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Spring checkup: Ohio State Buckeyes

4/3/2015

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The eye-popping production may have done a fantastic job of disguising any physical limitations, and Ezekiel Elliott had little reason to talk about anything that might be slowing him down when he was racking up yardage and breaking records.

But the Ohio State running back was literally shorthanded even while carving up defenses in the College Football Playoff, and the wrist injury that eventually required surgery caused enough pain and was serious enough that his left hand was essentially useless when he was rushing the football.

Obviously his legs and feet were working just fine. But after having his wrist worked on, then getting his cast removed on Monday as he starts the final stage of his recovery before heading into the offseason after spring practice, it's fair to wonder just what else the junior might be capable of once he finally gets to play at full strength.

"I just was basically out there playing with one hand," Elliott said. "I was one-handed, couldn’t carry the ball with my left hand, I couldn’t punch with it, I couldn’t really do much with it. I was pretty handicapped.

"I can feel it getting better, but right now it’s real small, real weak and I have a little bit of pain here and there. Now it's just a six-week process of getting the mobility back, and then I'll be full go."

There's no real rush for the Buckeyes, who are fully aware of what Elliott brings to the offense even if he's not operating at 100 percent capacity -- with his 696 yards and 8 touchdowns in the postseason.

Given the way Ohio State rode him down the stretch, including 36 carries against Oregon on the way to the national title, Elliott might have needed some extra time to get his body right again after touching the ball more than 300 times over the course of the season. And while the Buckeyes are still stressing the value of mental reps for the preseason Heisman Trophy contender, his limited role during camp also comes with the benefit of getting bonus reps for reserves like Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball to help build depth in the backfield.

"I mean, your body only has so many shots in it, and so it does help his body recover, continually recover, and that’s a process itself," new running backs coach Tony Alford said. "But it also gives some other guys an opportunity to get in and get some quality reps and learn to play as well.

"[Elliott] is going to have to have a big summer, too. But the one thing you love about Zeke is he’s hungry, he wants to play and it’s killing him not to play now."

A chance to cut it loose will have to wait until after spring practice. But once Elliott does finally get to return to action, he'll at least finally have both hands on deck.

Back to basics: Schematic adjustments helped. Chris Ash's work in his first year with the secondary produced the desired improvements and the emergence of young talent was critical in bouncing back after a horrible defensive year in 2013. But if anything in particular was most responsible for the huge step forward on the way to the title, Ash deflects any credit his way and instead points straight to Ohio State's solid tackling, which interestingly also was also tweaked thanks to a video from Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. The Buckeyes were far more sound bringing players to the ground, most notably late in the year and during the postseason run, and the new fundamentals seem to come with the benefit of added safety as well.

Next man up?: With Elliott on the sideline and the top backup from last year now lining up in a different position with Curtis Samuel getting a look as an H-back, there might never be a better opportunity for Dunn to show what he can and make his case for work in the fall than right now. Even though he was third on the depth chart, Dunn might as well have been buried on it at the end of last season with the top-two tailbacks and quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones dominating the work load on the ground. It's still not going to be easy for Dunn or Ball to break into the rotation with so many skill players vying for touches, but without making an impression in March and April, there's probably not much chance of getting any in September.