After entering the season with one of the nation’s best duos at running back, Ohio State could instead find itself relying heavily on true freshman Dallan Hayden in the backfield this week as the regular season nears its finish line.
During his press conference on Tuesday, head coach Ryan Day was hopeful to get his full complement of backs healthy in time for next week’s showdown against Michigan after TreVeyon Henderson missed last week’s game and Miyan Williams was lost to an injury during the game.
Those injuries thrust Hayden into a featured role against Indiana, and he responded well, recording his first 100-yard game while carrying the ball 19 times and scoring once in a 56-14 win.
But before Ohio State can worry about Michigan, it must first get past Maryland in the final road game of the season, and Day was less clear about the status of Henderson and Williams this week. And given the revolving door the running back position has represented for Ohio State this season, Hayden may be in line for his biggest moment yet in the first start of a college career that began just this past summer.
“I feel like I’m ready,” Hayden told a pool of reporters on Wednesday. “I practice hard, and I take coaching from (running backs) coach (Tony) Alford. He just always tells me to study, and I listen to everything he says.”
As a summer arrival, Hayden admitted he didn’t begin to feel comfortable in the offense until midway through Ohio State’s August preseason camp. Simply learning the playbook was difficult for him, a truth most freshmen find after arriving on campus. But constant studying has gotten him ready for whenever his number has been called, and that scenario has played out with increased frequency as the season has progressed.
After receiving the first carries of his career in a win over Wisconsin on Sept. 24, Hayden was featured heavily in the second half at Michigan State in the absence of Williams before gashing Indiana this past Saturday. With every carry, Hayden has looked increasingly comfortable as a player capable of shouldering the lofty expectations placed on his fellow backs, displaying both decisiveness and explosiveness when he finds a crease.
“Coach Alford kept motivating me, saying that I’m going to get more reps. And I feel like the more reps I got due to (injuries), they made me better and made me play a lot faster,” Hayden said.
Hayden’s capability on the field has hardly been a surprise to his head coach, but it’s been Hayden’s ability to not be overwhelmed by everything associated with playing major college football that might be most impressive to Day.
“The talent was there,” Day said. “It’s a matter of how quickly they can assimilate and how quickly they can get into the program and the culture. And can they sustain it over an extended period of time with all of the things that we ask of them —academically, in the weight room, the preparation, and the daily grind of being a college football player as a freshman? That’s really what you’re not sure about with a young player.”
Day said the first thing Hayden has done well is protect the ball, something every young back must prioritize before stepping on the field. He added, “I think when you watch him run, he runs with good vision, he has good quickness, and good feet in the hole. He accelerates through the hole.”
Aside from protecting the ball, Day said the best thing he has seen from Hayden is the trust Hayden has shown in his instincts as a runner while “not letting the moment get too big for him.” Such attributes will continue to be tested as the importance of those moments continue to rise alongside Ohio State’s national title hopes.
But Hayden has given no indication he won’t be ready for whatever is asked of him in the weeks to come. And even if Henderson and Williams return to full strength and Hayden is again relegated to spot carries, his experiences this year certainly bode well for the Ohio State backfield next season.
“If he can keep building on that and growing on that, he’s got a bright future ahead of him,” Day said.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.