Running low on running backs

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- No matter how he gets to it, the number is the same each week for Stan Drayton.

The Ohio State running backs coach obviously would prefer to narrow down his options rather than searching for an extra guy to lend a hand in the backfield. Either way, Drayton needs three players ready for action every time the Buckeyes take the field.

When the stable was fully stocked and all five tailbacks were healthy, that wasn't much of a chore. But with three of them currently dealing with injuries ahead of Saturday's nonconference date with California, Ohio State is having to get a bit creative to meet its desired quota.

"My mindset every week, I need to have three prepared," Drayton said. "Three need to be able to play this game, especially when you're talking a no-huddle offense, high-power, the whole deal.

"These guys get worn out pretty quick during the course of a game, let alone a season."

The Buckeyes didn't even make it to the first game in one piece at running back, losing projected starter Jordan Hall to a freak accident in June that has kept him out for the first two games and true freshman Warren Ball to foot surgery during training camp.

Carlos Hyde took over the top spot on the depth chart while Hall has worked through his rehabilitation period, but Hyde's name was added to the disabled list over the weekend after he suffered a knee sprain in Saturday's win over Central Florida.

That leaves freshman Bri'onte Dunn and sophomore Rod Smith as the only healthy tailbacks, and that's one body short for Drayton.

So he'll be closely watching Hall this week to see if the senior could return after being medically cleared for contact. But Drayton said the offensive coaching staff might also raid other positions to fill that void, with the Buckeyes considering further expansion of fullback Zach Boren's role after handing him the ball seven times against UCF with mixed results, or leaning more heavily on wide receiver Corey "Philly" Brown after he helped spark the rushing attack with two carries in the victory.

One way or another, Ohio State will have at least three guys to depend on, and the critical practices on Tuesday and Wednesday will determine which direction the team will go with its running game. And just because Dunn and Smith could get the Buckeyes two-thirds of the way to what they need doesn't mean they are guaranteed a spot in the game plan.

"We've got to get the guys ready to go," coach Urban Meyer said. "We've got Bri'onte, a talented freshman. Rod Smith has been around. Talent is not an issue anywhere at running back at Ohio State. We've just got to coach them better and get them ready to go.

"Those two kids are talented, so it's not like we have a bad player back there. I have to look in those guys' eyes -- it's the psychological approach to coaching with those young kids now. Who can handle it?"

How much a guy can handle will be just as important in the decision-making process.

Boren has other responsibilities as a blocker and in the passing game, and he already logs one of the highest snap totals on the team. Brown is the leading receiver after two games for an offense that would like to use him as part of an attack that takes more deep shots down the field. A healthy Hall obviously would be a boost at the position, but the Buckeyes won't rush him back before he's completely healthy.

Then, of course, there's the actual leading rusher in Braxton Miller. But Ohio State coaches would like to avoid giving him 27 carries, as they it did against UCF when they were running low on healthy, trusted options.

"The answer is one of those guys has got to pick his game up -- they have to," Drayton said. "We can't go into this game with the thought process of not having a running back, and that's not what we're doing. They will be ready to play.

"I feel like we have enough back there to get it done."