COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The offseason conditioning program is in full swing. Signing day has come and gone. Blink and spring practice will already be here.
Ohio State is less than a month away from getting back on the field and starting preparations for the 2014 season, and those days probably can't go by fast enough for a program coming off consecutive losses after a 24-game winning streak. To help pass the time, we're counting down the top five players who are facing critical springs, either because it's a turning point in their careers or because the Buckeyes are counting heavily on them to fill vacant jobs as they try to get back in contention for a national title again in the fall. The series rolls along today with another potential weapon on offense.
No. 3: Ezekiel Elliott, running back
By the numbers: There wasn’t an abundance of opportunity for the reserves in the Ohio State backfield, but Elliott made the most of the chances he did get as a true freshman, rushing 30 times for 262 yards with a pair of touchdowns.
What’s at stake: The starter and workhorse at running back is gone, and somebody is going to have to fill the large void Carlos Hyde leaves behind as he heads to the next level. The Buckeyes have plenty of options on hand, but given the relatively even playing field heading into spring, Elliott is staring at a golden opportunity to claim a starting job and keep the momentum rolling for one of the nation’s most potent rushing attacks. Bri’onte Dunn, Rod Smith, Warren Ball and Dontre Wilson are all factors for playing time at tailback as well, but Elliott’s 8.7 yards per carry off the bench during his first season with the program raised the already high expectations for his career and likely will give him the inside track. Wilson is certain to see more touches as a sophomore, but he remains more of a hybrid weapon in the spread offense, while Elliott could fit into the more traditional role Hyde filled as a partner to quarterback Braxton Miller on the ground over the last two seasons.
Best-case scenario: With such a deep stable of rushers, the Buckeyes don’t necessarily need to just settle on one guy to handle the majority of the workload at the position. But as Hyde helped prove at the end of his career, allowing a tailback to get into a rhythm throughout the game and to develop chemistry with Miller running the option has its benefits, offering some evidence that a clear pecking order on the depth chart would be valuable leaving spring practice. The competition is going to be heated, and older players such as Smith and Dunn won’t be lacking for motivation heading into a potential make-or-break camp in March. But Elliott is likely going to be the favorite, and having him solidify that status would no doubt be a relief for Ohio State.