Almost immediately after Ohio State’s loss to Texas was in the books, the question of which running back would replace Chris Wells in the Buckeyes’ backfield.
Perhaps the question instead should have been which running backs would be tasked with replacing the guy who went by the nickname of “Beanie.” Right now the Buckeyes have two scholarship tailbacks in Dan “Boom” Herron and Brandon Saine, each of whom have experienced success to varying degrees in their two years with the program.
Herron is the odds-on favorite to take the first carry of the season when Navy comes to town Sept. 5, and barring injury that will be the case. However, as he looks at the position under his direction, OSU running backs coach Dick Tressel said fans might see a throwback look in the backfield this fall.
“The thought I’ve had is that this may be the most comfortable situation to really use two backs like the pros are,” he said. “We have a little more balance in the ability levels and age. They’re in sort of the same place in their growth as football players where the last couple of years we’ve had an old guy and a young guy and it wasn’t a real comfort level with everybody.”
Both Herron and Saine were members of OSU’s class of 2007. Each was rated a four-star prospect by Scout.com, with Saine and Herron listed as the Nos. 11 and 27 running back prospects in the country. Perhaps reflecting this, Herron went through a redshirt season while Saine saw action in 11 games as a true freshman and emerged as a jack-of-all trades within the OSU offense.
In the process, Saine was named the team’s outstanding first-year player on offense.
But now a full season removed from that year, the landscape looks decidedly different. Saine slipped down the depth chart as a sophomore after suffering a hamstring injury on the second day of fall camp that deprived him of valuable practice reps.
With the departure of Wells to the NFL, Herron and Saine step into the void. Wells toted the ball an average of 20.7 times a game last season as the focal point of the OSU offense, and his season high was 31 carries in a week eight road win against Michigan State.
That one-game total marked more carries than Saine had all season – 26. Herron finished with 89 carries, an average of 8.1 per game.
Provided Saine stays healthy, that should leave enough opportunities for both tailbacks – perhaps at the same time.
“They like to compete,” Tressel said. “I think they both would love to be the starting tailback at Ohio State. I think that they like to compete to pursue that but they’re really team people. If that means each of them carry it 15 times, one 20 and one 10 or whatever it takes, I think they’re ready to go.”
During spring practice, the Buckeyes have gone through drills with two running backs on the field. In the drill, the quarterback lines up in the shotgun with one tailback at each side and a fullback at the line of scrimmage. After taking the snap, the quarterback heads around the imaginary end with the option of pitching it to either back or keeping the ball himself.
Should Saine stay healthy and Herron continue to develop, such a formation could be tough for opponents to stop with Terrelle Pryor manning the quarterback position. In essence, it makes teams choose one player to key on, creating mismatches. Last season, Pryor and Wells were often successful while using the same sort of attack.
For now, the Buckeyes continue to try out a number of players in different positions as they try to figure out what will work best come fall. Whether or not OSU will line up with two tailbacks in the game at the same time will not be decided for some time.
However, one thing will be certain as far as the running attack goes.
“They’ll look very similar if we’re ahead 21-7,” Tressel said with a laugh. “You’re going to see the fullback out there and we’re going to run the ball and somebody’s going to probably carry it 25 times. We’re ready to do that.”