By Mitch Stacy
AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS — If Jim Harbaugh had his way, Mike Weber would be running around in maize and blue this summer instead of preparing to be the starting tailback for hated rival Ohio State.
Coming out of Detroit’s Cass Tech High School as a four-star recruit in 2015, Weber committed to play for Michigan coach Brady Hoke. But after Hoke was fired, he changed his mind and chose Ohio State following a feverish recruiting battle between Harbaugh and Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer. Harbaugh said losing Weber at the last minute left a bruise.
In Columbus, Weber was red-shirted last year after a knee injury in training camp and told to soak up all he could from Ezekiel Elliott, one of Ohio State’s greatest ball carriers. Elliott left after the season and was a first-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys. Then Weber’s chief competition at tailback, fifth-year senior Bri’onte Dunn, was kicked off the team for breaking the rules.
That cleared the path for Weber, who now will get his chance to be the next marquee back in a program that produced Eddie George, Archie Griffin and Howard “Hopalong” Cassady — it’s a job Meyer calls “a Cadillac position in sports.” His teammates call the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Weber “Baby ‘Los,” because his aggressive, bruising running style is reminiscent of Carlos Hyde, who ran for nearly 3,200 yards at Ohio State before going to the NFL in 2014.
No pressure, right?
“I really just go out there, play my hardest,” Weber said. “I know people compare me from recent backs that we had. We had some great backs out here. I used to be worried about trying to live up to those standards, but really I’m just now focused on being myself and doing everything I can to help this team win.”
Coaches acknowledge that Weber alone probably won’t be able to make people forget Elliott, who not only ran for more than 3,900 yards and 43 touchdowns in three seasons but also was a superb pass blocker. Meyer has said the H-backs, particularly Curtis Samuel, will carry the ball this season, and Antonio Williams, a freshman who enrolled early and participated in spring practice, also will be in the mix at running back.
Quarterback J.T. Barrett likes what he sees from Weber so far.
“He’s low to the ground,” Barrett said. “I think he’s a hard runner, but it’s hard to get at his legs because he’s so low. Being behind Zeke for a year … you see that playing running back it doesn’t matter if you’re blocking, running, blocking for me, all these different things, you just have to go at a high tempo all the time. And I think he’s definitely learned that from Zeke, which is going to come out in his game.”
The redshirt year, besides helping Weber mature, also gave him a chance to work on his body and fitness. Strength coach Mickey Marotti helped him develop a workout and nutrition plan, and the transformation was dramatic, evident in the side-by-side “before” and “after” photos Weber posted on social media. Meyer put it this way: “A little fat kid turns into a good-looking running back.”
“Last year, I was kind of running around with my head cut off,” Weber said. “I didn’t know too much, other than to get the ball and run. I was doing pretty well in fall camp last year before I got hurt. I was just learning last year, and this year I know what is going on, know the plays well, know my approach, know how to handle things differently. It should be a fun year.”
Running backs coach Tony Alford said Weber has “grown up in his approach to his game as far as the mental part of the game, the approach to the way he takes care of his body in regards to the training staff, the strength and conditioning staff, his attentiveness in the meeting rooms.”
“Everything about him is growing up right before your eyes,” he said.
Weber said the furor has died down back home regarding his decision to choose Ohio State over the team he rooted for as a boy, although some Michigan fans still give him the business from time to time. That’s not for him to worry about anymore. He’s getting ready to start at tailback for the Buckeyes on Sept. 3 at Ohio Stadium. The Horseshoe instead of the Big House.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “That’s what I came here for. It’s a huge opportunity to take on, and I’m ready to take it on.”