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Buckeyes’ backfield has versatility, depth

COLUMBUS — There is no Archie Griffin, Eddie George or Beanie Wells in Ohio State’s backfield this fall.

Instead, the Buckeyes have a lineup full of choices at tailback, with several players who can do different things all clamoring for carries. And no one knows for certain how they’re going to be used.

“No matter what happens, it’s going to be fun,” said Brandon Saine, the top candidate to be Ohio State’s top runner. “We have so many options that anything the coaches decide to do, we can win.”

A year ago, while going 11-2 and winning the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl, the Buckeyes ran roughly twice as many times as they threw the ball. But with quarterback Terrelle Pryor back for his junior year and healthy after offseason knee surgery, it’s altogether possible they might just go to the air more this season. If that’s the case, there are plenty of options out of the backfield.

“We have really capable running backs. We have so much depth back there I look back and it’s crazy,” lineman Justin Boren said.

The 6-foot-1, 219-pound Saine is a former high school sprint champion who also has the size to take on a linebacker filling up a hole. As a junior, he rushed for 739 yards last year, averaging more than 5 yards a carry.

Although smaller than Saine, Dan “Boom” Herron (5-10, 202) is more physical and actually prefers to run between the tackles. He netted 600 yards and scored seven touchdowns as a sophomore.

Adding to the intrigue at the position are Jordan Hall, who chipped in with 248 yards in limited duty, along with touted freshmen Jaamal Berry, Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith.

Zach Boren, the brother of starting guard Justin, holds down the fullback spot along with Adam Homan, but coach Jim Tressel sees the position as a complement to the tailbacks. The fullbacks seldom carry the ball or go out for a pass because they’re used primarily as battering rams to protect Pryor and spring their running mates.

The Buckeyes’ biggest weapon out of the backfield is Pryor. He’s a factor whenever he elects to head upfield.

Last year he became the first Ohio State quarterback to lead the team in rushing since the school began keeping records back in 1944. He totaled 1,014 yards on the ground and scored seven times, also passing for 2,094 yards and 18 TDs with 11 interceptions.

No one knows for certain how much he was hindered by the knee injury a year ago, when Tressel basically had him handing off for the final four games of the regular season. Can he become more of a passer? Will he, like former Buckeyes quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, disdain the run as he grows into the job?

Answers will start coming as soon as the Buckeyes’ season-opener on Sept. 2 against Marshall.

The backs are trying to prepare for a continuation of the run-first philosophy from late last season, while also being ready in case Pryor is allowed to go to the air more.

“We’re ready for that. Toward the end of last year we got the passing game going,” said Saine, who was Ohio State’s third-leading receiver a year ago with 17 catches. “Terrelle is definitely ready and excited for it and, being able to catch the ball out of the backfield, I’m excited for it too.”

Pryor is non-committal about whether the offense might have some new wrinkles this fall.

“We’ll be multiple. Ohio State always has to have that, so the quarterback makes plays,” he said. “It’s on the quarterback. He has the ball. That’s on me. I’m willing to take that. We’ll be multiple.”

Justin Boren welcomes a more open offense, featuring passes to the backs, but he also knows that the Buckeyes’ never stray far from running the ball and daring a defense to stop them.

“If we’re running the ball for 200-plus yards per game, we’re going to be winning ballgames,” he said. “You develop the run and then you can pass a little bit and open it up. I think definitely developing the run is the most important thing.”