“Eighty-five yards through the heart of the South.”
In one play, former Ohio State Buckeyes and current Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott raced into college football lore.
Just one carry — one which made history in a College Football Playoff semifinal against the Alabama Crimson Tide — casts a sizable shadow for any successor on its own, say nothing of the standout career Elliott enjoyed in Columbus.
Elliott’s shadow is long enough that early indicators from Ohio State fall camp suggest several players will be used to fill it. Curtis Samuel is one of them — he could be viewed as merely a face in a large crowd — but he may be the Buckeye equipped to carry the mantle for the first-ever College Football Playoff MVP.
Urban Meyer has stockpiled an impressive stable of candidates for primary running back duties, a testament to his staff’s efforts on the recruiting trail. Dontre Wilson will gain opportunities in 2016, as well as talented youngster Mike Weber.
Of that trio, however, Samuel is the most game-tested.
He functioned well as a complement to Elliott in the running game in 2014, rushing 58 times for 383 yards and reaching pay dirt six times.
It’s not quite an 85-yard-per-carry average, but six per touch isn’t too shabby. Samuel also did some of his best work in the Big Ten Championship Game, punishing Wisconsin with a pair of scores and approaching his average yards-per-carry output against the Badgers’ typically stout defense.
For a slot receiver who was moved to fill a gap in the running back corps that no longer exists, Samuel succeeded.
His production dipped from 2014 to 2015, but that’s more a function of the offensive woes that plagued Ohio State much of the season. Tom Herman’s exit to coach Houston served as prelude to a season in which the Buckeyes never quite seemed to nail down an offensive identity.
Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett played musical chairs at quarterback, while Elliott struggled to get as many carries as he warranted. With Elliott gaining an inadequate number of opportunities, there was no way Samuel was going to acquire a heightened role in the offense.
Nevertheless, he made more of his limited chances, improving his YPC output to nearly 7.8. Samuel also put his slot-receiving experience to use, finding a consistent role as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. That same ability could separate him from the rest of a crowded depth chart in 2016.
Meyer’s offenses have made use of similarly dual-skilled backs in the past. Samuel’s role in the Buckeyes’ attack may well resemble Jeff Demps or Chris Rainey, two hybrid backs for Meyer’s Florida Gators during their national championship and Sugar Bowl runs of 2008 and 2009.
Neither Demps nor Rainey registered eye-popping statistics individually, but with Samuel being worthy of a heavier workload, he’s capable of combining their production. A stat line in the neighborhood of 120 carries and 50 receptions by season’s end doesn’t seem unrealistic, with yardage in the neighborhood of 1,500 combined yards.
It’s not quite Elliott’s 1,800-plus yards in each of the last two campaigns, but that’s a rock-solid foundation for Weber and Wilson to build on as the Buckeyes employ a more multidimensional approach.