Top spring position battles: No. 4

February, 18, 2014 Feb 18 9:00 AM ET COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nobody is walking into a stress-free environment when Ohio State returns to the practice field in spring as long as national-title aspirations hang in the air and Urban Meyer prowls the sideline. But the pressure isn’t the same for all the Buckeyes since a healthy handful have their names etched at the top of the depth chart and won’t be sweating a competition for a starting job — obviously beginning with a quarterback who has finished in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy voting two years running. But who will back up Braxton Miller is just one of the most intriguing positional battles that will be waged in March and April, and after already tackling that topic in the countdown, the series rolls along with a look at who else might be lining up with him in the Ohio State backfield.

+ EnlargeTrevor Ruszkowksi/USA TODAY SportsEzekiel Elliott averaged 8.6 yards and had three touchdowns on his 33 touches as a freshman in 2013.No. 4: Running back Predecessor: Carlos Hyde (208 carries for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns; 16 catches for 147 yards and 3 touchdowns)

Candidates: Senior Rod Smith, redshirt sophomores Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball, true sophomores Ezekiel Elliott and Dontre Wilson

Why to watch: The Buckeyes will again spend the spring and summer months emphasizing improvements in the passing game and seeking to find more balance in the play-calling, but Urban Meyer’s version of a successful spread offense will always start with a powerful rushing attack. And after two seasons of leaning on Hyde to do the heavy lifting between the tackles and keep the chains moving, the Buckeyes now need a new sidekick for Miller — or maybe a couple of them. With such a deep stable of options returning to fill the void left by Hyde and his 19 carries per game, Ohio State might not need to tab just one guy to handle the majority of the work. They could try to spread around touches among as many as four rushers. That was also the plan to some extent last year, though, before Hyde clearly proved he was the most reliable and consistent threat on the ground and ultimately soaked up most of the snaps. All that playing time is available now, and the competition to earn it will no doubt be heated.

Pre-camp edge: If the Buckeyes are purely looking for a strong, rugged rusher who fits the physical mold of Hyde, Smith or Dunn might have the advantage. Should Meyer want to feature a more dynamic athlete like he always intended to do with Jordan Hall, Wilson might be in line for more work as a traditional tailback instead of shifting around as a hybrid weapon. But the best combination of size, speed and game-breaking ability appears to be Elliott, who showed glimpses of his potential while racking up 262 yards on just 30 carries with a pair of touchdowns during his first season on campus. Of the many candidates the Buckeyes can sort through, the process is likely to start with Elliott when the pads go back on next month.

Covers Ohio State and the Big Ten.Joined ESPN in 2012.Attended the University of Wyoming. Tags:Ohio State Buckeyes, urban meyer, ezekiel elliott, Jordan Hall, Carlos Hyde, Rod Smith, Bri’onte Dunn, Warren Ball, Braxton Miller, Dontre Wilson, spring position battles 14

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