Ranking OSU’s Best Tailbacks Redux

In the nearly 14 months since I listed my top 10 Ohio State tailbacks of all-time, I have received a steady stream of e-mails critical of the list. Most of what I have heard has to do with the omission of Chris “Beanie” Wells although most of my electronic pen pals don’t seem to realize I formulated my list before the 2008 season – which would be Wells’ final one as a Buckeye.

It seems like as good a time as any to go back and take a second look at my list with the first question being: Does Wells belong on it?

Of course he does. Wells finished his career with the fourth highest rushing total in Ohio State history. But I have to be honest. I can’t remember a player in recent history whose career in which I have been more disappointed.

You may think it sound ridiculous to criticize Wells, especially when you look at the raw numbers. Only Archie Griffin, Eddie George and Tim Spencer ever rushed for more yards in scarlet and gray. Wells put together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, only the sixth OSU running back ever to accomplish that feat. His 222-yard effort at Michigan in 2007 is the most yards ever gained by an Ohio State runner in the long history of that series.

And still there is this nagging feeling in my mind that there could have been even more. In my mind, Wells could have gone down in history as one of the all-time greatest running backs in college football. He had the talent, the size, the speed. Somewhere along the line, it just didn’t happen.

First of all, there were the nagging injuries. Even so, you are never going to hear me say Wells was soft. Sometimes, injuries cling to a player like white on a baseball. Wells was one of those players. In only three seasons with the Buckeyes, he had hand, leg and wrist problems not to mention the toe injury he suffered in last season’s opener that cost him three games and parts of two others. Wells played with most of those injuries when lesser players would have not.

Still, the 6-1, 237-pounder was sort of a walking contradiction. He had some of the longest touchdown runs in recent memory, yet seemed strangely unable to pick up needed yardage on third-and-short. He had some three inches and nearly 40 pounds on teammate Maurice Wells, yet it was the latter that was often called upon in obvious passing situations because he provided the better pass protection.

Maybe Beanie is another one of the cautionary tales of recruiting. He was ranked second nationally by Scout.com in 2006 (behind only current USC quarterback Mitch Mustain) but ahead of such players as quarterback Matthew Stafford of Georgia, receiver Percy Harvin of Florida and quarterback Tim Tebow of Florida.

There is no doubt Wells had an excellent career at Ohio State. I guess maybe I was just expecting a little more.

With that, I have taken another look at my all-time top 10 Ohio State running backs and jumbled the list somewhat. See how it stacks up to yours.

1. Eddie George (1992-95) – I moved Eddie to the top of the list because he was a workhorse and always answered the bell. I wrote this the last time and it bears repeating: Watching George break through the line was like watching Secretariat break from the gate. The fact that he went on to such a productive NFL career was no surprise. His senior season in 1995, when he rushed for 1,927 yards and won the Heisman, is the gold standard for all Buckeyes who follow. Perhaps the most astounding thing about that season – every opposing defensive coordinator knew George was coming and was powerless to stop him. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry and 25.2 carries per game.

2. Archie Griffin (1972-75) – How do you measure heart? Archie was never going to be the biggest or the fastest running back on the roster, but you knew when you gave him the football that he was going to figure out a way to pick up the yards he needed. He maximized his talents through hard work and determination, and it didn’t hurt that he played behind a massive offensive line and one of the best blocking fullbacks (Pete Johnson) in college football history. Griffin’s career mark of 5,589 rushing yards still stands nearly 35 years after he played his last game at OSU – and no one has come within 1,800 yards of that record. Oh, yeah. He’s still the only guy ever with two Heismans.

3. Keith Byars (1982-85) – Byars was the top guy on last year’s list, but I took a second look and decided that he didn’t quite measure up to George or Griffin. IMHO, the senior season lost because of a foot injury costs him in the all-time rankings. Still, his 1984 season should never be diminished. He rushed for 1,764 yards and scored 22 touchdowns on 336 carries, a single-season workload that has never been equaled. Byars was also a dangerous weapon in the passing game, and he went on to catch 610 passes during a 14-year NFL career.

4. Howard “Hopalong” Cassady (1952-55) – Cassady has become a larger-than-life figure over the past 50 years, but many of today’s fans don’t know that he was a little guy by today’s standards. The freckle-faced, redheaded kid from Columbus Central High School was only 5-10 and about 170 pounds, but he could fly. He scored three touchdowns in his first college game and went on to become one of the greats in college football history. In 1955, he won one of the most lopsided Heisman votes in history, polling 2,219 points, nearly three times the total of the second-place finisher. Cassady was also the consummate teammate, leading Woody Hayes to say, “Hop is the most inspirational player I have ever seen.” Good enough for me.

5. Vic Janowicz (1949-51) – On sheer athletic ability alone, Janowicz had few equals. He could run, throw and kick a football with the best of them and had enough talent to become one of the few players to enjoy professional careers in both the NFL and Major League Baseball. The coaching change from Wes Fesler to Hayes in 1951 – and the philosophy change that went with it – robbed Janowicz of possibly becoming the first two-time Heisman winner. But those who remember his 1950 season remember a blur who ran past opponents and scored touchdowns in bunches. Oldtimers still talk in hushed tones about his performance in an 81-23 win over Iowa – he scored three touchdowns – two rushing and a 61-yard punt return – threw for four scores, recovered two fumbles on defense and kicked 10 extra points. Not a bad day’s work.

6. Tim Spencer (1979-82) – Spencer would likely have been higher on this list had he not served as a fullback for his first two seasons. And he was an excellent fullback, too, blocking for Calvin Murray and also carrying the ball with authority (back when OSU allowed the fullback to carry in tandem with the tailback.) Once Spence got the tailback spot to himself, though, he blossomed with a combination of speed and upper-body strength that blew through would-be tacklers. He totaled 1,217 yards in his first year as a starter and then upped that total to 1,538 in his senior year of 1982. That figure is still the fifth-best single-season total in school history.

7. Antonio Pittman (2004-06) – Largely the forgotten man in an offense that featured Troy Smith and Ted Ginn Jr., Pittman’s workmanlike approach to the tailback position allowed the Buckeyes to become a more multifaceted offense in 2005 and ’06. He was remarkably consistent during his two seasons as the starter – 1,331 yards as a sophomore and 1,233 as a junior – and turned himself into a pretty good receiver as well. Pittman would likely be higher on this list had he returned in 2007 for his senior season.

8. Chris “Beanie” Wells (2006-08) – And Wells would likely be higher, too, had he returned in 2009 for his senior season. Unfortunately, we never got to see him play an entire season injury-free. What we did get to see, however, was a guy who finished among the top five in nearly every career rushing category on the Ohio State record books.

9. Chic Harley (1916-17, 1919) – Simply put, Harley was the catalyst for what eventually became Ohio State football as we know it today. I could list his statistics, some of which would pale in comparison to the numbers average players put up these days. Rather, I’ll list just a handful for Harley’s accomplishments – Ohio State’s first three-time All-American, the first man ever to lead the Buckeyes to a victory over Michigan, the first to lead them to an undefeated season and the first to lead the Scarlet and Gray to a conference championship.

10. Robert Smith (1990, 1992) – Smith is another guy whose star would have burned much brighter if not for missed opportunities. He was an extremely gifted running back whose seemingly effortless strides allowed him to set the OSU freshman record in 1990 with 1,126 yards. Unfortunately, his college career got off-track for a variety of reasons – some of Smith’s own creation – and he never fully realized his great potential. Nevertheless, the all-too-brief flashes he showed in scarlet and gray make him deserving to be in my top 10.

One final note: There are those who are going to make the argument that players such as Cassady, Janowicz and Harley have no place on a list like this because of the advances football has made since they played the game. That is utter nonsense. Star power is star power, and those guys had it. Anyone who thinks they aren’t among the top 10 running backs in Ohio State football history simply doesn’t know much about Ohio State football history.

If you would like to take a look at my top 10 players at other positions, here are the links:

OSU’s Top 10 Quarterbacks

OSU’s Top 10 Fullbacks

OSU’s Top 10 Wide Receivers

OSU’s Top 10 Tight Ends

OSU’s Top 10 Offensive Guards

OSU’s Top 10 Offensive Tackles

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Among those celebrating birthdays this 6th day of August: Seventies TV actor Peter Bonerz (wisecracking dentist Dr. Jerry Robinson on “The Bob Newhart Show”) is 71; professional poker player Lyle Berman is 68; former MLB pitcher Andy Messersmith is 64; former MLB slugger Bob Horner is 52; former NBA star Dale Ellis is 49; actress Michelle Yeoh (Yu Shu-lien in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) is 47; Basketball Hall of Fame center David Robinson is 44; ESPN Radio personality Mike Greenberg is 42; film director M. Night Shyamalan is 39; ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell is 37; HBO boxing analyst Max Kellerman is 36; Eighties TV actress Soleil Moon Frye (“Punky Brewster”) is 33; and Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover girl Marisa Miller is 31.

AND FINALLY …

** You are no doubt aware that former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett has withdrawn his petition for early release from prison so that he could resurrect his NFL career. Clarett sent a letter Monday to the Ohio Parole Board explaining his decision, and while letters of those nature are not made public, speculation is that prosecutors in the case opposed the move, there was no chance Clarett was going to receive clemency at this time. The ex-Buckeye began in September 2006 serving a 7½-year sentence for a holdup outside a Columbus bar and a separate highway chase that ended with police finding loaded guns in his SUV. As part of a sentence agreement, he must serve at least 3½ years, which would keep him incarcerated until at least March 2010. “I’m a man and I struggle,” Clarett wrote Monday on his blog. “I’m not speaking of anything specific. I’m just talking in general. Depression comes and depression goes. … I personally believe that I’ve been aiming too low. A body and mind full of endless possibilities that I cannot and will not waste it back here.”

** The Big Ten has only two teams in the Sporting News’ preseason top 25 but five more in SN’s rankings of 26-50. Ohio State is the top conference team in the rankings, coming in at No. 9, while Penn State sits at No. 12. Then it’s a long way down to Iowa at No. 26 and Michigan State at No. 31. The head-scratcher is Michigan at No. 38 (because I don’t think the Wolverines will have a winning record in 2009). Wisconsin is at No. 47 and Minnesota is No. 50.

** When contacted about his team’s ranking, Minnesota defensive lineman Garrett Brown was more than a little miffed. “Everyone knows the Gophers should be ranked in the top 25,” he said. “Don’t make the Gophers angry. You all know the gopher as a happy, smiling little critter. But wait until that critter turns on his critics. He won’t be so happy then.” Sorry, Garrett, but I don’t think your team is going to finish above .500.

** College football kicks off its 2009 season later this month, and that means college basketball is also just around the corner. ESPN analyst Dick Vitale has released his preseason top 40 with Kansas leading the parade. Three Big Ten schools – Michigan State, Purdue and Illinois – are in the top 10 and Ohio State makes an appearance at No. 24. Vitale writes, “If B.J. Mullens had returned, the Buckeyes would have probably been in the top 15. They do have Evan Turner, though, who is one of the best players in the Big Ten.”

** ESPN analyst Andy Katz has also released his preseason top 25 and Katz thinks a little more of the Buckeyes than Vitale, ranking them at No. 16.

** As a Cincinnati Bengals fan, it is with a great deal of trepidation that I await the Aug. 12 premiere of HBO’s “Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals.” I figure the series will be somewhere between a Jerry Springer episode and those other insipid reality shows that currently litter the airwaves. Let the train wreck begin.

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2 Comments

  1. i dare say,ray,if eddie was on the same buckeye team byars was on,eddie would ride the pine.

  2. Mark,

    I would have Tim Spencer much higher on the list and number two to Archie. Not to correct you, but Tim only played fullback his sophomore year with one start his junior senior year against Wisconsin. His freshman year he played behind Cal Murray along with Kelvin Lindsey so he didn’t see the ball that much. One interesting thing about his sophomore year was that he was moved to tailback and Vaughn Broadnax came in to play fullback when the team got inside of the ten yard line.

    Tim also would have amassed and additional 1000 yards during his career if he was given the ball exclusively, but he was forced to share a lot of carries with Jimmy Gayle. Jimmy was a capable back but nowhere near the back that Tim was. In addition Tim never missed a game due to injury and was a better blocker than any of the other backs in your top ten.

    Tim does not get the respect he truly deserves in Ohio State Football History.


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