for the start of the season and what was expected to be a close battle to be the third wheel would become a race for the backup job between Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball. More shuffling could conceivably be done, with senior Jordan Hall perhaps returning to the backfield on a full-time basis instead of focusing on the hybrid Pivot position.
New face: Ezekiel Elliott isn’t hurting for attention heading into his freshman season, but it’s a guy who will be splitting time between the running backs and the wide receivers who is generating by far the most buzz ahead of training camp. Dontre Wilson’s raw speed has had Ohio State coaches anxious to get their hands on him since national signing day, and his workouts this summer had veteran teammates raving about him last week at Big Ten Media Days. Meyer tried to tap the brakes a bit on all the hype, but it’s no secret Wilson is in line to touch the ball early in his career with the Buckeyes.
Recruiting trail: The Buckeyes don’t have a tailback in the fold yet for the class of 2014, but they have their eyes on a handful of ESPN 300 targets who could add to what will remain a deep stable of rushers. Hyde will graduate after this season. There are five offers still out for recruits ranked among the top 300 players in the country overall, with Donte Thomas-Williams (Durham, N.C./Hillside) currently boasting the best evaluation from ESPN scouts.
Flexibility: If Hyde handles his responsibilities away from the field and returns for the Buckeyes in time for Big Ten play, there is no doubt who will be the top option at tailback in the spread offense. But with or without him, there is plenty of depth at Ohio State, and Smith, Dunn and Ball could all be involved in some capacity either way. In fact, Meyer might turn as many as three of them loose at the same time if he deploys the diamond formation, which the Buckeyes tinkered with in the spring. It could take the option attack to a whole different level with Braxton Miller pulling the strings.
Meyer still hasn’t had a 1,000-yard running back in his career, a fact Hyde is certainly aware of. Had he not been injured early in his junior season or had a bowl to play in, Hyde would have been a lock to break that streak with his average of 97 yards per game. More company in the backfield could lead to fewer carries when he returns from suspension and might have made it a challenge to hit that milestone anyway, but the bar is even higher now.
Assuming Smith can keep a tighter grip on the football, the Buckeyes should have no second thoughts about putting it in his hands. In his limited role a year ago, the junior again showed that he has all the physical tools needed to be a star, averaging 6.7 yards per attempt. Fumble concerns kept him from really chipping away at Hyde’s workload, and that will remain the top priority for Smith moving forward.
Nobody saw more touches on the ground or racked up more yardage in that department than Ball in the spring game, another reminder that he could push for some action after sitting out last season following a foot injury suffered in training camp. The redshirt freshman rushed 11 times for 45 yards in the exhibition with a long of 15, which might not qualify as an earth-shattering performance, but an encouraging one for the Buckeyes nevertheless.
Big question: How will the Buckeyes spread the wealth?
The coaching staff obviously won’t have any complaints about their depth, but trying to keep so many talented rushers happy can become a bit of a headache when the cupboard is overflowing the way it is at Ohio State. Somebody is inevitably going to be left out of meaningful action, particularly with the Buckeyes likely expanding the offense to get more touches from Hall or Wilson at H-back and an improved passing game taking some of the burden off the ground attack. But Meyer has proven more than capable of pulling off the balancing act in the past, which is one significant reason why Meyer has never had a 1,000-yard tailback. The inclusion of a package that includes three running backs at once could help alleviate any potential hurt feelings.