COLUMBUS — Sooner or later a discussion of Ohio State running back Mike Weber is going to get around to a comparison to Ezekiel Elliott.
Elliott was a huge part of OSU’s offense and set the standard extremely high for anyone coming after him when he ran for 1,878 yards in 2014 when Ohio State won the national championship, then rushed for 1,821 yards last year as a junior before leaving for the NFL.
Weber, a redshirt freshman, has rushed for 1,072 yards this season for the No. 3-ranked Buckeyes.
Ordinarily that kind of production from a freshman would be applauded and there would be only a few questions about it. But following Elliott, there have been comparisons made and Weber usually comes out second-best in those match-ups.
“I try not to really think about it and just go out there and play the best that I can and be the best Mike that I can be,” Weber said. “I do hear stuff like that, but I do my best to tune that out.”
Being the best Mike he can be doesn’t mean Weber doesn’t want to be like Elliott, though.
Ohio State’s coaches, with the help of some veteran players, have schooled him in the way Elliott prepared for games and played them.
“We want him to be a lot like Zeke and use it as an example quite often,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said earlier this season.
At one point in the season Meyer was asked how much Weber’s dedication to hard work had improved and how much improvement had been necessary. His answer was, “A lot and a lot.”
Offensive linemen Pat Elflein and Billy Price were two of the veteran players assigned to improve Weber’s work habits after a torn meniscus sidelined him for all of the 2015 season.
Elflein’s assessment of his student when he started working with him was, “He worked hard but he wasn’t always locked in and focused.”
Weber rushed for more than 100 yards in three of OSU’s first four games, but has done that only once since Oct. 1. He says he is around 90 percent healthy going into the Buckeyes’ College Football Playoff semifinal against No. 2 Clemson on New Year’s Eve after suffering a sprained shoulder on Nov. 5 against Nebraska.
The evidence that Weber is unafraid to be compared to Elliott goes back to when he was being recruited.
Seeing Elliott rush for 220 yards against Wisconsin, 230 yards, including an 85-yard touchdown run against Alabama, and 246 yards in a 42-20 win over Oregon in the 2014 national championship game played a role in his decision to sign with Ohio State.
“It kind of influenced me to come here, how well he was running the ball and how well that line was blocking,” Weber said. “It kind of felt unreal, just watching it, how the hole would open up and how he was breaking so many tackles and scoring touchdowns. I kind of pictured myself doing that.”
Weber is often compared to Carlos Hyde, who Meyer called “a thumper,” more than he is to Elliott, who routinely broke long runs.
However, if you compare where Elliott was before his late-season rampage through the postseason and the two games just before it, Weber’s numbers are not too different.
Through the first 10 games of the 2014 season in his first year as a starter, Elliott rushed for 949 yards, only 14 more than Weber’s 935 yards in the first 10 games this season.
In the first 10 games of 2014, Elliott had only two runs longer than 30 yards. In the first 10 games of this season, Weber has had two carries that went for more than 30 yards.
Elliott began rolling up big numbers after the tenth game, though, including a 65-yard touchdown run against Indiana, a 44-yard sprint to the end zone against Michigan, an 81-yard scoring run against Wisconsin, his legendary 85-yard TD run against Alabama, and a 33-yard scoring run against Oregon.
The hope at OSU is that Weber will hit a few big plays in the playoff games. He calls a long touchdown run “the next thing on my agenda” and says working on his speed will be a priority in the offseason.
“I do think about how he (Elliott) burst onto the scene and I know I haven’t quite done that yet. But I am looking forward to doing that,” Weber said. “Coach Alford (running backs coach Tony Alford) reminds me a lot about turning it on in the next two games.”