COLUMBUS — Ohio State football running backs coach Tony Alford wants to make a hard decision sometime during the season opener against Notre Dame on Sept. 3.
The starting assignment is easy. TreVeyon Henderson locked up that job for three years by his third game as a Buckeye.
Who takes the next handoff between Miyan Williams and Evan Pryor? Alford said the depth chart “will play itself out.” However, he said he has not framed preseason camp as a race to see which back pulls away from the other.
“I don’t think it’s about trying to get separation,” Alford said. “I just want guys to continue to get better. And if you show you can play when involved, then it’s my job, our job, to find ways to put you on the field to help this football team win.”
Williams made the most of a few postseason snaps at the end of his true freshman season in 2020, then started last season’s opener at Minnesota. He eventually receded to the primary backup role behind Henderson. He averaged a robust 7.2 yards per carry, totaling 508 yards and three touchdowns over 10 games.
Pryor played in only four games last season to protect his redshirt option. He totaled 98 yards and a touchdown and added a couple of receptions. That latter has always been anticipated as a bigger part of his game as he developed.
Henderson played sparingly in the spring game, leaving Williams and Pryor to showcase themselves for the fall. Williams totaled 103 yards on 17 touches. Pryor turned his 13 touches into 106 yards with a pair of touchdown runs.
The 5-foot-9, 225-pound Williams employs more of a power running style, though he has also hit some game-breakers, including a ran-the-wrong-way 71-yard touchdown run in that opener against the Gophers. Pryor offers more shiftiness in space and top-end speed, though he had to break a couple of tackles on his 21-yard touchdown run in the spring game.
“Everybody in the running back room is great,” Williams said of co-existing with Pryor. “I feel when we come in we shouldn’t miss a beat.”
This will mark the third straight season in which Ohio State expects to leave camp with the running back order still in question.
Two years age, Teague and Tre Sermon opened the season in a job share. Teague took the early momentum when Sermon struggled to find his footing. But when Teague suffered a concussion in the Big Ten championship game, Sermon took over with a school-record rushing performance and helped push OSU into the national championship game.
A year ago, the conversation in camp involved when Henderson would move to the top of the running back rotation. He carried the ball twice in the opener, 12 times in the loss to Oregon and 24 times in Week 3 — a 277-yard, three-touchdown eruption that affixed him to the top of the depth chart.
The Williams-Pryor competition does not rise to the same level of urgency. However, Alford admitted Henderson wore down in the second half of last season and hit the “freshman wall.” His physical development makes that less of a concern this season, but elevating the production behind him remains critical.
“Quite frankly, I hope there’s not a whole lot of separation, because that means we’ve got some really good guys, not one guy who’s so heads and tails above someone else,” Alford said. “You’d like to have an opportunity where you have three or four guys that you can throw in and feel comfortable throwing in anytime.”