COLUMBUS — The moment should have been a celebration for Marcus Crowley.
Instead it was just a realization that the hard work of a grueling recovery wasn’t done yet.
Crowley hadn’t taken a snap in 14 months when Ohio State turned to him for carries off the bench in the national-title game against Alabama in January. A promising start to his career had been on hold after a knee injury midway through his freshman campaign just as he was building momentum, and offseason setbacks in his rehabilitation had kept him on the sideline all year — until the Buckeyes turned to him in the most important game of the season.
It wasn’t a crowning achievement or the end of the road. It turned out to just be the next milestone on the way back to full strength.
“I think last year he was a little frustrated as we went through the year and wasn’t playing much,” Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford said. “As he was coming back from injury, he had some setbacks and things like that.Â We’re playing in the Alabama game and he gets a couple carries, gets tackled and comes to see me on the sideline. He looks up and says: ‘Hey, man, I apologize.’ This is the middle of the game. I was like: Apologize, what are you talking about? He goes: ‘You had been saying I wasn’t ready, and I’m not. You were right.’
“It took him playing and kind of getting knocked off balance because he wasn’t strong enough and things like that for him to see it. Sometimes those are hard conversations, but they’re real conversations. But now I think he’s getting better.”
That progress has already shown up through two spring practices for Crowley, though Wednesday was yet another important benchmark for the talented tailback as the pads went on for the first time in camp.
After all he’s been through, Crowley has been hesitant to get too carried away evaluating himself physically at such an early point. There were no bold predictions about being stronger than ever or projections of a looming breakout season, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given the humility Crowley showed on the sideline in South Florida.
But it’s clear that some confidence is returning heading into his third season with the program, and that puts him squarely in the mix of the six-man race to take over as the starting running back.
“My health right now, I would say Iâ€™m 100 percent,â€ Crowley said. â€œYou know, last season was a long journey after the Maryland game tearing my ACL [in 2019], and then with COVID, it was harder than what it should have been. I feel like everything went smoothly, shout-out to the trainers and everybody because Iâ€™m feeling good for this upcoming season.
“Definitely my cutting ability [has improved]. At the end of last season, I still wasn’t able to cut as sharply or as quickly as I can now, and that’s just come with the more rehab I’ve been doing, the more treatment I’ve been doing, working with the training staff. Honestly, it’s hard to tell right now because we haven’t put on our pads or really played much football. But I personally feel like I’ve made a lot of improvements since my freshman year even after the injury. So, we’re going to see.”
Both the Buckeyes and Crowley have obviously been waiting for a while for the next glimpse at his potential, an admittedly frustrating wait with the injury coming in the midst of an eight-carry, 82-yard outburst against the Terrapins. Crowley had already done enough to prove to Ohio State that he didn’t need to be redshirted as a freshman, and his emergence was turning him into a viable threat to take over the backup role — which could have helped in the eventual Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson.
Instead patience has been required for everybody involved. And a true payoff could be on the way soon for Marcus Crowley.
“He’s getting better — he’s really done a good job of committing himself to getting stronger, just more girth and strength so he doesn’t get knocked off his feet as easily,” Alford said. “His change of direction [is improved] and he’s had a really good offseason. I’m anxious to see where this continues to go.
“I’m really excited to see what he does, because Marcus has a lot of talent.”
Crowley wasn’t physically ready to tap into it all again in January.
But even just two months later, there are signs of something truly worth celebrating for the Buckeyes.