COLUMBUS — Trey Sermon streaked across the Ohio State sky like a meteor, dipping just low enough to leave his trace before bouncing to the NFL.
It was obvious to all the difference in the Buckeyes running attack with the suddenly infused Sermon — his school-record 331-yard performance in the Big Ten title game win over Northwestern followed by his rips in the romp over Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal — and without him. Injured on the first play of the title-game loss to Alabama, he had to step out.
Though Master Teague stepped in to score two touchdowns, and despite the first extended appearance by Marcus Crowley, the running game was not the same force it had been down the stretch. And that is another reason why the upcoming spring practices are going to be interesting for the Buckeyes.
Sermon, the one-year transfer from Oklahoma, is gone. The competition to replace him as the featured back in one of the nationâ€™s elite offenses is about to ensue. Yeah, it might be overshadowed by the battle for starting quarterback to replace the departed Justin Fields, but in rank of importance it is at least No. 2 — perhaps even 1B.
And the competition? It promises to be a stampede.
â€œItâ€™s going to be exciting to watch,â€ Ohio State coach Ryan Day said.
That was after he reeled off the entries, all with parenthetical explanations.
â€œMaster comes back, which is great,â€ Day said of the veteran who starterd most of last season before Sermonâ€™s surge. â€œHe brings some experience to the table. Marcus Crowley is coming off that ACL [knee injury which sidelined him until late last season], so now we get to see the best version of him.
â€œMiyan [Williams] really popped [late in the season before being sidelined against Alabama due to Covid-19] and showed some great things. Steele [Chambers] is going to get the opportunity to compete [which he got last year until a few fumbles took him out of the mix].
â€œAnd then youâ€™ve got two young guys [freshman early enrollees TreVeyon Henderson and Evan Pryor], and I know that theyâ€™re coming in here to play as well.â€
So, the Buckeyes are right: Itâ€™s going to be exciting. That is, if spring practices can go off with any semblance of normalcy compared to a year ago when the Buckeyes got in only two before the Covid-19 outbreak forced a halt.
â€œLot of depth, lot of guys, certainly a lot of talent,â€ Day said of the running backs, not the least of whom is Henderson, a five-star prospect according to the 247Sports composite of the major recruiting services. â€œWhat a great opportunity this spring to have these guys go compete.â€
Day and the coaches plan to enhance the competition, too, to gain better perspective.
â€œWeâ€™re going to try to do the best we can to simulate games as much as possible to get a feel for where these guys are at,â€ Day said.
Thus he repeated something from a few weeks earlier in regards to the quarterback battle. But how better to judge who is winning a race other than at full speed as much as possible?
In the case of the running backs, the criteria might be part subjective but mainly objective.
â€œYouâ€™re looking for versatility, but youâ€™re [also] looking for accountability,â€ Day said. â€œAnd a big part of that is holding on to the football. If you cannot hold on to the football you cannot play running back at Ohio State. Thatâ€™s the No. 1 thing.â€
Then comes the versatility.
â€œBeing able to pass protect, being able to routes, but then also having versatility in the run game,â€ Day said. â€œAre you just a gap scheme guy or can you run zone? Can you run the stretch? Can you run the inside zone?â€
All of which means being able to pick out an open door and get through it.
â€œObviously vision is something that we all look for,â€ Day said. â€œVision and feet.
â€œAnd then, how do you finish runs? At first contact are you finishing those runs and turning two- and three-yarders into four? Thatâ€™s really important. And the last partis can you hit the home run? Can you get to the second level and make the safety miss, and turn a gain of 15 into a home run?â€
Again, Ryan Day thinks the Buckeyes have the players on hand who could fit that bill. Now he wants to see the stampede.