By Mitch Stacy
AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS — With Ezekiel Elliott preparing for the NFL draft next month, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is at spring practice trying to figure out how to replace one of the greatest Buckeyes ball carriers of all time.
Meyer must find the player — or players — who will account for the 1,874 rushing yards and stellar pass blocking Elliott contributed last year before deciding to leave a year early. Elliott had his breakout season during the Buckeyes’ improbable march to the national championship in 2014, and in three years rushed for nearly 4,000 yards. Huge cleats to fill.
Will fifth-year senior Bri’onte Dunn, an underperformer whose best moments have been on special teams, take advantage of the opportunity? Will heralded redshirt freshman Mike Weber step up and be the man? Will true freshman Antonio Williams crack the depth chart?
Hard to tell right now, but so far in this spring Meyer is optimistic about what he’s seen from all three.
“Bri’onte Dunn and Mike are neck and neck,” Meyer said this week, and Williams is “earning respect.”
Invisible for most of his OSU career, Dunn worked his way back into Meyer’s good graces with an attitude adjustment and hustle on special teams. He had 14 carries for 91 yards and a touchdown last year playing behind Elliott.
“I’m so impressed with him,” Meyer said. “We all know a couple years ago, there wasn’t a whole lot of conversation about him.”
Dunn (6-foot, 215 pounds) won’t say outright he expects to be the starter this fall, but naturally that’s his goal. He’d like to make some noise in Columbus in his last year of eligibility. With the job now wide open, the timing might be right.
“This year is going to be a big year for me,” he said Thursday after the Buckeyes’ seventh practice of the spring. “I just want to lead my team.”
Huge things are expected of Weber, a 5-foot-10, 215-pound Detroit product who spurned Jim Harbaugh and Michigan to come to Ohio State in 2015. However, a knee injury in fall camp last year set him back and he ended up being redshirted, so he still has four years of eligibility.
“Mike’s probably a little more of a slasher and slides off things a little better than Bri’onte, or different from Bri’onte,” running backs coach Tony Alford said. “Bri’onte is more a downhill (runner), a plugger. They both can do the jobs we need them to do in this offense.”
Williams, the 5-foot-11, 215-pound early enrollee from North Carolina, was considered one of the gems of the 2016 recruiting class. He’s been involved a lot this spring and has impressed coaches so far.
“He’s hungry, he wants to do it right,” Alford said. “He’s a perfectionist by nature.”
Regardless of who participates at running back, Ohio State surely will get the ball into the hands of Curtis Samuel, who backed up Elliott in 2014. As an H-back last year — a hybrid receiver/running back in Ohio State’s system — he had 22 receptions for 289 yards and two touchdowns, and picked up 132 yards on 17 carries and a TD on the ground. He’s out this spring while recovering from foot surgery, but expects to be healthy this fall.
FRESHMEN IMPRESS: Meyer this week singled out early-enrolled freshman Michael Jordan (6-7, 302) as making an impact as the Buckeyes look to replace three departing starters on the offensive line. Freshman wide receiver Austin Mack also got kudos from Meyer this week. At practice Thursday, he became the first freshman to lose the black stripe from his helmet, a symbol he’s now a full-fledged member of the team.