COLUMBUS — Tony Alford has seen no shortage of talented running backs come through the program as he heads into his eighth year as the running backs coach at Ohio State.
Players such as Ezekiel Elliott, Curtis Samuel, J.K. Dobbins, and Trey Sermon have each carved out strong legacies in Columbus over the past decade under Alford’s tutelage before heading on to the NFL to do the same. With the return of explosive sophomore running back TreVeyon Henderson, Alford figures to again have a generational talent at his disposal heading into the 2022 season who will continue that recent trend.
But what Alford may have this season that is different than any of his prior years with the program is elite depth at the position with three backs who have all shown the ability to be the playmaker Ohio State needs to compliment the vaunted passing attack.
All Henderson did a year ago was finish with the second most rushing yards by a freshman in program history, including a freshman single-game record performance of 270 yards against Tulsa, as he validated the considerable hype he received coming out of high school as one of the most coveted backs in the class.
Despite all that hype surrounding Henderson entering the preseason, it was Miyan Williams who opened last season as the lead back. And while Henderson quickly separated himself in the following weeks, Williams managed to finish with 507 yards and a hefty 7.1 yards-per-carry average despite a lean diet of carries in 2021.
Now entering his third season and in the best shape of his college career, Williams appears poised to shoulder even larger expectations following a stellar sophomore campaign.
Add sophomore Evan Pryor, a highly-regarded recruit in the 2021 class in his own right, into the mix and Ohio State’s running back depth chart will feature three ball carriers this season who would likely start for 90% of the teams in the country. For good measure, Alford will have the services of talented incoming freshman Dallan Hayden should injury concerns arise.
“At running back, you need depth,” Alford said following Friday’s practice. “You have to have depth. You’ve seen games where a couple of guys in one game go down, so you’ve got to have depth.”
How the load of carries is ultimately divvied up remains to be seen, although it is beyond a safe assumption Henderson will again lead the team —and perhaps the country —in production from the running back position. Alford isn’t concerning himself with which backs will be featured the heaviest this season, however. Instead, he’s hoping the next few weeks of camp make those decisions even tougher because of what it will mean for the team.
“I don’t think it’s about trying to get separation,” Alford said on Friday. “I just want guys to continue to get better. And if you show that you can play winning ball, then we’re going to find ways to put you on the field and help this football team win. To say that there has to be this major separation, quite frankly, I hope there’s not a lot of separation because that means we’ve got some really good guys.”
With preseason camp just three days old, and players yet to pad up, Alford said it’s too early to evaluate where his players currently stand in the pecking order as it pertains to the season opener against Notre Dame. Rather, he just wants to promote a sense of professionalism and accountability in his room to ensure his guys are continuing to progress as the season draws near.
“I’m asking them just to make sure they’re being pros,” he said. “They’re veteran guys, or at least two of them are veterans, and the top three guys have been in the program now. So I’m asking them to be pros about the way they approach their business, the way they go to meetings, walkthroughs, and practice. Be pros and just continue to get better, but I love the room that I got.”