Ohio State Buckeyes: ezekiel elliott

Picks to click: Week 8

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
11:00
AM ET
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- After a second bye week, Ohio State has been itching to get back to work and keep the ball rolling after winning its Big Ten opener. If the Buckeyes are going to stay unbeaten in the league after Saturday's matchup with Rutgers, these guys figure to play significant roles.

TE Jeff Heuerman
  • The veteran's injured foot took longer to fully heal than previously anticipated, but Heuerman looks healthy and ready to add yet another dimension to Ohio State's rapidly improving offense. With J.T. Barrett at quarterback, the Buckeyes have played some of their best football by pushing the tempo, and Heuerman's versatility is key in helping to ramp up the pace given his skills as both a blocker and a receiver. Heuerman is too big to be covered by a defensive back, he's too athletic for a linebacker to handle one-on-one -- and might also be just the answer the Buckeyes need to shore up some inconsistency in the red zone.
DT Michael Bennett
  • Thanks to relatively modest numbers at this point, the senior has somewhat fallen off the awards radar at this point of the season. But the same ability that made him a preseason All-America candidate is still there, and it shows up at least a couple times per game even if it doesn't produce individual statistics. Bennett still has 3 tackles for a loss and a sack to his credit, and Ohio State's blowout wins have given him rest late in games, but his work occupying blockers down after down has helped Joey Bosa and other blitzers keep quarterbacks off balance. When a team stops paying extra attention to him, Bennett still has the speed and strength to slice into the backfield and make some noise.
RB Rod Smith
  • The majority of the backfield workload will continue to be on Ezekiel Elliott's shoulders, but the former ESPN 150 recruit is finally showing signs of living up to his promise and carving out a role for himself in his final season. The process actually started by proving he could be trusted with special teams playing time, and now Smith might be in position to become Ohio State's short-yardage and goal-line finisher with his tough running between the tackles. Smith has scored a rushing touchdown in each of the last three games and has also grabbed one as a receiver this season, making him yet another threat that a defense must account for.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

June, 9, 2014
Jun 9
4:30
PM ET
Mondays stink. Except when it's mailbag time. Which it is right now. Go.

Mitchell C. from Parts Unknown writes: How confident should Ohio State be coming into the third year with Urban Meyer and five new starters on defense and six new starters on offense? And will new RB Ezekiel Elliott be like Carlos Hyde and live up to the (production) he left behind?

Brian Bennett: Those are good questions, and they are why I find the 2014 Buckeyes to be one of the most fascinating teams in the Big Ten and the nation. A lot of people assume that Ohio State won't drop off at all from the first two seasons under Meyer, but the team is dealing with a lot of turnover and counting on numerous young players to step forward. Yet there is serious reason for optimism. For one, those young players are incredibly talented and athletic, which can help make up for a lot of mistakes. The coaching staff is also a proven commodity. For example, while the offensive line replaces four starters, position coach Ed Warriner faced similar questions two years ago and quickly turned that unit into the best offensive line in the Big Ten for two years running. Elliott might not match Hyde's numbers, both because Hyde put up huge stats and because Ohio State is likely to spread the ball out a bit more than it did in 2013. But he's another prime example of the immense potential on hand.

With all that talent and coaching, the Buckeyes should feel optimistic about 2014. Unless Braxton Miller gets hurt. Then all bets are off.


Christopher from Middleton, Wis., writes: I was reading your take on the Athlon Big Ten predictions, and I have to tell you that your take on Wisconsin's QB situation is a bit off the mark but is similar to what I am reading from other Big Ten predictors. Joel Stave is playing his third year. In 2012, his QB rating was 148.3, and his stats were comparable to Devin Gardner. In 2013, Stave was fourth in the Big Ten in QB rating at 138.1. Statistically, he was ranked sixth in the B1G because Wisconsin ran the ball (so well). With the above in mind how can QB be a major concern? Keep in mind that Wisconsin has basically its entire offensive line back and should be deeper and healthier, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement should challenge if not beat the rushing record set by James White and Gordon. The issue at Wisconsin is not that the QB position is weak but that it has lots of competition. Stave does have his weaknesses and I hope he overcomes them or is beat out by Tanner McEvoy, but the QB position should not be a concern.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
David Manning/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin QB Joel Stave will serve as the backup to Tanner McEvoy as the Badgers open Big Ten play.
Brian Bennett: One thing we can agree on about Stave is his experience should help him. Last year was his first as a full-season starter after he got knocked out early in 2012 because of an injury. And when Stave is on, he shows good arm strength and decision-making. Unfortunately, what we saw from Stave on the field last year didn't always line up with some of the stats you mentioned. Several times he misfired on completely wide-open receivers down the field as defenses keyed on that running game. (What would Jared Abbrederis' numbers have looked like had Stave hit him in stride all those times he had gotten behind defenders?).

Stave played poorly in the upset loss to Penn State to end the year and against South Carolina, causing Gary Andersen to say the team needed better play from its quarterback position. There's a reason the Badgers opened up the quarterback competition this spring despite having a veteran starter. And Stave's shoulder injury is worrisome.

Maybe Stave gets healthy and builds upon his experience. Or maybe McEvoy steps in and plays well. But you're talking about one guy who has yet to put it all together and another who has never done it at this level. That's why there are legitimate reasons for concern at the quarterback spot in Madison, before we even get to the pressing issue of who is going to catch the ball for Wisconsin. That's a big reason why I'm a little surprised by all the rosy preseason projections for the Badgers.


DJ from Minneapolis writes: I have to slightly disagree with you about Minnesota not seeing a benefit to an early signing period. As Brady Hoke mentioned, they might have to start allowing earlier or summer visits which would be a big boon to Minnesota. It would show all of the recruits in the South that it isn't actually minus-40 degrees 365 days a year here like a lot of people make it out to be.

Brian Bennett: DJ, I think you might be conflating two different issues here. As I mentioned in my early signing day piece, schools that are farther away from major talent bases (i.e., Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, etc.) wouldn't see as much benefit with an early signing period without the corresponding move of allowing for earlier official visits. (Adam did a great job of exploring that issue in this post). Right now, prospects can't take official visits (i.e., have their trips paid for by the school) until the start of their senior year in high school. It's difficult and expensive for many prospects, especially ones who live in the South and in other far-flung locales, to visit northern schools like Minnesota on their own dime. They can often take unofficial trips to schools closer to their hometown with far less hassle, however.

That's why, if there's an early signing period -- especially one in the summer before a prospect's senior year as the ACC has proposed -- kids could be inking their national letters of intent before ever getting on a plane to Minneapolis. The Gophers would stand to gain if prospects could receive a paid trip to their campus in the spring and summer, when it's a great time to be in the Twin Cities. Those earlier visits, then, loom as even more important for a school like Minnesota than an early signing period would be.


Spencer from Lincoln, Neb., writes: On your piece about impact freshmen, I noticed you left off Tanner Farmer. My question is: Why? The kid is a beast of a specimen. Athletic. Big. He is your typical Midwest hard-working player. He even benches 500 pounds! Name another one of your impact freshmen you chose that can do that.

Brian Bennett: Spencer, I am very intrigued by Farmer and think he can end up being a cult hero to Nebraska fans. We didn't have time or space in that post to mention every promising freshman in the league, though, and it's much tougher for a first-year player out of high school to make a big impact on the offensive line than it is for just about any other position, save perhaps defensive tackle. Farmer could be an exception. We shall see.


Joel L. from Tuscola, Ill., writes: In regards to Tim Beckman's job status: I think from the perspective of a huge Illinois fan the situation is actually going to be very difficult for Mike Thomas. I will say before I start here if we win 4 games or less I think Thomas' hands are tied and he will have to let Beckman go because the attendance will be dismal and it will probably affect season ticket sales the next year. If I had to guess, we will most likely end up with five wins this season. That will cause a major predicament for Thomas because Beckman's recruiting class next year is actually going to be very solid, especially with offensive talent that Bill Cubit (who is the mastermind of the offense) will be able to use immediately. That is where the problem will lay for Thomas, because Beckman really could turn this around in year 4, but Illinois fans are ruthless and if we do not make a bowl game this year people will go absolutely nuts if he is retained.

Brian Bennett: Some good points here, Joel, and I agree that five wins is kind of the fulcrum for Beckman in 2014. If that happens, I think a lot will depend on how that 5-7 season went down. Were the Illini highly competitive in their Big Ten games, especially against the best the league has to offer? Did young players show obvious development and improvement? Were fans responding in a positive way? You're right that Beckman could have his best and most experienced roster in 2015, and Thomas might be able to bank on that. However, three years without a bowl and a potential devastating hit to attendance and season-ticket sales might be too much to overcome.


Pat from Iowa City writes: Is it safe to say that AIRBHG is gone for good?

Brian Bennett: Oh, Pat, how dare you tempt the curse! You might have just woken that evil spirit from its peaceful slumber in that great cornfield in the sky. We apologize in advance to Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri, Damon Bullock, et al. Pay no heed to Pat's question, AIRBHG. We kneel and offer you this bushel of corn as a humble token of our appreciation for your recent mercy.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

May, 30, 2014
May 30
4:30
PM ET
The next time we meet (barring breaking news), it will be June. One month closer to the season.

Follow us on Twitter.

Looks like I made a few friends down South after this post.

To the inbox ...

Jonathan from San Antonio writes: While I get the irony of oversigning and then standing on "integrity" to complain about Franklin, do you get the irony of your article? You seem to defend Franklin's strategy based on the fact that others do it and that it's within the rules. Yet, you (Big Ten proponents and fans) complain about oversigning, when it too is a "others are doing it," and "it's within the rules" equally applies to that practice. So if you want the SEC to stop complaining about this particular issue (and join in), then the Big Ten needs to stop complaining about oversigning (and join in).

Adam Rittenberg: Jonathan, you can't possibly be equating oversigning to guest-coaching at another program's camp? Only one of those tactics hurts players. Only one involves dishonesty. My post had a heavy dose of sarcasm, but just to be clear, I don't like oversigning. I have no problem with guest-coaching at camps. Who does it harm? It's a brilliant move by James Franklin, and other coaches either have or will follow. The SEC should get rid of its rule and guest-coach as well. No issue there. These are two extremely different tactics, and only oversigning does real damage, in my view.


Tracie from Manhattan, Kan., writes: You obviously have a personal vendetta against the SEC and are using your public platform to voice your biased opinion. It's disappointing that ESPN allows this type of journalism to be on the website. The message that I received from this article is how jealous you are of the SEC and will try to put the conference down in order to make the Big Ten look better. What actually happened is you made the Big Ten look like all it can do to compete with the SEC is to try to find a loophole. Good luck in your future attempts at journalism, this was a complete fail. Go Hogs.

Adam Rittenberg: It's kind of funny, Tracie, because every third email I receive states how ESPN promotes the SEC whenever possible. I don't have a vendetta against the SEC. It's a great league with great coaches. It's also a league that doesn't get called out enough for things like this. People might think I'm a Big Ten homer for writing that post. Those who read me know that's far from the truth. The Big Ten is justifiably criticized for its missteps. The SEC seems to get a pass because it wins national championships. It's not a jealousy issue. The Big Ten is way behind the SEC when it comes to recruiting and winning. That's why Franklin's guest-coaching plan makes complete sense. The funny part is that the SEC, a league very good at football but also very good at bending recruiting rules to its advantage, has a problem with it. Woo Pig Sooie!


Zac from Colorado Springs, Colo., writes: No Ezekiel Elliott on your list? I know Meyer only has one 1,000-yard (running back) rusher all time, but Elliott is going to get the majority of the carries this year for the Buckeyes. He's more of a home-run threat than Hyde and I'm sure he'll get 1,000-plus this year.

Adam Rittenberg: I like your confidence, but I need to see more from Elliott to include him on the list of likely 1,000-yard rushers. I can't include every player who eclipsed 250 yards last year. The list becomes pointless. Elliott is a talented back, but 162 of his 262 rushing yards last year came against Florida A&M. He had more than two carries in only one Big Ten game, against last-place Purdue. I also think Ohio State will mix and match backs. So while Elliott could reach 1,000 yards, he needs to prove himself this season.


Kevin from Fort Myers, Fla., writes: Adam, I know there has been talk about [head coach Brady] Hoke being on the hot seat or even let go if there is another losing or unsatisfactory season. If this were to occur (knocking on wood), would there be a chance Coach [Doug Nussmeier] would take over, seeing how he has the résumé for it and that there was talk that his stop at U of M was just temporary until a college came for him as a head coach? Head coach of the Wolverines would be an attractive job for Nuss. ... Your thoughts?

Adam Rittenberg: It would be an attractive job, Kevin, but it won't happen for several reasons. The biggest one is simple logic. If Michigan is to consider Nussmeier for the top job, Nussmeier would have to perform well as offensive coordinator this season. And if the offense performs better, the team seemingly will, too. Michigan's defense should be as good and likely better than it was in 2013. The team's big issues are on offense. If those are rectified, the win total goes up and Hoke stays. Athletic director Dave Brandon does not want to fire Hoke, whom he hired. Plus, I'd be surprised if Michigan would replace Hoke with a first-time head coach.


Anthony from Columbus, Ohio, writes: It seems like whenever a Big Ten team has a successful year (aka beating Ohio State), that team always underperforms the next season. Penn State, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan have all made it to BCS bowls after winning against Ohio State, but didn't have the same success the next year. Do you think this will happen with Michigan State?

Adam Rittenberg: Interesting observation, Anthony, although I wouldn't say the 2011 Wisconsin team, which beat Ohio State in 2010 but repeated as Big Ten champion the following year, grossly underperformed. This seems more coincidental than anything else. Michigan State could take a step back if certain linebackers and defensive backs struggle, or if some of Connor Cook's near interceptions turn into actual interceptions. But I like how the Spartans, who have been very good at home under Mark Dantonio, get Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska on their home field.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Almost as soon as it arrived, spring camp at Ohio State wrapped up. Time isn't likely to fly by quite as quickly in the offseason with the summer months sure to drag by until the 2014 campaign finally opens in August. The Buckeyes have plenty of work to do to get ready for their debut against Navy on Aug. 30, and to help pass the time, we're looking at some of the most pressing positional questions they'll have to answer to make another run at a championship.

How will the Buckeyes divvy up the carries?

Urban Meyer has never seemed all that worried about establishing one true workhorse in the backfield, though when he found one in Carlos Hyde the Ohio State coach turned him loose and let both the yardage and the carries pile up.

But with last season's top tailback out of the picture, will the Buckeyes try to duplicate the formula of identifying one featured rusher to pair with quarterback Braxton Miller or will they unleash all the weapons in a stocked arsenal to try to replace all the production left behind by Hyde as he heads to the NFL?

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteWill Ezekiel Elliott take over the lead running back duties this season?
If they're going to settle on one guy, Ezekiel Elliott is the clubhouse leader after spring practice, even if Meyer has been hesitant to reveal a pecking order. At the end of his true freshman season a year ago, Elliott had already shown in a handful of appearances why he was such a coveted recruit, taking advantage of the rare opportunities afforded backup rushers with 262 yards on just 30 carries with a pair of touchdowns. Elliott doesn't appear as physically imposing as Hyde, but at 225 pounds, he's not much lighter than his predecessor, capable of taking and dishing out punishment and also bringing more than enough speed to break away from defenders when he finds some daylight.

But if the Buckeyes would like to mix it up and spread the touches around, they have no shortage of candidates with plenty to bring to the table. Senior Rod Smith still hasn't quite lived up to his enormous potential and had to sit out the end of spring practice due to academic issues, but his natural talent remains hard to ignore and could encourage the coaching staff to find a way to get him on the field. The same is true for Bri'onte Dunn, who surprisingly took a redshirt as a sophomore but flashed his ability with explosive runs during open workouts during camp before capping it with 35 yards on 6 carries with a touchdown in the spring game.

It's a new face, though, that might actually be the biggest threat to a backfield monopoly, with early enrollee Curtis Samuel turning heads throughout March and April and giving Meyer another speedy, versatile threat to open up the spread rushing attack. The Buckeyes already have Dontre Wilson tabbed in their hybrid role and he's certainly likely to take a few attempts from the tailbacks, but Samuel is cut from the same mold and clearly had Meyer enticed by his game-breaking ability heading into the offseason.

So as they move into the summer conditioning program, the Buckeyes could easily go either way -- but to some extent, that was the case a year ago with Smith, Jordan Hall and ultimately Wilson all offering legitimate options to shoulder the load. It was up to Hyde to prove as the season progressed that he simply shouldn't ever come off the field, and now it appears to be Elliott's turn to help decide if a workhorse or a committee is the best option in the Ohio State backfield.


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always trying to find new ways to motivate his players.

Last spring, he had a banner put up in the Ohio State field house reading “The Chase …” in reference to the Buckeyes’ championship pursuits. Meyer said he thought about changing the display for the 2014 offseason. In the end, though, he stuck with the same one.

“We didn’t accomplish it,” Meyer told ESPN.com. “We chased it but didn’t catch it. So the chase is still on.”

Ohio State, of course, nearly made it to its desired finish line. After going 12-0 for the second straight season under Meyer, the Buckeyes just needed to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game to clinch a date with Florida State for the BCS national title. Instead, they fell 34-24 to the Spartans and closed the year on a two-game losing streak with a 40-35 setback against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer says Ohio State is still trying to finish "The Chase."
So the chase continues, albeit with a much different-looking team in the 2014 starting gate. Gone is four-fifths of the offensive line that formed the backbone of the Big Ten’s top-scoring offense the past two seasons. Also gone are reigning Big Ten running back of the year Carlos Hyde and top receiver Corey “Philly” Brown, as well as the two biggest stars on defense -- linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby -- who opted to enter the NFL draft.

Experience is lacking in many key areas, but Meyer is ready to let some talented youngsters loose, including true freshmen. In retrospect, he wishes he had done so last year, when defensive end Joey Bosa and receiver Dontre Wilson were the only first-year players to make a big impact until safety Vonn Bell started in the Orange Bowl.

“We redshirted too many last year, and that was our fault,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding, and we just didn’t do a good job, especially on defense. When they show up on campus, we need to get them ready to play.”

This spring, early enrollees Raekwon McMillan (linebacker), Curtis Samuel (tailback) and Johnnie Dixon (receiver) were all heavily involved and have secured roles in the fall. Redshirt freshman are also at or near the top of the depth chart at strongside linebacker (Darron Lee and Chris Worley) and cornerback (Gareon Conley and Eli Apple), while true sophomores like safety Cam Burrows and tailback Ezekiel Elliott could force their way into the starting lineup.

“When you talk about inexperience, that’s a good thing right now,” said Chris Ash, who was hired from Arkansas as co-defensive coordinator to help fix Ohio State’s pass defense. “There aren’t a lot of habits that we have to change to fit what we’re trying to do. We don’t have older guys that are comfortable with where they’re at in their careers.”

An already young offense became even greener this spring because of injuries to three senior leaders: tight end Jeff Heuerman, receiver Evan Spencer and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will no doubt look a lot different when Miller returns from shoulder surgery. During the 15 spring practices, the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year often stood behind the offense and wore a camera on his head so coaches could go over what he was seeing on the field.

“We're exhausting every avenue and even inventing different avenues to make sure he's engaged and getting mental reps,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We're doing the best we can with a bad situation. He has embraced it and is working his tail off, making sure he’s getting the most out of it.”

Herman says the Buckeyes should be more explosive on the perimeter this season, with guys like Wilson, Dixon, junior college transfer Corey Smith, sophomore Michael Thomas and freshman Jalin Marshall at receiver and a stable of athletic tailbacks. The safeties are longer and quicker than they have been in the past, and the defensive line -- which could be one of the nation’s best -- will have four starters who all used to be defensive ends.

The objective is clear: more speed. To that end, Meyer has hammered a new mantra in the players' heads: “4 to 6, A to B.” That means play hard for four to six seconds and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's hard to interview an Ohio State player these days without hearing the phrase.

“That’s all he’s been preaching this spring.” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “He said he’s not really worried about technique and all that stuff. It’s just about playing hard, because if you play hard, effort makes up for mistakes.”

Washington said the defense was greatly simplified this spring, with only about four or five different calls to learn. Aggressiveness trumped scheme.

“The culture of Ohio State is to go hard, not trick you,” Meyer said. “I just felt like there was too much stuff last year, instead of just going hard.”

By moving faster and playing harder, the Buckeyes hope to overcome their youth and track down what they've been hunting. They have been tantalizingly close.

“We’re still on a chase,” Washington said. “We’ve just got to finish it.”


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ezekiel Elliott never has to go too far to be reminded of the tradition he's hoping to uphold.

Inside the Ohio State running backs meeting room are pictures of legends like Archie Griffin, Eddie George and Chris "Beanie" Wells.

"I'm very aware," Elliott said. "Every day, [running backs] coach [Stan] Drayton reminds us. When you see those guys every day, you know you have to continue the legacy."

[+] EnlargeElliott
Trevor Ruszkowksi/USA TODAY SportsEzekiel Elliott is hoping his versatility will make him Ohio State's primary ball-carrier in 2014.
Elliott doesn't even have to think back that far in history to know what he's trying to replace. Last year, Carlos Hyde led the Big Ten in rushing yards per game, finishing with 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns despite serving a three-game suspension to start the year.

Hyde's departure leaves a seemingly gaping hole in the Ohio State backfield. Elliott, a sophomore, will get the first crack at filling it.

He ran 30 times for 262 yards last year, with most of that production coming in a 162-yard performance in mop-up duty against Florida A&M. There’s certainly a difference carrying the ball against an overmatched opponent like the Rattlers and doing it in the heart of Big Ten play, but Elliott says that brief experience as a true freshman was beneficial.

"Getting out there and playing helped a lot, just getting those jitters out," he said. "Hopefully this year, I'll be ready to go.

"I think I've improved a lot. I've gotten a lot bigger, I'm faster and I anticipate the game a lot better."

Urban Meyer has stopped short of anointing Elliott as the heir to Hyde, but Elliott practiced with the first unit almost the entire spring. He had only three carries in last week's spring game, as the Buckeyes know by now what they've got with him. Senior Rod Smith, who missed spring practice because of academics, and sophomores Warren Ball and Bri'onte Dunn also are in the mix for carries. Midyear enrollee Curtis Samuel also impressed the coaches this spring.

Still, it's pretty clear the Buckeyes see Elliott as the starter in 2014. Elliott has the pedigree; ESPN Recruiting ranked him the No. 11 running back in the Class of 2013 after he piled up 3,061 all-purpose yards and 50 touchdowns as a high school senior in St. Louis. He also won three Missouri state track and field titles.

"He probably has some of the best quick-hip explosion of anybody on the team," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "You see it in his pass protection. You see it in his quick, sudden burst cuts. He has good vision, and he's a great team guy who just wants to win and go hard. There's a lot to like."

There's more of Elliott to like this season, too. Last year, he played between 210 and 215 pounds. This spring, he said, he weighs about 225 pounds. He doesn't look as thickly built as Hyde, who was listed at 236, but he still packs some power in his carries.

"He's a very strong runner," Herman said. "On a scale of 1-to-10, if Hyde is a 10, then he's an 8.59. He's not there, but he's still pretty darn good when it comes to running between the tackles, putting his shoulder down and making the tough two-, three- and four-yard runs."

Elliott, however, won't have the veteran offensive line that Hyde enjoyed running behind the past two seasons. Only one starter -- tackle Taylor Decker -- returns from last year's unit, and the Buckeyes spent this spring trying to find the right combination up front. That remains a concern heading into the summer, but Ohio State remains dedicated to establishing a physical ground attack.

"We're never going to abandon our core principles and tenants and beliefs offensively in terms of being a downhill, A-gap, tight zone and power running team," Herman said. "Now, will we need to get the ball to the perimeter a little more to take the heat off the guys up front? Probably."

That's another reason the Buckeyes like Elliott. He can get those tough yards in between the tackles, but he's also got the speed to do more than just that, as evidenced by his 8.7 yards-per-carry average in limited duty last season.

"I can take it outside, run tight zone, power and catch the ball out of the backfield," he said. "So think it helps a lot that I'm versatile."

Elliott will need every tool at his disposal to live up to the standards set by some of his Ohio State predecessors. Good thing he's got a lot of them.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer seemed to be guarding a secret, and it couldn’t be deciphered by reading between the lines.

The Ohio State coach joked about being a little bored by his spring game, expressed some frustration about the lack of offensive execution and stressed that there was plenty of work to do at a few key positions heading into the offseason.

But the truth about how good his third team at Ohio State might be was tucked away on the sidelines, leaving little to truly evaluate between them as the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday at the Horseshoe. And based on the number of players he held out of the spring-closing scrimmage, it might be a safe bet that Meyer is actually feeling pretty good about what he has returning in the fall.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe spring game didn't say much about Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. And he seems fine with that.
“There were guys out there who will either never play or they’re not ready to play now,” Meyer said. “Like, [Ohio State sports information director] Jerry [Emig] hands me stats, I’m not sure what to do with these. I don’t care.

“... We all know what we saw out there. It’s not the Ohio State Buckeyes.”

Exhibition games rarely provide much of a reliable gauge for how good a team might truly be, and in the case of the Buckeyes, that might have been by design.

Braxton Miller was already on the shelf as he finishes up his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Having the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year and a three-year starter at quarterback out of the equation obviously changes the complexion of the Ohio State offense. Cardale Jones was productive enough throughout camp to win the backup job, but his 14-of-31 passing performance Saturday was yet another reminder of the importance of having a healthy Miller to lead the attack.

Meyer indicated there was some uncertainty about his receiving corps after the spring game, but he had enough faith in Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson that he didn’t feel the need to press either of them into action over the weekend -- aside from a cameo appearance by the latter in a race against students at halftime.

And after watching what could be one of the most talented defensive lines in the country terrorize a rebuilding offensive line throughout camp over the last month, Meyer certainly didn’t need to see any more from Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett or Adolphus Washington to boost his confidence heading into the summer, adding to the list of starters who effectively were allowed to take the day off.

Cornerback Doran Grant was largely an observer as well, though he did make an appearance to win the halftime derby and became the “fastest student” on campus. Projected first-team guard Pat Elflein was a scratch, and presumptive starting running back Ezekiel Elliott only touched the football three times. Tight end Jeff Heuerman was on crutches after foot surgery, but he’ll be back in time for the conditioning program next month.

So while the game itself left little worth remembering aside from what appeared to be marked improvement and depth in the secondary and another handful of mesmerizing catches from Michael Thomas, there were actually clues littered around Ohio Stadium that Meyer is poised to unleash his most talented team since taking over the program in 2012 and rattling off 24 consecutive wins.

The trick was knowing where to look.

“[The spring game] was a chance to see some young guys [who] really haven’t played, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how much they will play,” Meyer said. “This is a chance for a lot of guys in our program who work very hard, and to be able to get some guys play or catch a pass in Ohio Stadium or whatever, in the big picture it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s a great thrill for a lot of people.”

The real thrills, of course, don’t come for a few months. And based on the amount of players who didn’t get to actually step between the lines on Saturday, Meyer might not-so-secretly have plenty to be excited about by fall.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Spring weather has just now finally arrived for Ohio State, but its camp is already about to come to a close. Ahead of Saturday's exhibition game to wrap up the 15 workouts spread through March and April, the final look at things to watch will breakd own some intriguing matchups now that the official rosters have been unveiled.

[+] EnlargeDarryl Baldwin
AP Photo/David DurochikWith a tough matchup in Ohio State's spring game, Darryl Baldwin could prove he can lockdown the starting RT job.
Scarlet QB Cardale Jones vs. Gray secondary

  • The redshirt sophomore has strengthened his case to fill the backup role at quarterback behind Braxton Miller with strong practice performances throughout camp, but he's shown some signs of nerves at times during scrimmages and could benefit from a productive outing in a live setting in front of a big crowd. Urban Meyer typically focuses his attention and play-calling on the passing attack during spring games, and with the Gray having what appears to be the full starting secondary with Tyvis Powell and Cam Burrows at safety and Doran Grant, Armani Reeves and Gareon Conley at cornerback, Jones will be tested.
Gray LB Raekwon McMillan vs. Scarlet RB Ezekiel Elliott

  • The hype is only building for the touted early enrollee on defense, and McMillan might be the most closely watched player in the Horseshoe as he's thrown into a lineup that includes two projected starters next to him at the outside linebacker spots. The true freshman has impressed the coaching staff during the 14 workouts so far, looking the part physically and embracing the culture Meyer is working so hard to reestablish. Even if finishing camp with some solid work against Ohio State's front-runner at tailback and three first-team offensive linemen doesn't help McMillan reel in senior Curtis Grant on the depth chart, it could still bode well for his chances to help provide depth in the fall -- and start building even more buzz for next season.
Scarlet RT Darryl Baldwin vs. Gray DE Noah Spence

  • Tougher spring game assignments than what Baldwin will face on Saturday are hard to come by, and really, the redshirt senior isn't likely to take on many pass rushers better than Spence when the real season arrives. So if Baldwin can hold his own against one of the fastest, most tenacious players off the edge in the Big Ten this weekend, that would go a long way toward solidifying a starting job and easing some of the uncertainty still swirling around an offensive line that must replace four starters. The Scarlet line as a whole caught a bit of a break with the first-team defensive line being split up, but Spence still has Adolphus Washington alongside him and ready to wreak the kind of havoc that stole the show in last year's edition of the spring showcase.
Michigan's defense controlled play throughout the spring game Saturday at Michigan Stadium, echoing a theme throughout most of the league that day.

Several Big Ten squads held scrimmages or open practices, and the defenses had the edge in most of them. The offenses stepped up in a few, and several quarterbacks appear to be separating themselves.

Let's recap the weekend scrimmages. (Note: Scrimmages that were closed to the media and had no available statistics.)

WISCONSIN

Despite a new-look front seven and several position changes, Wisconsin's defense dominated Saturday's scrimmage. Cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary both had good days against an undermanned receiving corps, and coach Gary Andersen called the quarterback play very average. "We have a long way to go in the throw game, and that's disappointing," Andersen said. "If we want to be a good team, we have to figure that out." The defense also shined against the run, even against top backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.

PURDUE

Technically, the Boilers' offense won Saturday's jersey scrimmage at Ross-Ade Stadium. But the defense looked stronger for much of the day, recording seven sacks and two takeaways. Unofficially, five Boilers recorded sacks, including two from tackle Michael Rouse III, who finished with three tackles for loss. Coach Darrell Hazell said of the defensive line, "They played in the [offensive] backfield."

Top quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby struggled, combining to complete 21 of 42 passes for 205 yards with a touchdown (Etling) and an interception (Appleby). Running back Raheem Mostert highlighted the offense with 134 yards and two touchdowns on only nine carries. Mostert is making a strong push this spring to be Purdue's No. 1 running back.

MINNESOTA

The Gophers' defense loses top performers Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen from last fall's unit, but it controlled play on Saturday. Minnesota's D held the offense without a point on its first seven possessions in the scrimmage. Safety Cedric Thompson had an excellent interception off a deflection on the first drive. The offense picked it up later in the scrimmage, as quarterback Mitch Leidner found KJ Maye for a 50-yard touchdown strike, and both Leidner and Berkley Edwards had long touchdown runs.

NEBRASKA

Here's one offense that flexed its muscles on Saturday after being subdued earlier in the week. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. had an "efficient" performance, according to coach Bo Pelini, as he continues to look like the team's top signal-caller. Armstrong ran for two touchdowns. Sophomore Terrell Newby received a lot of work at running back as Ameer Abdullah sat out, and receiver Jordan Westerkamp turned a short pass into a long gain. Defensive tackle Aaron Curry left the field with a neck injury, but Pelini thinks he'll be fine.

MICHIGAN STATE

The offense recorded a 27-25 win against the defense in MSU's first spring jersey scrimmage, as quarterback Connor Cook completed 15 of 21 passes for 187 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett, who has been relatively quiet since transferring from Tennessee, had five receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown. Tyler O'Connor, competing for the backup quarterback job, had a good day (10-for-15 passing, 132 yards, TD).

After allowing a touchdown on the opening possession, the defense forced four consecutive stops. Standouts included safety Kurtis Drummond (six tackles, 1 TFL, interception), end Shilique Calhoun (two sacks) and linebacker Chris Frey, an early enrollee, who had two sacks and three tackles for loss.

ILLINOIS

The Illini had their second off-site practice of the spring, traveling to Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield for a controlled scrimmage on Friday night. Quarterback Wes Lunt continues to look like Illinois' starter. According to Rivals.com's Doug Buchson, Lunt completed his first 14 pass attempts against the second-string defense for about 250 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman wideout Mike Dudek continues his strong spring, and receiver Geronimo Allison had a 45-yard touchdown catch from Lunt.

Defensive linemen Kenny Nelson and DeJazz Woods stood out against the second-team offensive line, consistently penetrating the backfield. Cornerback Caleb Day also looked good.

RUTGERS

The most important thing coming out of Rutgers' first spring scrimmage was some clarity at quarterback, as Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano all worked with the first-team offense. Although a rash of injuries made it tough to get a true gauge, Bimonte had the best day, leading two touchdown drives. Coach Kyle Flood said all three signal-callers will continue to work with the top offense. Flood singled out defensive linemen Darius Hamilton and Kemoko Turay for their play during the scrimmage.

NORTHWESTERN

Like several other Big Ten teams, Northwestern can't have full-blown scrimmages because of its injury situation. But the Wildcats had their top units match up for stretches of Saturday's practice on the lakefront. Trevor Siemian entered the spring as the No. 1 quarterback and appears to be ending it the same way. Siemian looked sharp on his first series, completing all three of his attempts. Dropped passes were a problem for much of the day, but wide receiver Kyle Prater, a USC transfer who has battled injuries for much of his career, had a one-handed grab on a pass from Zack Oliver. Cornerback Matt Harris and safety Kyle Queiro both made plays for the defense.

OHIO STATE

The Buckeyes invited students inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for Saturday's practice, creating some cool scenes. Several young players stood out, namely cornerback Eli Apple, who had two interceptions and a big hit. Running back Curtis Samuel, an early enrollee, also sparked the crowd with a 50-yard touchdown run. Linebacker has been an area of concern for Ohio State, but Darron Lee and Chris Worley both made some plays on the outside. Ezekiel Elliott is looking more like Ohio State's top running back, as he showed his size and versatility during the practice.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The kitchen is still stocked with enough ingredients to make another delicious offensive meal, but the main dish probably won’t be beef again.

With four senior starters gone from the line and bullish running back Carlos Hyde headed to the NFL, Ohio State is going to have to make some changes to its high-scoring recipe after rewriting the record books thanks in large part to all the meat it had in the middle of the field.

[+] EnlargeDecker
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesOhio State's offensive line will be revamped in 2014, with tackle Taylor Decker as the only returning starter.
And while that doesn’t mean Urban Meyer or coordinator Tom Herman will be abandoning the power rushing attack that has been the calling card of their version of the spread attack in favor of a more finesse approach, some of its finest ingredients are now on the perimeter, potentially giving the Buckeyes a new look when they’re done experimenting this spring.

“As bad as we want an offensive line like last year, it’s going to take a while to develop that,” Meyer said. “I think at some point because we recruited well and with our line coach [Ed Warinner], that will happen. But no, it’s going to be different.

“We’re going to have to lean on some perimeter ways of getting first downs and all that. Last year [it] was rushing for 300-plus yards per game. It’s because that offensive line was so good. We have other weapons, but it will be a little different taste to it than last year.”

Braxton Miller will still provide the most flavor heading into his senior year at quarterback, but there will be plenty of fresh faces around him as the Buckeyes transition from the veterans who helped pile up points over the last couple seasons to the younger talent Meyer has recruited since taking over the program.

The loss of the core group of linemen is certainly a blow, though Ohio State has prepared for it by working the replacements into games and getting them extra practice work last fall. Filling the void left by the workhorse Hyde might seem like a tall order as well, but the Buckeyes have as many as five candidates they have confidence in to carry the load on the ground in his absence. There’s also the matter of replacing leading receiver Philly Brown, a versatile athlete who supplemented his 63 receptions with a handful of rushing attempts in a hybrid role.

But if there aren’t experienced seniors ready to step up on the line, the Buckeyes at least have returning starter Taylor Decker around to bridge last season to the future at left tackle. Hyde’s production and consistency made him one of the nation’s best tailbacks and a potential first-round draft pick, but Ezekiel Elliott shined in his limited opportunities and senior Rod Smith has never had his physical tools questioned. Dontre Wilson is more than capable of taking over Brown’s role now that he has had a chance to grasp the responsibilities of the H-back position and improved his hands enough to be considered a full-time receiver.

Meyer has suggested that using Wilson and athletes like Jalin Marshall and Curtis Samuel on bubble screens or jet sweeps to get to the edge might be the best way to adapt while the offensive line develops, and he’s certainly been recruiting enough speed to perhaps more truly spread the field than the Buckeyes have done in his first two seasons. And as successful as they've been anyway, that different taste might not go down easily for opposing defenses.

“We’ll never leave our core values,” Herman said. “Spread the field horizontally and vertically, be in the shotgun, add the quarterback as part of our run game and have that dimension and to be a downhill, A-gap, tight-zone, vertical, power-run team with vertical play-action pass off it. What does that evolve to? I don’t know.

“But I think when people ask me maybe what I’m most proud of the first couple years here is we didn’t fit a square peg into a round hole. ... You've got to figure out what everybody can do, what they do well and try to mask the deficiencies while you’re improving them yet play to the strengths. Where that’s headed after six spring practices, I have no idea. But it will be different.”

The Buckeyes still have plenty of time to tinker, and the cupboards are far from bare.
The best offenses can threaten defenses at the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions. Brian Bennett on Tuesday examined the triple-threat combinations from the Big Ten's new West Division.

Now let's turn our attention to the East Division and rank the triple-threat combinations. The division is strong at quarterback but lacking elite wide receivers.

1. Indiana

QB Nate Sudfeld, RB Tevin Coleman, WR Shane Wynn

The Hoosiers featured the league's No. 2 offense in 2013 and top this list even though top receiver Cody Latimer bolted for the NFL draft. They have two options at quarterback, but Sudfeld, who had nearly 1,400 more passing yards than teammate Tre Roberson, gets the nod here. Coleman brings explosiveness to the backfield after rushing for 958 yards and 12 touchdowns in only nine games. Wynn finished near the top of the league in receiving touchdowns (11) and had 46 receptions for 633 yards.

2. Ohio State

QB Braxton Miller, RB Ezekiel Elliott, WR Devin Smith

You would think a team with the back-to-back Big Ten offensive player of the year at quarterback would be rated higher, but the Buckeyes lose a huge piece at running back in Carlos Hyde, as well as top receiver Corey Brown. Elliott, who had 262 rushing yards last season, is competing for the starting position this spring. Smith has been Miller's big-play target throughout his career and had eight touchdown catches and averaged 15 yards per reception last fall. Tight end Jeff Heuerman provides another weapon in the pass game.

3. Michigan State

QB Connor Cook, RB Jeremy Langford, WR Tony Lippett

The skinny: A year ago, Michigan State's offense looked like a mess. Cook began the season as the backup but emerged to lead the Spartans to nine Big Ten wins, all by double digits, and a Rose Bowl championship. Langford answered Michigan State's running back questions with 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. There's no true No. 1 receiver on the roster, and while Macgarrett Kings (513 receiving yards in 2013) could claim the role, Lippett gets the nod after leading the team in receptions (44) and finishing second in receiving yards (613) last year.
4. Penn State

QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Zach Zwinak, TE Jesse James

The Lions have the Big Ten's top pocket passer in Hackenberg, the league's freshman of the year in 2013. But Hackenberg loses his favorite target in Allen Robinson, and wide receiver is a major question entering the fall. The tight end position looks much stronger with James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman. Penn State also has options at running back, but Zwinak has led the team in rushing in each of the past two years, finishing with 989 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall.

5. Maryland

QB C.J. Brown, RB Brandon Ross, WR Stefon Diggs

Don't be surprised if Maryland finishes higher on the postseason triple-threats list as long as their top players stay healthy, which is hardly a guarantee after the past two seasons. Brown is a veteran dual-threat player who had 2,242 passing yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Ross leads a potentially deep group of running backs after leading the team with 776 rushing yards. Although Levern Jacobs led Maryland in receiving last year and returns, Diggs is the team's top threat after averaging 17.3 yards per catch before a season-ending injury in October.

6. Michigan

QB Devin Gardner, RB Derrick Green, TE/WR Devin Funchess

Gardner is capable of putting up some big numbers, as he showed last year, but he loses top target Jeremy Gallon. The run game is a major question mark for new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, although hopes are high for Green, a heralded recruit who had 270 rushing yards as a freshman. At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Funchess is a tight end who plays like a wide receiver. He finished second on the team in receptions (49), receiving yards (748) and touchdowns (6).

7. Rutgers

QB Gary Nova, RB Paul James, TE Tyler Kroft

New coordinator Ralph Friedgen tries to spark an offense that finished 77th nationally in scoring and 95th in yards last season. Nova is competing this spring to retain the starting job, which he has held since the middle of the 2011 season. James averaged 5.6 yards per carry last season and can be very effective when healthy. Rutgers is scrambling at bit at the wide receiver position but returns a solid option at tight end in Kroft, who led the team in both receptions (43) and receiving yards (573) last fall.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Stan Drayton isn’t picky about how the job gets done.

The Ohio State running backs coach doesn’t need his next starter to have all the same physical qualities Carlos Hyde brought to the backfield. Drayton doesn’t even care if he needs more than one guy to fill the void Hyde left behind after his final season with the Buckeyes, and he’s not in a hurry to settle on a depth chart or figure out how to distribute carries.

In terms of fitting some sort of ideal mold for a tailback, Drayton has no preference as he sorts through a handful of options with different sizes and strengths. As for the details of how to match Hyde’s wildly productive, staggeringly efficient work on the ground, it doesn’t appear to make any difference to Drayton whether it takes one guy or five, as long as the results are the same.

[+] EnlargeBri'onte Dunn
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsBri'onte Dunn, a four-star recruit in the 2012 class, redshirted last season and is squarely in the mix for playing time.
“He has to be replaced,” Drayton said. “This is The Ohio State University, and it’s the next man up. I’m sure if you asked Carlos Hyde, he’d tell you the same thing. It’s the next man up.

“Somebody has to step up and fill the shoes of Carlos Hyde. If it takes more than one guy to do that, I promise you it’s going to get done.”

The Buckeyes certainly weren’t a one-man show on the ground last year, and no matter what happens at running back this spring, they still won’t be in the fall with Braxton Miller and his talented legs returning at quarterback.

But Hyde was far and away the main focus at tailback last season, accounting for more rushing attempts than the rest of Ohio State’s stable of running backs combined despite missing three games to suspension. And now that he’s gone, those 208 carries he had as a senior will have to go somewhere, and the race is already heated as the new candidates scramble to claim them.

Rising sophomore Ezekiel Elliott appears to be first in line after shining in a limited role a season ago, averaging 8.1 yards per carry while showing off his explosive speed and the ability to absorb or inflict punishment with his 225-pound frame.

Rising senior Rod Smith isn’t far behind and is doing everything he can to finally turn his natural talent into production before it’s too late. Sophomore Bri’onte Dunn is coming off a somewhat unexpected redshirt season during his second year at Ohio State and is impressing with his improved grasp of the offense. Warren Ball and early enrollee Curtis Samuel both are squarely in the battle for playing time as well, with the latter turning heads during offseason workouts and potentially becoming an option to play a hybrid role as a rusher and receiver when he gets completely healthy.

So even if the Buckeyes can’t settle on just one guy to fill Hyde’s shoes, they’re clearly not short of options.

“It’s real competitive, and coach Drayton really has us going,” Dunn said. “Everybody wants to play for Ohio State, so we’ll go as hard as we can.

“Carlos was like a big brother to me. He taught me a lot, and by his example last year, it just taught us all a lot. ... Everybody is just going hard and trying to go for the spot. Our mindset is to be the best back in the country.”

Hyde made his case last season, finishing with 1,521 yards, 15 touchdowns and a resume that might make him the first running back selected in the upcoming NFL draft.

But Drayton doesn’t necessarily need one candidate to emerge as the best individual rusher in the country to get what he’s looking for this spring. The only thing that really matters to him is making sure Ohio State has the best backfield, any way he can get it.

“I’m always going to operate under the notion I need at least three [guys],” Drayton said. “I need at least three, and there’s five of them.

“All those guys are in the mix. They’re so competitive, they all bring something different to the table, they all have a different style, different strengths and weaknesses and they can all help this football team. ... I just prefer a guy who is going to be productive, period.”

Drayton might not be picky about how the production comes. But there’s no flexibility about making sure the Buckeyes get it one way or another.

Ohio State spring predictions: No. 2

February, 27, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Preparations to end a two-game losing streak have already started for Ohio State, but the chance to make them with the pads on again after a two-month wait isn't over yet.

There's less than a week left on that wait for spring practice, and given the disappointing end to the 2013 season and the rigorous offseason conditioning program the Buckeyes have been going through, that time surely can't fly by quickly enough for the players. We've already looked at players facing critical springs and key position battles, and to count down these final few days before camp opens, we'll make a handful of predictions for what should happen in March and April as Ohio State reloads for another run at a title in the fall.

No. 2: The diamond formation returns

[+] EnlargeDontre Wilson
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesThe versatile Dontre Wilson could be one of many to get touches in the diamond formation.
The cupboard was already overflowing a season ago, and Ohio State intended to use as many ingredients as possible before it found out it could get by using the same one as often as possible as the main dish.

The kitchen is every bit as well stocked this spring as it was at this time last year, but the Buckeyes no longer have Carlos Hyde at their disposal as a complement to Braxton Miller in the backfield, which may well bring a little more variety to the rushing attack.

Urban Meyer had intentions of spreading around the carries when he unveiled a full-house backfield in a diamond formation during camp last year, using three of his talented tailbacks at the same time along with Miller to give the option attack even more firepower, keep defenses guessing and, perhaps, keep everybody happy with their workload. Ultimately, the combination of Hyde and Miller was enough to again give Ohio State one of the nation's best ground games, and Hyde finished the season with 127 more attempts than any other running back -- despite missing three weeks of action due to suspension.

With the stockpile of both traditional running backs like Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith and Bri'onte Dunn and a growing collection of hybrid weapons led by Dontre Wilson, the diamond formation and a more even distribution of touches figures to be featured during spring practice. Maybe that particular package won't end up becoming a staple of the playbook in the fall, but it's one more wrinkle that can make life miserable for opposing defensive coordinators and a scheme that could potentially take some of the pressure off Miller as a rushing threat.

If nothing else, maybe it will simply provide a chance for the coaching staff to evaluate a handful of options to replace Hyde at once. The competition for playing time is already going to be fierce in the backfield, and it might suit Ohio State's interests best if it can name more than one winner.

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 26, 2014
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Spring practice is off and running in the Big Ten, as Michigan took the field Tuesday and Northwestern followed on Wednesday. We're taking snapshots of where each team stands at each position group.

We've already discussed the quarterbacks -- and will have much more on the way -- so the series begins with the running backs.

Illinois: The Illini are in a bit better shape here than they were the past two springs, as veterans Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young both return. Ferguson averaged 5.5 yards per carry and added 50 receptions for 535 yards as the primary playmaker for Illinois' revamped offense. Young added 376 yards on 93 carries. The Illini are looking for others behind the top two, and Dami Ayoola is back with the team after being dismissed in September for a rules violation.

Indiana: Tevin Coleman quietly put together a superb sophomore season and leads the Hoosiers' running backs in 2014. Coleman provides big-play ability after averaging 7.3 yards per carry with 12 touchdowns on only 131 attempts in 2013. Indiana loses Stephen Houston but brings back veteran D'Angelo Roberts, who will play behind Coleman. Younger players such as sophomore Laray Smith could get a look here.

Iowa: Not only did the Hawkeyes toss AIRBHG to the side and get through the season without any major injurie, but they bring back everyone for 2014. Senior Mark Weisman leads the contingent after rushing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns last fall. Jordan Canzeri came on strong late in the season and is showing no effects from his ACL tear in 2012. Veteran Damon Bullock also returns to the mix, and Iowa has talented younger backs such as LeShun Daniels Jr. at its disposal. Good situation here.

Maryland: The Terrapins wide receivers tend to get more attention, but the team also returns its top three running backs from 2013 in Brandon Ross, Albert Reid and Jacquille Veii. Maryland also regains the services of Wes Brown, who finished second on the team in rushing as a freshman in 2012 before being suspended for all of last season. Joe Riddle is back in the fold as well. The group brings different strengths, from power (Brown) to speed (Veii) to a mixture of both (Ross, Reid).

Michigan: Sophomore Derrick Green enters the spring as the frontrunner to be Michigan's lead back, although coach Brady Hoke wants to ramp up competition everywhere. The Wolverines struggled to consistently run between the tackles, but the 240-pound Green could change things. Hoke also is excited about another sophomore, De'Veon Smith. Michigan moved Ross Douglas from cornerback to running back, and Justice Hayes and Wyatt Shallman also are in the mix. "We've got more depth," Hoke said.

Michigan State: Things look much more promising than they did last spring, when the Spartans ended the session with a linebacker (Riley Bullough) as their top back. Jeremy Langford emerged as a very solid option during the season, rushing for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns. He's back as the clear-cut starter, and Nick Hill also returns. It will be interesting to see if Gerald Holmes makes a push, or whether Delton Williams remains on offense.

Minnesota: Here's another team that finds itself in very good shape at running back entering the spring. David Cobb leads the group after rushing for 1,202 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore. Veterans Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr. are still around, and highly touted redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards will take the field after missing last fall because of knee and ankle injuries. Perhaps the best news will come in the summer as decorated recruit Jeff Jones arrives.

Nebraska: Notice a theme here? Nebraska is yet another Big Ten squad that can feel very good about its running backs entering the spring. Ameer Abdullah elected to bypass the NFL draft for one final season at Nebraska, where he led the Big Ten with 1,690 yards on 281 carries as a junior. Abdullah will contend for national awards in the fall. Imani Cross, who rushed for 10 touchdowns last year, is one of the nation's top backups. Terrell Newby and others add depth behind the top two.

Northwestern: Top back Venric Mark (ankle) will miss spring practice following surgery, and reserve Stephen Buckley (knee) also is rehabbing, but Northwestern has no reason to panic. Treyvon Green, who filled in well for Mark last season with 736 rushing yards, will get much of the work. Warren Long also is in the mix after appearing in seven games as a true freshman. Northwestern also loaded up at running back in recruiting to solidify the position for years to come.

Ohio State: This will be a position to watch in the spring as Ohio State must replace Carlos Hyde, who was nearly unstoppable during Big Ten play last fall. Veteran Jordan Hall also departs, and Rod Smith will be the veteran of the group despite only 83 career carries. The Buckeyes have some talented young backs, from Dontre Wilson, who saw significant playing time last fall, to Bri'onte Dunn, Ezekiel Elliott and Warren Ball. Keep an eye on Elliott, who averaged 8.7 yards per carry in limited work last season but could emerge this spring.

Penn State: If it feels like Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton have been competing for carries forever at Penn State, it's because they have. Zwinak and Belton have been part of Penn State's running back rotation for the past two seasons and enter another competition this spring with talented sophomore Akeel Lynch, who rushed for 358 yards on only 60 carries last season. It will be interesting to see how much Lynch can push Zwinak and Belton in the team's first spring under a new coaching staff. Penn State has depth issues at several positions, but running back isn't one of them.

Purdue: The Boilers finished 122nd nationally in rushing offense last season, so the fact all of their running backs return might not spark mass celebration. Senior Akeem Hunt leads the group after recording 123 of the team's 319 rushing attempts in 2013. Other veteransBrandon Cottom and Raheem Mostert also are back, along with younger ball-carries such as Dayln Dawkins and three backs -- Keyante Green, David Yancey and Keith Byars II -- who redshirted last fall and could have much bigger roles.

Rutgers: Here's yet another team that returns basically its entire stable of running backs for spring ball. Paul James is the name to watch, as he rushed for 573 yards in the first four games last season before suffering a leg injury. James' health is a concern for Rutgers, which could also turn to Justin Goodwin, who showed some flashes following James' injury. Savon Huggins, who entered last season as the starter before losing ground, is in the mix as he looks to re-establish himself on the depth chart.

Wisconsin: How many teams can lose a 1,400-yard rusher and still claim to have the best running back group in the Big Ten? James White is gone, but Wisconsin remains in very good shape in the backfield. Melvin Gordon bypassed the NFL draft for another year in Madison after rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns on only 206 carries. Gordon should move into more of a featured role beginning this spring, although he'll be pushed by Corey Clement, who had 547 yards and seven touchdowns on only 67 carries. Jeff Lewis provides another option behind the top two.

Top spring position battles: No. 4

February, 18, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Nobody is walking into a stress-free environment when Ohio State returns to the practice field in spring as long as national-title aspirations hang in the air and Urban Meyer prowls the sideline.

But the pressure isn't the same for all the Buckeyes since a healthy handful have their names etched at the top of the depth chart and won't be sweating a competition for a starting job -- obviously beginning with a quarterback who has finished in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy voting two years running. But who will back up Braxton Miller is just one of the most intriguing positional battles that will be waged in March and April, and after already tackling that topic in the countdown, the series rolls along with a look at who else might be lining up with him in the Ohio State backfield.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Trevor Ruszkowksi/USA TODAY SportsEzekiel Elliott averaged 8.6 yards and had three touchdowns on his 33 touches as a freshman in 2013.
No. 4: Running back

  • Predecessor: Carlos Hyde (208 carries for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns; 16 catches for 147 yards and 3 touchdowns)
  • Candidates: Senior Rod Smith, redshirt sophomores Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball, true sophomores Ezekiel Elliott and Dontre Wilson
  • Why to watch: The Buckeyes will again spend the spring and summer months emphasizing improvements in the passing game and seeking to find more balance in the play-calling, but Urban Meyer's version of a successful spread offense will always start with a powerful rushing attack. And after two seasons of leaning on Hyde to do the heavy lifting between the tackles and keep the chains moving, the Buckeyes now need a new sidekick for Miller -- or maybe a couple of them. With such a deep stable of options returning to fill the void left by Hyde and his 19 carries per game, Ohio State might not need to tab just one guy to handle the majority of the work. They could try to spread around touches among as many as four rushers. That was also the plan to some extent last year, though, before Hyde clearly proved he was the most reliable and consistent threat on the ground and ultimately soaked up most of the snaps. All that playing time is available now, and the competition to earn it will no doubt be heated.
  • Pre-camp edge: If the Buckeyes are purely looking for a strong, rugged rusher who fits the physical mold of Hyde, Smith or Dunn might have the advantage. Should Meyer want to feature a more dynamic athlete like he always intended to do with Jordan Hall, Wilson might be in line for more work as a traditional tailback instead of shifting around as a hybrid weapon. But the best combination of size, speed and game-breaking ability appears to be Elliott, who showed glimpses of his potential while racking up 262 yards on just 30 carries with a pair of touchdowns during his first season on campus. Of the many candidates the Buckeyes can sort through, the process is likely to start with Elliott when the pads go back on next month.

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