Big Ten: Warren Ball

Running back typically is among the Big Ten's strongest position groups, and it should be once again in 2014. The league returns two preseason Heisman Trophy candidates in Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, as well as several others who could break through to the national or regional stage. Eight of the Big Ten's top 10 rushers in 2013 return for the 2014 campaign, and Northwestern's Venric Mark, who had 1,371 rush yards in 2012, is back from injury.

This should be a very fun group to watch, so let's take a closer look around the league.

Best of the best: Wisconsin

The Gordon-Abdullah debate is a great one and will continue throughout the season, but few can deny Gordon's unique explosiveness with the ball in his hands. Gordon has averaged 8.1 yards per carry during his career and had just 81 fewer rushing yards than Abdullah last fall despite 75 fewer carries. If he maintains his big-play pace, he could challenge for 2,000 rush yards if he gets enough chances. The only reason he wouldn't is Corey Clement, who had 547 rush yards, seven touchdowns and a Gordon-like average of 8.2 yards per attempt as a freshman last fall. A year after Gordon and James White set an NCAA record for rush yards by teammates (3,053), Wisconsin once again boasts one of the nation's best tandems.

Next up: Nebraska

The Huskers could unseat Wisconsin for the top spot by the end of the season, especially if Abdullah builds on his tremendous consistency in 2013, when he eclipsed 100 rush yards in 11 of 13 contests. He leads all active FBS players with 17 career 100-yard rushing performances. Burly junior Imani Cross is a formidable red zone threat with 17 touchdowns in his first two seasons. There's good depth here as Terrell Newby averaged 5.5 yards per carry as a freshman and Adam Taylor will compete for carries after redshirting last fall.

Sleeper: Minnesota

A steadfast commitment to the run, combined with a strong group of returning backs, puts Minnesota in position for a productive year on the ground. David Cobb might have been the nation's most anonymous 1,200-yard rusher in 2013, but he proved himself in Big Ten play with five 100-yard rushing performances. There's veteran depth behind him with Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams Jr., and fan favorite Berkley Edwards enters the mix after missing last season with an injury. The Gophers could add another big piece if heralded recruit Jeff Jones qualifies for his scholarship.

Problem for a contender: Ohio State

Again, problem isn't the right word here, but the truth is all the other Big Ten title contenders -- Michigan State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa -- return their top ball carriers from 2013. Ohio State loses bulldozing back Carlos Hyde, who led the Big Ten in rushing average (138.3) and rush yards during league games (1,249). The Buckeyes obviously benefit from Braxton Miller's running ability at quarterback but must develop backs who can help him. Ezekiel Elliott is in line to start and brings some exciting skills to the field, but Ohio State needs other options to develop like Bri'onte Dunn, dynamic freshman Curtis Samuel and Warren Ball.


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 -- 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.

Spring position breakdown: RBs

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
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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.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The projected starter has handled his business and is finally returning after a three-game suspension. Carlos Hyde is a proven touchdown machine, and he will no doubt want to make up for lost time.

[+] Enlarge Jordan Hall
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsOhio State tailback Jordan Hall has rushed for 402 yards and six touchdowns so far this season.
The guy who filled in for him is still healthy, red-hot and has done nothing to lose his spot in the Ohio State backfield. Jordan Hall has shown he's more than capable of handling the every-down workload, and there might not be much reason to tinker with what has worked early in the season.

The electric freshman has put his speed on full display and lived up to the enormous hype that built from the moment he signed with the Buckeyes through a head-turning training camp. The package of plays for Dontre Wilson appears to be steadily expanding, and Ohio State hasn't exactly been hiding the fact it would like to get him more involved.

But coach Urban Meyer only has one football at a time at his disposal during the game, and with Rod Smith, Warren Ball and Ezekiel Elliott all clamoring for touches as well, finding a way for them all to be involved is about to become an even bigger challenge with Hyde set for his debut on Saturday against Florida A&M. Maybe it's an issue that would make Meyer's peers around the country envious, but it's a potential problem nevertheless.

"Jordan Hall has certainly earned the right to touch the ball in a big way, so I'm not sure yet [about the distribution of carries]," Meyer said. "Carlos did a lot a for us a year ago -- a lot. He's a very talented running back, and that [suspension] was hard on everybody.

"But this is a good issue to have."

Meyer doesn't appear to be in a hurry to solve it, and this week it might not make any difference against a Football Championship Subdivision defense that figures to be grossly overmatched against one of the most explosive offenses in the country. But based on a relatively small sample size since he took over the program last year, it doesn't appear Meyer will be worried about hurting any feelings when it comes time to decide who will be taking handoffs and how many they might get.

The Buckeyes weren't nearly as deep at tailback a year ago after Hall's second injury forced him to redshirt after appearing in just three games, and that was obviously a significant factor for an attack that leaned heavily on Hyde and his 185 carries. But despite having Smith and Bri'onte Dunn available on the bench, Hall actually still finished the season second among running backs with 40 attempts.

So far this season, Meyer has again appeared to favor riding with one running back to complement his mobile quarterbacks the majority of the time in the ground game. Excluding rushing attempts by the quarterbacks, Hall has taken 65 percent of the carries through three games despite some lopsided scores -- including a career-high 30 attempts in the blowout win over California on Saturday.

Wilson chipped in five carries, and with 59 yards to show for it a week after producing 51 yards and a touchdown, the speedster only figures to be getting more involved moving forward.

But now Hyde is coming back into the equation as well. And while the Buckeyes had laid some plans in spring practice for Hall to slide out to H-back and the offensive staff had toyed with full-house backfields featuring three running backs to incorporate all that talent into the formation at once, no matter how Meyer eventually decides to spread the ball around, the pickings will have to get slim for a few guys.

"I've been thinking about that," Meyer said. "I don't know yet. I'll answer that later in the week."

Finding a way to keep everybody happy this week probably won't be that tough. But even once the competition does pick up again next week when Big Ten play opens, sorting through too many options in the backfield certainly beats the alternative for the Buckeyes.
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.

[+] EnlargeJordan Hall
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteJordan Hall broke two long runs and showed his versatility against Buffalo.
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.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The medical redshirt already assured a do-over of Jordan Hall’s final season with the Ohio State program.

Now it appears he’ll get a mulligan at the starting position that a pair of injuries cost the veteran a year ago.

After watching Carlos Hyde cement himself as the leading option in the backfield while he was on the shelf, then spending spring practice largely focusing on learning the playbook at the hybrid H-back position and working out with receivers, reclaiming the job that was once expected to be Hall’s never looked like much of an option.

But here he is now, once again listed as a senior and apparently on top of the depth chart at running back as well.

[+] EnlargeJordan Hall
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesHealthy again, RB Jordan Hall is giving Ohio State options within its offense.
“I’ll play anywhere they put me, because I just want to be on the field and help us win,” Hall said. “It doesn’t matter. Anywhere they put me, I’ll be ready.”

The Buckeyes always had designs on putting Hall in the backfield at least part of the time again as he cross-trained between running back and the versatile H-back spot that requires more work in the passing game. But for the second summer in a row, the early-season plan may have required a bit of flexibility.

Last summer it was Hall’s fluky injury when he stepped on a piece of glass and needed surgery to repair a torn tendon, leaving him on the sideline during training camp and the first two games while Hyde slid into the vacant first-team spot. Hall briefly returned to the lineup before a knee issue knocked him out for the rest of the season, ultimately allowing Hyde to prove he could thrive as an every-down back and form a lethal combination with quarterback Braxton Miller on the ground.

This summer it’s Hyde’s offseason incident at a Columbus bar and a minimum suspension of three games that has shaken up the expected pecking order. And while the Buckeyes have no shortage of talented tailbacks capable of picking up the slack at one of the deepest positions on the roster, at least for now they appear willing to turn back the clock and give a healthy Hall the shot he never really had last year.

“Jordan Hall is a guy who has had some playing experience and been through some adversity, obviously, but he does have some game experience,” running backs coach Stan Drayton said. “You’ve got Rod Smith who is in that group, those two would be at the early part of the season kind of taking the bull by the horns. But for that first game, probably Jordan Hall.

“Going into this first game, I’d say he’s probably the No. 1 guy right now.”

That list is always subject to change, particularly at a position as loaded as running back.

Smith figures to get plenty of touches over the first few weeks given his impressive set of skills and dynamic athleticism. Bri’onte Dunn got his feet wet last season and has shown flashes of being a steady contributor in the backfield, and both redshirt freshman Warren Ball and newcomer Ezekiel Elliott have impressed during training camp. Ultimately Hyde will be back on the field as well, and his production in the spread offense is well documented.

But the rise of those rushers wouldn’t necessarily be a threat to Hall, who Drayton indicated was tabbed all along to spend time in his meeting room and will continue to work at both positions throughout the season even if he does emerge as the weapon at H-back Ohio State has been waiting for.

And Hall won’t complain either way as he tries to make the most of a second chance at a senior season, regardless of where he lines up.

“I’ve seen how fast it can be taken away,” Hall said. “So I’m not going to take any plays off, any reps off.”

All the Buckeyes have to do is tell him where to take them.

Ohio State season preview

August, 12, 2013
8/12/13
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Let's take a look at Ohio State as it tries to build off an undefeated season and compete for titles now that its postseason ban has expired.

OHIO STATE BUCKEYES

Coach: Urban Meyer (116-23, 11 seasons; 12-0 at Ohio State)

2012 record: 12-0, Leaders Division champions (ineligible for postseason)

Key losses: DE John Simon, DT Johnathan Hankins, RT Reid Fragel, WR/TE Jake Stoneburner, LB/FB Zach Boren, LB Etienne Sabino, CB Travis Howard

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Al BehrmanUrban Meyer has an experienced QB in Braxton Miller and depth at running back entering his second season at Ohio State.
Key returnees: QB Braxton Miller, WR Philly Brown, CB Bradley Roby, SAF Christian Bryant, SAF C.J. Barnett, LT Jack Mewhort, LG Andrew Norwell, C Corey Linsley, RG Marcus Hall, RB Carlos Hyde, LB Ryan Shazier

Newcomer to watch: Meyer was never able to find somebody to play his hybrid H-back position last year, so the Buckeyes simply didn’t use it. Now the program has two options on hand who appear to fit the mold, and freshman speedster Dontre Wilson could make an instant impact in that role thanks to his wheels and elusiveness. Wilson has quickly made a splash during training camp, and he has the ability to be a factor in both the rushing and receiving game.

Biggest games in 2013: The last week of the regular season is always a cut above the rest, and Ohio State’s trip up north to take on rival Michigan on Nov. 30 could have enormous stakes for a team eying a national title this year. A visit to Northwestern on Oct. 5 will also be a test, and home games against Wisconsin (Sept. 28) and Penn State (Oct. 26) will be critical in the divisional race.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Almost the entire front seven has undergone a face-lift since last season as six starters have moved on from the program, but there isn’t that much concern about the defensive line because sophomore sensations Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington are poised for breakout campaigns.

There is some hand-wringing going on at linebacker, though, and the depth issues that forced Ohio State to move Boren from fullback to lend a hand on defense last season haven’t yet been corrected. Newcomers Trey Johnson and Mike Mitchell may need to develop quickly to fill out the rotation, because otherwise an injury or two to Shazier, middle linebacker Curtis Grant or sophomore Joshua Perry could create significant problems at the second level for coordinator Luke Fickell.

Forecast: While there might be some uncertainty about a younger, more inexperienced defense, there is absolutely nothing but booming confidence on the other side of the ball for the Buckeyes.

Braxton Miller returns for his third season as the starting quarterback, fresh off a fifth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy race and an offseason of improvement as a passer. A deeper stable of rushers joins him in the backfield to add even more versatility to a ground game that was among the nation’s best last year. Carlos Hyde, Rod Smith, Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball give Meyer enough talent to tinker with the idea of putting three of them on the field at the same time. Somewhat shorthanded at receiver a year ago, the Buckeyes also have more targets at their disposal in the passing attack and a pair of tight ends who can create major mismatches for opposing defenses. It obviously doesn’t hurt to have four senior starters paving the way up front and offering some protection for Miller.

That personnel, of course, is coached by Meyer, who has a proven track record of success in his second season with a program, boasting a combined record of 34-4 in his three previous Year 2s -- not to mention an undefeated record at Utah and a national title at Florida.

It all adds up to an offense that might be the most explosive Ohio State has ever had, which should allow the rebuilding front seven on defense some time to develop as the program hunts its first crystal football since 2002.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The circumstances clearly aren't the same, but the situation is pretty much identical.

Ohio State reported to training camp a year ago with its starting running back on the shelf and unavailable for at least the first two weeks of the season, putting the spotlight on the backup and casting at least a little doubt about how the rushing attack would survive until Jordan Hall returned.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Hyde
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesCarlos Hyde dove through the door that opened after Jordan Hall's injury. Will another player do the same during Hyde's suspension?
Carlos Hyde walked through the open door then and made the position his own. One summer later, with a minimum suspension of three games ahead of him, Hyde has cracked it open for somebody else.

The senior's case was officially closed Tuesday by Columbus police after an investigation into an alleged assault didn't produce any charges against him, but Meyer had the final word when it came to playing time. He promptly took that away for "conduct not representative" of Ohio State. And while his breakout season a year ago and his unique combination of size and speed makes it unlikely that his starting spot will be spoken for when his punishment ends, Hyde should know all too well what can happen when an unexpected opportunity pops up.

Hall's freak foot injury in the offseason gave Hyde his first platform for extended work when the season opened. And while the projected starter actually reclaimed that job briefly before another health issue ended Hall's season, Hyde had already made enough of an impression to push for an expanded role thanks to his nonconference audition.

Now it's Rod Smith's turn to do the same thing.

There's no question the junior has the same type of athleticism and the ability to deliver a blow to would-be tacklers at 238 pounds. He has already flashed his enormous potential in a live setting under Meyer by averaging a robust 6.7 yards per carry in a reserve role last year. Smith's biggest weakness has been an inability to protect the football, but if the fumbles disappear while getting what should be steady work during the first couple weeks of the season, he might find himself in a similar situation as Hyde a year ago.

Smith isn't alone, of course. The Buckeyes are overflowing with talented options in the backfield, and sophomore Bri'onte Dunn and redshirt freshman Warren Ball both impressed the coaching staff enough during spring practice to make it worthwhile to include a diamond formation with three running backs on the field at once in the playbook. What once might have been a battle for scraps might suddenly turn into meaningful work as they slide a spot up the depth chart in September.

In addition to highly touted freshmen such as Ezekiel Elliott and Dontre Wilson, Hall is also coming back for another season after taking a medical redshirt last fall.

Hall was already being tabbed for a critical role for the Buckeyes in the H-back position as a hybrid rusher/receiver, but he could wind up doing more of the latter than the former with Hyde out.

Even with Hyde out of the picture, there are more than enough options on hand to help navigate a stretch after the opener against Buffalo that could be tougher than expected with San Diego State visiting the Horseshoe before the Buckeyes travel across the country to take on California.

But Meyer sent a message to his program by taking away a sizable portion of Hyde's final season with the program. And if Smith or another current backup takes a page out of his book, Hyde might also end up losing some of the work he was expecting even after he returns.

Ohio State Buckeyes spring wrap

May, 3, 2013
5/03/13
10:30
AM ET
2012 record: 12-0

2012 conference record: 8-0 (first, Leaders Division)

Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners: QB Braxton Miller, RB Carlos Hyde, WR Philly Brown, LT Jack Mewhort, C Corey Linsley, CB Bradley Roby, SAF Christian Bryant, SAF C.J. Barnett, LB Ryan Shazier

Key losses: RT Reid Fragel, WR Jake Stoneburner, DE John Simon, DE Nathan Williams, DT Johnathan Hankins, DT Garrett Goebel, FB/LB Zach Boren, LB Etienne Sabino, CB Travis Howard

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Miller* (1,271 yards, 13 TDs)

Passing: Miller* (2,039 yards, 15 TDs, 6 INTs)

Receiving: Brown* (60 catches, 669 yards, 3 TDs)

Tackles: Shazier* (115)

Sacks: Simon (9)

Interceptions: Howard (4)

Spring answers:

1. End game: The Buckeyes have to replace all four starters up front, and while the defensive line isn't quite as deep and is far from a finished product, the future looks pretty bright on the edge. Sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were among the top prizes in Urban Meyer's first recruiting class with the Buckeyes, and that talent is already starting to shine through as they slide into first-team roles heading into the fall. Spence is a dynamic force with his ability to use speed to get to the quarterback, and Washington isn't exactly sluggish despite all the strength in his 293-pound frame. The two combined for seven sacks in the spring game, and the Buckeyes are expecting similar performances when it actually counts.

2. Air it out: Miller has proven what he can do with his legs, and Ohio State didn't really need to see him show them off in the spring. The emphasis was on continuing to develop the junior quarterback as a passer, which meant a heavy dose of play calls forcing him to put the ball in the air and a quick whistle if he tried to scramble. The results for Meyer were encouraging. His efficient, 16-for-25, 217-yard performance in the spring game showed a much more accurate delivery and better decision-making that hints at bigger things from the fifth-place finisher in last year's Heisman Trophy race.

3. Backfield stable: One thing that might keep Hyde from giving Meyer a 1,000-yard running back this season is all the teammates fighting to snag a few of his carries. The rising senior is the clear cut No. 1 to partner with Miller in the backfield, and Hyde didn't have to earn that job in the spring after piling up touchdowns last fall and finally tapping into his enormous potential as a rusher. But while he was watching some reps, Rod Smith, Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball all showed their upside this spring, which has the Buckeyes even toying with a diamond formation that gets three tailbacks on the field at the same time.

Fall questions

1. Filling out the front seven: Shazier is certainly a fine place for any defense to start, but the Buckeyes would obviously prefer if there were at least one other returning starter joining him in the front seven. There are high hopes again for junior Curtis Grant at middle linebacker, but he's been tabbed as a first-team guy before coming out of spring only to fizzle in the fall. Ohio State will need Grant and sophomore Joshua Perry to help lead the charge as it tries to add depth and talent at linebacker to stabilize a defense that will feature a lot of new faces.

2. Fresh blood: There wasn't a great option to fill Meyer's vaunted H-back position last fall, so the Buckeyes effectively had to put the hybrid spot, made famous by Percy Harvin at Florida, on the shelf. Jordan Hall's return from injury makes him a candidate to diversify the offense, but a handful of recruits the Buckeyes landed in Meyer's second class would could really take the spread to another level. Speed-burners such as Dontre Wilson or Jalin Marshall will be watched closely in August as they could become factors for the Buckeyes as early as September.

3. Something special: If the Buckeyes score as easily and often as it appears they might, maybe it won't matter who handles the kicking game. But Meyer has always taken pride in his special teams, and at this point there is still some uncertainty as Drew Basil is pressed into action as both a kicker and a punter. In the big picture, the changes on defense are far more critical -- but close games usually pop up along the way for teams trying to win a championship, and Basil might need to pass some tests for the Buckeyes.

Big Ten Monday mailbag

April, 22, 2013
4/22/13
5:00
PM ET
Monday got you down? The Monday mailbag is here to lift you up.

Andrew from Omaha, Neb., writes: After listening to all of the local media (and more than a few here on the blog) freak out about the new divisional alignments, it's made me do a little thinking. There isn't much parity in the East/West alignments in the SEC. Yes, Georgia and South Carolina are good, but I don't hear many suggesting there is top-to-bottom evenness between the two. And yet, if say, Tennessee were to win the SEC out, I'm sure we would hear the same kind of chatter about them being the team to beat in the country. So, shouldn't we concern ourselves more with being the best teams possible rather than worry about who else is in division?

Brian Bennett: It's funny. It wasn't that long ago that the SEC East was considered to be a vastly stronger division than the West when Florida and Tennessee were dominating the conference. Now the West is clearly better. But that tells you these things are often cyclical. I've said repeatedly that the new Big Ten division alignment puts too much power in the East, and that Michigan State should be going to the West. Yes, it looks to me like Nebraska and Wisconsin are the big winners in re-alignment. But there are no guarantees. Who's to say Northwestern won't be the best team in the West in 2014, or that Iowa bounces back in a big way?




K. from Iowa writes: With its lack of depth at quarterback (a true freshman and two walk-ons behind Devin Gardner), Michigan appears to be an injury away from being a mediocre offense. Brady Hoke recently indicated Michigan might pursue a JUCO or grad student QB yet this year. How feasible is that at this point? I don't see those kind of guys growing on trees in April. It would seem to me that all the decent JUCO QBs have been signed and if a guy is looking to transfer as a grad student with probably only one year to play ala Russell Wilson, he'd want to go to a school where he has a shot at starting, not wasting it backing up a redshirt junior like Devin Gardner.

Brian Bennett: The good news for Michigan is it doesn't have to find a guy like Russell Wilson. In fact, someone like Danny O'Brien fits the Wolverines' plans better. By that I mean Hoke isn't looking for someone to come in and start, because he's got Gardner. He's really looking for an insurance policy, a player who can add depth and serve as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency backup who can allow Shane Morris to redshirt in 2013. Florida State transfer Clint Trickett has been mentioned as a possibility, though I'm not sure why he'd leave one place where he couldn't win the starting job for another similar situation. Then again, spending a year on scholarship at Michigan -- even if you never play a snap -- is not too bad of a deal.




Samir from San Francisco writes: In your note about the NFL draft, it seems you missed out Denard Robinson in the list. I don't believe that he was not even on the list because he is surely a good value and worth the risk for some NFL team.

Brian Bennett: That post contained the mock first rounds from Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay and McShay's list of talent tiers. Robinson wasn't included because neither of our top draft analysts mentioned him at all. I understand why that was the case in the first-round mocks, but it was curious not to see him even listed as a solid third-round pick by McShay. Teams are worried about Robinson's arm injury, and picking Robinson will require some projection and creativity to get the most value out of him. But he has speed that teams can't often find, and I wouldn't be surprised if a team took a chance on him in the first few rounds.




PhilosopherJoe from SpartanNation, USA writes: With the new media rights agreement being implemented in the ACC and no such agreement existing for the SEC, doesn't it remain at least a SLIGHT possibility that the B1G picks off one of the SEC's teams? If this were to happen, who would be the most likely to make a move? That is, who would be the most likely to WANT to move even risking membership to the most successful on-field conference and who would be appealing to the B1G as far as academics (AAU membership), geography, and new media markets? Maybe Vandy?

Brian Bennett: How strange is it that of the five major conferences, the SEC is the only one that seems vulnerable to getting poached because it lacks a grant of rights agreement? Of course, "seems" is the key word here. In reality, the SEC doesn't need to reach such a deal, because none of its teams are interested in leaving. For argument's sake, the only AAU members in the SEC are Vanderbilt and Missouri. If any school were inclined to leave, it might be Missouri, which I believe still fits better culturally in the Big Ten than the SEC. The Tigers found out last season that they might just be in over their heads when it comes to SEC football. Maybe they have buyer's remorse, and maybe the Big Ten tries to capitalize on that. But the Big Ten showed no interest in Missouri a couple years ago when Mizzou desperately wanted in, and adding that school would mean the Big Ten would need another member to get to the round number 16. And candidates are hard to find right now. Plus, there's just no real monetary incentive for anyone to leave the SEC -- unless Nick Saban and Alabama decide to try the NFL.




Doak Walker hopefuls from Rochester, Minn., writes: As a fan, I'm well aware of the 1-2 punch residing in the Badgers' backfield. Can you enlighten me on any other B1G programs with similar RB combos?

Brian Bennett: Wisconsin has senior James White, a proven player with more than 2,500 career rushing yards, and rising superstar Melvin Gordon. Can any other Big Ten teams compare? Well, I like the possibilities at Nebraska, where Ameer Abdullah is coming off a 1,000-yard season and sophomore Imani Cross looks ready to emerge as a major contributor. I'm intrigued by the possibilities at Iowa (Damon Bullock and Mark Weisman) and Penn State (Zach Zwinak plus either Akeel Lynch or Bill Belton), and Minnesota could have a nice power combo with Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams. If Jordan Hall, Rod Smith or Warren Ball takes a big step forward, Ohio State could have a great 1-2 punch at running back with Carlos Hyde. But I don't see any teams with two ready-made Doak Walker preseason candidates like Wisconsin, which of course has a proud history of star tailbacks. The other top running combos in the league are actually quarterback-running back duos (Hyde-Braxton Miller, Abdullah-Taylor Martinez and Kain Colter-Venric Mark at Northwestern).
On Wednesday, the head coach and one player from each Big Ten Legends Division team participated in a spring football teleconference with the media. On Thursday, it was the Leaders Division's turn. Here are some notes and updates from the call:

Illinois
  • Head coach Tim Beckman said the junior college players he brought in helped with depth and age issues on his young team. "We have 40 football players that have never been in our spring football until this year," he said. Of the juco imports, Beckman said wide receiver Martize Barr has quick hands and good playmaking skills, both in the passing game and on kick returns; Eric Finney has earned a starting job at the Star linebacker position; Abe Cajuste is adding depth by playing both defensive tackle and defensive end; and Dallas Hinkhouse is making an impact at offensive tackle.
  • Beckman sung the praises of offensive lineman Corey Lewis, a sixth-year senior who has battled back from five knee surgeries and has become a team leader. "Corey Lewis comes to my office probably four or five times a week, just to talk," he said. "To me, he is what college football is all about." Beckman said that Lewis has "had a special spring" and hinted that he has earned a starting job.
  • Quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole will take most of the snaps in Friday's spring game so they can get more experience in the new offense. Beckman said Scheelhaase has "got a step in front" because of his experience, but the competition continues.
  • Scheelhaase on reasons for optimism in 2013: "Establishing an identity. That's something I don't know that we necessarily had last year, on offense or defense or as a team in general.
Indiana
  • Like many of you, head coach Kevin Wilson would like to know the new Big Ten division alignment. The reason? It's harder to recruit without being able to tell a prospect where he'll be playing his freshman season. Wilson added that if the league does indeed go to an East/West split, he'd like to see the Hoosiers placed in the East since they're located in the Eastern Time Zone.
  • Wilson said run defense and takeaways are two huge priorities for the Hoosiers' defense during the offseason. He noted that the Big Ten doesn't boast a large group of elite pass offenses, so IU must prepare better for run-driven attacks. Indiana finished last in the Big Ten in both run defense (231.3 ypg) and takeaways (13). Cornerback Greg Heban said the defense is working on takeaways every day in practice. "Every time the ball touches the ground, the defense is scooping it and scoring it," Heban said, "trying to give us a feel of what it's like."
  • Both Wilson and Heban praised the play of junior cornerback Tim Bennett this spring. Other spring standouts include linebacker T.J. Simmons, a freshman early enrollee, and Steven Funderburk, a junior-college transfer.
  • Heban called this "easily the best spring I've been around." He has seen more physical play and better effort on both sides of the ball, and the team also is having more fun than in past springs.
Ohio State
  • Head coach Urban Meyer said running back Rod Smith won't play in Saturday's spring game because he recently suffered a concussion. Before that, Meyer said Smith was one of the five most improved players on offense this spring. Meyer listed Carlos Hyde and Smith as the team's top two running backs, while Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball are even for the No. 3 spot.
  • Although the receivers have been better this spring -- especially Corey Brown and Chris Fields -- the depth is still nowhere near where it needs to be for Meyer's spread offense. "We’re way behind on quality of depth at that position," Meyer said. "That's a major, major concern." Moving Jordan Hall to H-back should help, and Meyer noted that the Buckeyes boast two good tight ends in Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett.
  • Buckeyes offensive tackle Jack Mewhort paid close attention to the way John Simon and others led in 2012. He's ready to take on a greater load this season. "I welcome that," he said. "I see that as an honor, being compared to a guy like John Simon. I also see it as a challenge. I feel the pressure to step up and get guys going in the right direction." Mewhort also has seen quarterback Braxton Miller recognize his leadership responsibilities more this spring and get after teammates when he needs to.
  • Meyer said he puts more emphasis on spring practice and the spring game than most coaches. He has told his players that there will be a depth chart after spring ends, and while changes are possible in the summer, they're not likely. "In spring ball, you're trying to win a spot," he said. "During the fall, we're trying to win games."
Penn State
  • Quarterbacks Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson are receiving equal reps during practice and, not surprisingly, have endured some ups and downs. Head coach Bill O'Brien praised both players' intelligence, noting that they aren't making mental errors during workouts. "These guys have had productive practices," O'Brien said. "Has every play been great? No. But the word patience is a very important word here. Coming from pro football, I definitely have to learn more patience with all these young players. I think I have, but I can do a lot better." Senior guard John Urschel, who was highly entertaining during the teleconference, said he's the wrong person to ask about quarterbacks but praised Bench and Ferguson for picking up the system and showing leadership.
  • Urschel said the first-team offensive line right now consists of himself and Miles Dieffenbach at guard, Ty Howle at center and Donovan Smith and Adam Gress at the tackle spots. Of Howle, he said, "I could talk about Ty all day. If you ask me, he's one of the most underrated players on our team. ... Honestly, when I got here, I thought Ty was the best offensive linemen in our year, of the seven of us." Urschel also said Dieffenbach "started a lot for us last year but really is starting to take his game to the next level."
  • O'Brien said Zach Zwinak would get the start at running back if the season opened now, but all three backs -- Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch -- have had good springs. Lynch, a redshirt freshman, has "improved every single day of spring practice."
  • O'Brien is excited about Penn State's starting linebackers -- Glenn Carson, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman -- but admits the lack of depth at the position is "something I think about 24-7." He said it's vital to get Carson, Hull and Wartman through the rest of the offseason healthy, and hope for contributions from others like Ben Kline and incoming freshman Brandon Bell. Penn State won't shift players to linebackers because "there’s really nobody to move" and will instead closely monitor reps the rest of the spring and in preseason camp.
Purdue
  • Head coach Darrell Hazell said the Boilermakers have made major improvements in the last three and a half weeks. "Anytime you put in three different schemes, there's a little bit of a learning curve for the first couple weeks," he said. "You could see guys start to really get comfortable the last five or six practices."
  • Hazell said he has "three capable guys" right now at quarterback with Rob Henry, Danny Etling and Austin Appleby. He reiterated that he would keep the competition open until two weeks before the opener at Cincinnati. Of Etling, a freshman early enrollee, Hazell said: "For a young guy, a guy that should be at his prom, I think he's got tremendous poise. He's smart and really studies the game."
  • Hazell said backup tight end Justin Sinz and center Robert Kugler are two guys that have really caught his eye this spring. He called Kugler a "very much a leader on the offensive line."
  • Cornerback Ricardo Allen said Hazell has instilled an "all is one" mentality. "If one person does something, we all have to do it. We all wear black socks. We all wear the same uniform. We all tuck our shirts in. I feel like we're becoming closer as a team, and it's helping us build."
Wisconsin
  • Head coach Gary Andersen confirmed Curt Phillips and Joel Stave have separated themselves in the quarterback competition. It's a "mixed bag" of who takes snaps with the first-team offense, but both will continue to rotate through the rest of the spring and into fall camp. "The way they've separated themselves is simply production," Andersen said. "They know exactly where they sit and so does the rest of the team. … If they put all their friendships aside, their depth chart would look exactly like our depth chart."
  • Andersen praised the offensive line for tackling another transition, as the group works with its fourth position coach (T.J. Woods) since the 2012 Rose Bowl. The line has seen varying looks from the defense in practice and had players move around to different positions, in part because of injuries. Wisconsin had only seven healthy linemen a week ago, but Andersen is hopeful the number will rise to nine or 10 by next week's spring game. "Those kids have grinded through it every single day," Andersen said. "They're a tough-minded group."
  • Badgers senior linebacker Chris Borland said losing defensive end David Gilbert to recurring foot problems is a blow but the team has others to step in like Tyler Dippel, Brendan Kelly and Jesse Hayes, a redshirt sophomore who has stood out this spring.
  • Much like his old boss Urban Meyer, Andersen believes in constant competition and declares winners and losers in each practice. Andersen also mixes in some fun with a dance-off and throwing footballs into trash cans. "Some of them are a little bit quirky, but through the years establish some things we like," he said.
  • Borland said the strength program has brought the biggest changes in the transition to Andersen's staff. Cardiovascular work is stressed more, as is preventative care. Head strength and conditioning coach Evan Simon operates at a faster pace and uses more of an instructional approach than Ben Herbert, who stressed motivation.
Philly BrownJeff HanischThe Buckeyes are counting on WR Philly Brown to make the offense a more dynamic one in 2013.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Last year, Ohio State led the Big Ten in scoring at 37.2 points per game. Great, right?

Not in the minds of the Buckeyes, who thought they could have fielded a much better all-around attack.

"I feel like last year we didn't play a complete game as an offense," running back Carlos Hyde said. "Some games it was all running, while others it was just passing."

Head coach Urban Meyer rarely seemed happy with the offensive production last year, outside of the running skills of Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller. He often expressed his dissatisfaction over a lack of speedy playmakers and an inconsistent passing game.

"I'd get frustrated," Meyer told ESPN.com. "But the bottom line is, name an offense that doesn't have guys who make people miss and are dynamic with the ball in their hands, and that's not a great offense. We don't have enough."

The names on offense haven't really changed much this spring. But the hope is that with another year of understanding the system, some improved throwing and catching and maybe some reinforcements from the recruiting class, the Buckeyes will come closer to fulfilling Meyer's vision of a truly great offense.

It all starts, of course, with Miller, whose efforts to become a more accurate passer this offseason have been well documented. Ohio State also needs continued development from its receivers, which is not a very deep group right now. Meyer singled out Corey "Philly" Brown, who led the team with 60 catches for 669 yards, as someone who's becoming one of those dynamic playmakers he's seeking.

"I've tried to work on my open-field running and body control so I could cut faster," Brown said. "It's really paying off for me right now."

Brown is the clear No. 1 receiver, but he needs more help. The team has only six scholarship receivers this spring, and offensive coordinator Tom Herman said he'd only feel comfortable playing four of them for a whole game. Devin Smith made some highlight-reel catches on deep balls early last year but was less effective down the stretch, as he had only 13 receptions in the final eight games.

"People, for lack of a better term, figured him out," Herman said. "He wasn't a very versatile guy. He did a couple of things really well, but the other things that he tried to do, he was very below average. He's starting to improve some of his weaknesses to be a more complete receiver, and he has a lot of physical tools and a great attitude."

Herman said Chris Fields has had a really good spring, and Evan Spencer is a reliable target. Sophomore Michael Thomas, the star of last year's spring game, has shown flashes of his talent but needs to progress in a lot of areas. Herman called the receiver depth "a bit scary right now." But the Buckeyes recruited several receivers in this year's class, including Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, James Clark and Corey Smith. They're hoping at least one or two contributes right away.

"You hate to count on [recruits] because they're usually overrated," Meyer said. "But that's why we went out and recruited them."

"We're not asking them to come in and be Jerry Rice," Herman said. "We just hope they can provide some depth and maybe add some skills that we don't currently have in that room right now."

One area certainly not lacking in depth is at running back, where Hyde returns after rushing for 970 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. Rod Smith is having a good spring, Warren Ball appears to be coming on and if sixth-year senior Jordan Hall can ever stay healthy, he'll provide lots of versatility. There was a buzz last week in practice when the Buckeyes lined up with Hyde, Smith and Ball in the same backfield with Miller in a formation Meyer cribbed from the San Francisco 49ers.

"That can give a bunch of trouble to defenses," Hyde said. "They just see three big backs in the backfield and a quarterback who can also run the ball. They don't know who's getting the ball or who's going where."

Ohio State's offensive players do know where they're going, which is different than last spring. Now in the second year of the system, Herman says he can teach his guys not just what to do but why they're doing it.

"It's not just the memorization of, 'OK, I have to line up on the left here,'" he said. "I could train a monkey to do that. What separates really good offenses from average to below-average offenses is all 11 guys understanding the big picture, the entire concept and scheme we're trying to accomplish. It's been nice to kind of dive into that with all of our players this spring."

Knowing how to change a route against a certain defensive look, for instance, should help the Buckeyes play faster this year. The coaches have challenged the players to be a Top 5 offense in the nation this year. That's a lofty goal, but remember that this team is starting from an already high level despite its flaws.

"I definitely think we can be one of the top offenses in the country if everybody takes care of business and is mistake free," Brown said.
Ohio State's coaches thought they had found their Percy Harvin-type, do-it-all player this spring in running back Jordan Hall. Then Hall injured his foot in an off-the-field incident this summer that might keep him away from action until mid-to-late September.

So when the Buckeyes returned to the practice field this weekend, they had to start adjusting some of their offensive plans. That adjustment started with Carlos Hyde -- a 230-pound bruiser who has a much different skill set than Hall -- taking the first-team snaps at running back.

[+] EnlargeJordan Hall
Rick Ostentoski/US PresswireOhio State will be without versatile Jordan Hall early in the season.
"That changes it a little bit," offensive coordinator Tom Herman told ESPN.com. "We'll probably need to be a little more conventional. What Carlos is able to do is different than what Jordan can do, but what Carlos is able to do, he does really well. There are things Jordan could do that Carlos is not great at. So we've either got to find somebody else to do those things, or not do it at all. That's kind of what we're experimenting with right now."

The assumption is that Ohio State will feature more of a power run game early with Hyde than maybe it would have with the speedier Hall. But Herman says that's not necessarily the case.

"There's a misnomer that the spread [offense] has to be finesse," he said. "We certainly pride ourselves in being able to run the ball downhill. We just happen to do it by incorporating the quarterback in the run game and a few other bells and whistles here and there. But the runs are the same as they were in 1965.

"So I don't know that our running-game philosophy will change much. We will have to figure out ways to get the ball on the perimeter maybe a touch more. But that's not that difficult to do as a staff."

Herman said Hyde is the starter right now, and that the battle for the No. 2 spot between Rod Smith and true freshmen Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball is a heated one. When Hall gets back, everyone gets bumped down, and whoever is the No. 3 back at the time might become "nonexistent," in Herman's words.

The good news for the Ohio State offense is that it still has quarterback Braxton Miller, and an unaccomplished group of receivers that appears to have made some progress over the summer. Herman said that in the first two days of fall practice, the Buckeyes "threw and caught the ball better than any time during the spring."

"We told them, if you don't take the bull by the horns and are just content with working out and going home, then you're going to see in two-a- days what we saw in spring," Herman said. "And everybody knows that what we saw in the spring wasn't good enough."

The receivers, though, are coming along, and Herman said that on Monday, sophomore Devin Smith had his best practice since the new staff arrived. The wideouts are making more plays on the field, though Herman said they still need to learn how communicate with the coaching staff better in classroom and walk-through settings.

As any Buckeyes fan can probably tell you now, no receiver caught more than 14 balls last season. But Herman feels like he has a lot of options to work with.

"I think we have six guys who we feel like have the potential to be really good Big Ten receivers and win championships," he said. "At the same time, none of them have shown the consistency to be that. We think it's there, and we think that if there are not one or two guys who can be dynamic, then at least we have some depth with guys who are functional. But the ability to do it consistently day in and day out is still to be determined."

Just like a lot of things with the Ohio State offense this year.

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