COLUMBUS -- If all else fails, perhaps Ohio State could just resort to Plan Z and have someone hand the ball off to Braxton Miller.
Running backs coach Stan Drayton laughed. He should be so lucky.
"Sounds good to me," he said with a big smile Monday.
As it stands, the 12th-ranked Buckeyes are prepared to rely on their backup, backup options at running back to help relieve the rushing burden on their star quarterback for Saturday's game against California.
A procession of injuries has left OSU with only two healthy tailbacks -- and neither has inspired much confidence yet. Freshman Bri'onte Dunn, the listed starter, has 12 career carries while sophomore backup Rod Smith lost a fumble on one of his three touches against Central Florida.
"That is certainly a topic of conversation that will impact how we game-plan," coach Urban Meyer said. "Those kids are talented, so it's not like we have a bad player back there. We just need to look in those guys' eyes. It's the psychological approach to coaching now: Who can handle it?"
The Buckeyes began the summer with five scholarship backs, then endured a stream of setbacks. Starter Jordan Hall tore a tendon after stepping barefoot on a piece of glass while picking up after his dog; freshman Warren Ball underwent a season-ending foot surgery; and top backup Carlos Hyde left Saturday's game on a cart with a strained MCL.
Meyer said the news is good on Hyde and Hall, both of whom could be ready by Sept. 29 for Ohio State's Big Ten opener at Michigan State. Hyde is out this week but his knee did not swell while Hall was medically cleared to play over the weekend and will attempt to practice this week.
"There's a chance [he'll play]," Meyer said.
Yet the Buckeyes will only count on Dunn and Smith with certainty against Cal, which means coaches must get creative. Two options: an increased role for fullback Zach Boren and employing receiver Corey Brown in a hybrid role similar to the one plotted for Hall. The 6-foot, 186-pound junior burner leads the team with 11 catches and flashed his speed on the edge with two carries for 33 yards against UCF. Meyer considers the former high school running back the offense's top playmaker save for Miller.
"I always want to run the ball," Brown said. "I joke around about it a lot in the locker room with the backs telling them I could play running back. For it to happen would be really cool."
The Buckeyes could also throw up their arms, revert to one dimension and simply ride their star quarterback. While Meyer said he wants to limit Miller to 10 to 12 carries per game, that is more talk than walk in the throes of a game. Miller ran for 141 yards on a career-high 27 carries Saturday, staying on course to become the first 1,000-yard rusher in Meyer's 11 seasons as a head coach. His 302 rushing yards rank fourth nationally behind only three running backs -- UCLA's Johnathan Franklin, Buffalo's Branden Oliver and Air Force's Cody Getz.
"[Heck] of a football player," Meyer said of Miller. "Better than even everybody in this country thinks right now. That's how good I think Braxton Miller is. But we have got to be smart, and he got tattooed a little bit.
"We've all got to take care of him. That's kind of the message I'm giving in the team meeting to the offensive line here tomorrow, take care of him. That's a good problem to have."
Ideally, though, Meyer would prefer a more balanced running game, which will hinge Saturday on the readiness of Dunn and Smith.
For Dunn, it was only months ago that his future at OSU appeared tenuous. The five-star recruit was cited for marijuana possession among four counts in a July traffic stop outside his hometown in Canton. But he was cleared of the drug charges -- Dunn was only cited for two traffic violations. He impressed in camp and is now the latest stand-in atop the depth chart.
"It's one thing getting your mind right to go to be a third-string tailback for a game," Meyer said of Dunn, who ran for 29 yards on five carries against the Knights. "It's another thing getting your mind right to be the guy that's going to jog out there with the first offense."
So is Dunn ready? Is Smith? Asked what he would do if OSU did not have a trustworthy back by Saturday, Drayton would not go there.
"One of those guys has got to pick their game up," he said. "They have to. We can't go into this ballgame with the thought process of not having a running back."
Contact David Briggs at firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.
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