- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The first test wasn't aced, but Jordan Hall certainly passed it with relative ease.
The fifth-year senior shook off the rust from his injury-plagued season a year ago and again looked comfortable, confident and healthy with the football in his hands. He also appeared to be more than just a stand-in with Ohio State's projected starter at running back and the top backup on the shelf, turning in the finest rushing performance of his career. And if there was any doubt about his ability to handle a full-time load and work between the tackles, the durability he showed while playing a complete game in searing heat while dashing for a pair of long touchdowns up the middle of the field erased those fears.
Officially the grade from the coaching staff was 81 percent, and that number is a more legitimate evaluation of how the Buckeyes rated his production than the 159 yards or two scores he provided on 21 carries. And for now, it will keep him at the head of the class as the stakes go up and No. 3 Ohio State starts adding some missing pieces back to its rushing attack.
"I’ve got a lot to get better at," Hall said. "There were a couple good runs, but I’ve still got a lot of work to do personally.
"This is what I’ve been doing is playing football, so it feels natural to me for me to be back there. But it was fun to be back out there with the team again."
Rod Smith hasn't been gone as long as Hall, but he'll be the first of Ohio State's two tailbacks to return to the fold and perhaps shake up the rotation as the game plan for Saturday's home date with San Diego State is installed this week.
Smith missed the opener due to a suspension for a violation of team rules earlier this year, missing out on what could have been a prime opportunity to show he's ready for an expanded role after playing infrequently in support of Carlos Hyde last season. Instead it was Hall shifting from his expected role as a hybrid weapon at the H-back position, shining in the backfield and giving Ohio State something else to think about as its options expand.
Hyde will have to sit two more weeks before he can rejoin the rotation as he serves his three-game suspension for an off-field incident in July. But as Smith might find out on the practice field this week, the Buckeyes don't appear to be in a hurry to remove Hall from the equation given his strong debut against Buffalo.
"What they do is they have to come in and earn the position back," running backs coach Stan Drayton said. "Nothing is given to those guys. We have a philosophy that if you want to play your respective position, you have to provide some value to this team on special teams -- that is truly the philosophy here.
"So, if Carlos Hyde gets reinstated and he can add some value to our special teams, then great. We'll sit there and we'll take a good look at where he stands in that running back group. ... With the addition of Rod Smith coming back, it doesn't necessarily mean that Jordan Hall's role gets lesser. No, it just may be distributed a little bit differently throughout the scheme."
Hall's ability to move around the formation and fill a dual-threat role as a receiver and rusher obviously adds flexibility to the scheme. It isn't, however, the only variable Drayton and the coaching staff will have to sort out.
Smith is a more physical presence, capable of breaking tackles at the second level and moving the line of scrimmage in short-yardage situations, which isn't a strong suit for Hall. The Buckeyes also still have true freshmen Dontre Wilson and Ezekiel Elliott pushing for touches along with redshirt freshman Warren Ball, all of whom saw action against Buffalo and bring something to the table.
Eventually the picture should come into clearer focus in the backfield, even though squeezing a couple more talented, big-bodied running backs might make it hard for everybody to stay in the frame. But for now, Hall is right in the middle and smiling brightly.
"There are running backs that didn’t get on the field, but coach Drayton is straight down the middle with us if there’s something you’re not doing," Hall said. "It’s competition in the room, we’re all tight, but we know when we step on the field, you’ve got to make plays and make stuff happen.
"So, I’m just going to go to whatever position they put me at and try to make plays."
Based on the early grades, nobody on offense made more than Hall on the first test. The next assignment is measuring himself against the new students.
4dDan Murphy and Austin Ward