Editor’s Note: This is the second in a nine-part series outlining the 2019 Ohio Football roster. The series will break down nine parts of the program in the coming weeks, with a look at who returns, what’s changed, and what’s to come at each position. The series continues today with a look at the Ohio running backs.
This story appears in the Thursday, June 13 newspaper on Page A7.
When he arrived in Athens, it didn’t take long for Julian Ross to figure out how his position group — running back — stacked up.
At the head of the list were guys like A.J. Ouellette, Dorian Brown and Maleek Irons. As players, the trio — even as 20-year olds — were packed with muscle and had bodies that screamed physical maturity.
Ross, then a fleet-footed game-breaker out of Kansas City, saw the bulging biceps, the tree-trunk thighs and broad shoulders and thought of one thing.
“That’s what I have to get to,” said Ross this spring, and about to enter his third season with the Ohio University football team. “They looked like running backs.
“I had some work to catch up to them.”
Over the two-plus years Ross has done the work. And it shows. Ross is bigger, and stronger, now with two years under his belt in the program. And he’s still acknowledged as the fastest player on the roster.
“He’s just a flat-out burner,” said Ouellette in March. “He’s got that home-run kind of speed. We’ve seen for a while now.”
It was a top-end speed that got Ross on the field as a true freshman two seasons ago as a kick returner. He average 30 yards per return, the highest in the last 10 years at Ohio.
But now he’ll have to show he can do the job of being an every-down back. The third-year sophomore figures to be near the head of the list for Ohio as the Bobcats look to rebuild the running back position in 2019.
“It’s wide open,” said Ohio RB coach, and offensive coordinator, Tim Albin this spring. “Julian is right there with a few other guys.”
Ross didn’t get a chance to claim any kind of inside track on being the 2019 starter in spring camp. He missed most of the 15 practices, and was held out of all contact, after in-season shoulder surgery in 2018.
Ross appeared in just four games last fall, and had just 14 rushing yards on seven attempts. he had 250 yards and three touchdowns on 60 carries as a freshman in 2017. He started the year with a bum shoulder, gave what he could, and then shut it down for surgery five weeks in.
Ross looked good this spring, and hasn’t lost a step. But there’s a long way between potential and production. And Ohio is losing virtually all of its production from a year ago.
Ouellette leaves Ohio as one of the most decorated RBs in program history, despite his humble start as a walk-on. Maleek Irons, drafted by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the CFL a month ago, was ultra-productive as back ‘1B’ last season. Walk-on David Burroughs, like Ouellette and Irons, was a third fifth-year running back lost to graduation.
That trio amassed 357 carries, 2,267 combined rushing yards, 20 rushing touchdowns and 27 receptions in 2018 as Ohio posted the highest-scoring season in program history. The trio averaged 6.4 yards per carry. And it’s all gone.
In 2019, Ohio returns just 33 carries, 119 rushing yards and one reception. among the running back group.
“We lost some dudes now,” Albin notes. “A.J., Maleek, those are five-year guys who were damn good for us.
“We’re going to be young there, hell we’re going to be young in a lot of spots offensively,” he said. “We’re going to see what we got.”
The RB competition was far from settled after the spring. Ross was a non-factor in the scrimmages, and junior Ja’Vahri Portis (6-0, 200) — a walk-on turned scholarship player this spring — lost most of the spring thanks to a broken bone in his leg in the first spring scrimmage.
Sophomore Jake Neatherton, another walk-on turned contributor, leads all returning backs with 19 carries for 81 yards last season. Neatherton became a special teams regular in 2018, but a hamstring issue this spring cost him a chance to likewise put a stamp on the position.
That left freshman O’Shaan Allison to handle more carries than anticipated this spring. And Allison delivered.
At 5-9 and 205 pounds, Allison has a ‘bowling-ball’ style familiar to the Bobcats — similar to Beau Blankenship and Ouellette — and he held up despite heavy work this spring. Allison appeared in two games last year and had just seven carries for 24 yards.
“O’Shaan really helped himself this spring,” Albin said. “We threw a lot at him, and he held up well through it. He showed he can compete and can get some things done.”
Besides Allison, another pair of walk-ons — freshman Shane Bonner and sophomore Jonathan Barna — did most of the running this spring for Ohio.
No, Ohio didn’t settle anything with the running back position this spring. And the competition there will only get heavier this summer. Junior college signee De’Montre Tuggle (5-9, 185) and freshman Walter Wilson III (5-11, 205) are expected to join the ranks and will be vying for carries in fall camp.
“I don’t know how it’s going to shake out just yet,” Albin admitted. “I know we have talent. I know we have good guys in that room.
“But what we don’t have yet is someone who has proven it week after week, game after game.”
2019 Ohio Football
Starter — Julian Ross (R-Sophomore, 5-10, 195)
Someone has to be at the top of the depth chart, and it might as well be Ross. He’s got the top-end speed that Albin is looking for, and has played in 10 games over the previous two seasons. Ohio will play multiple backs this season, and probably won’t settle on established roles until the start of conference play.
Gone — A.J. Ouellette, Maleek Irons and David Burroughs.
Ouellette is one of the best in program history, Irons was big and fast and complemented Ouellette nicely last year. Burroughs was a multiple-year walk-on who closed out blow outs in style. The Bobcats will miss the physical style Ouellette and Irons brought as much as their yardage.
Backups — O’Shaan Allison (R-Freshman, 5-9, 205), De’Montre Tuggle (5-9, 185), Walter Wilbon III (5-11, 205), Jake Neatherton (R-Sophomore, 5-9, 202).
Ohio will have five guys in the mix to split the RB duties. Tuggle, the juco transfer, will be physically ready to contribute and had nearly 900 yards and seven TDs in 2018 at Kilgore JC. Wilbon, a three-star recruit with 10 other scholarship offers, will get a chance to show what he can do in fall camp.
Allison built up a sizable amount of capital with the staff and teammates this spring. He was a workhorse, ran well into and through contact, and took a big step forward. Neatherton is another ‘bowling-ball’ type and has as much experience as anyone else at the position.
Depth — Ja’Vahri Portis (R-Junior, 6-0, 200), Jonathan Barna (R-Sophomore, 5-9, 185) and Shane Bonner (Freshman, 6-0, 193).
Albin was thrilled with the development of Portis, but his leg injury this spring may end up costing him a chance to contribute. Barna and Bonner took their licks this spring, but showed well enough that I expect to stick to the roster next fall.