Boom & Zoom Ride Again
As Jim Tressel was engulfed by a ring of curious reporters Thursday after the initial practice of the spring football session, the Ohio State coach admitted that the tailback depth hasn’t always been up to his standards.
“We went a few years with really shaky numbers,” he said.
Then Tressel started rattling off the seasons: 2001, ’02, ’03, ’04. Injuries, transfers, early defections and even a couple recruiting misses left Ohio State, a school as rich in tradition at running back as any in the nation, a bit thin in the ball carrier department.
Antonio Pittman and Beanie Wells brought stability and star power to the spot in recent years, but last season the coaching staff had to go to a committee approach and, as a result, nary a tailback came close to a 1,000-yard season.
In fact, quarterback Terrelle Pryor was the team’s leading rusher in 2009 with 779 yards via the ground.
However, to look at the tailback position as an area of weakness heading into this fall would be a mistake. Counting the nimble Pryor and a stable of able runners, Ohio State now has one of the most potent backfields in college football.
A huge reason for that was the development of the rushing tandem of Daniel Herron and Brandon Saine, or, as everyone in the program refers to them, Boom and Zoom.
Tressel made sure to shower praise on those two at the onset of the spring and also likes the abilities of returning backs Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry. And the sleeper of the group appears to be newcomer Carlos Hyde, a 6-foot, 235-pound bruiser who also has shown impressive straight-line speed.
“When you talk about tailback, it takes two sprained ankles, one bruised thigh and a broken hand and you’re playing empty again,” Tressel said. “But we’ve got a chance there.”
Which brings us back to Boom and Zoom.
Saine finally became the playmaker of his “Mr. Football” days at Piqua (Ohio) HS as he gained 739 yards rushing on 145 carries for a healthy average of 5.1 per pop. He also and logged four touchdowns and was the team’s third-leading receiver with 17 catches for 224 yards and two more scores, one of them a 13-yarder that opened the scoring in the Rose Bowl. In that satisfying win over Oregon, Saine also had an electrifying 46-yard catch and tiptoe drill down the sideline.
It turned out to be a breakthrough junior season for Saine.
“Coming into the season, I really didn’t know what to think,” he said in December. “I was just going to do my best and what I could for the team. But we were all excited for the season.
“Personally, I was happy I scored in the Michigan game, which for me was my first time. It was a little disappointing not being able to pull off a couple close games but other than that it was a great season. It was really fun.”
Also fun for Saine was how he seemed to surprise opponents, analysts and fans with his ability to power through arm tackles and turn short gains into breakaways.
“Some people tend to underestimate my size,” said Saine, who enters the spring listed 6-1 and 219 pounds. “In high school I used to run the same way.”
Still, Saine’s agility seems to complement Herron (5-10, 202), a junior from Warren, Ohio, who rarely shies away from contact. Taking a similar number of handoffs last season – 153 – Herron netted exactly 600 yards on the ground for an average of 3.9 per carry. However, he tied receiver DeVier Posey for second on the team in scoring last season with eight touchdowns, some of them coming at very key times.
Herron had a pair of TDs in the Big Ten-opening 30-0 whitewash of Illinois but he also sprained his ankle in that game, paving the way for Saine to log his first career start the following week at Indiana.
Herron eventually worked his way back into the fold and he and Saine showed how much they could impact an important contest in OSU’s 27-24 win over Iowa in the Nov. 14 home finale. Saine had 103 yards rushing and two scores while Herron rammed into the Hawkeyes all afternoon with 32 carries for 97 yards and a huge 11-yard TD scamper.
“I would definitely say around that (early November) area is when I pretty much got back to being healthy, got back to myself and started running the ball like I know how to,” Herron said.
Heading into Michigan week and the Rose Bowl, the Boom-and-Zoom combo took much of the burden off Pryor, who blossomed at season’s end.
“It kind of helped us out,” Herron said. “Early on we didn’t get the running game going like we wanted to. We tried something different during the middle of the season and continued it towards the end of the season, and it worked out pretty well.”
Plus, with both runners healthy and confident, they began to motivate each other and revel in their shared role.
“I think that we definitely feed off of each other a little bit,” Saine said. “We get excited for each other. When I’m out I enjoy watching what he’s doing then I can come back in the game and he can help me and give me pointers, and I can do the same for him.
“It’s definitely a plus being able to rest and go in and have fresh legs. When the defense is out there and it’s been a long drive, it’s hard to deal with a tailback who comes out there who hasn’t been in for a while and is fresh.”
Saine said OSU fans can expect more of the same in 2010.
“I definitely feel me and Dan are going to be ready and we’re going to work well together,” he said. “I think being able to see the other person doing well pumps us up. We like to encourage each other and we’ve seen that helping each other out really helps.”
Herron said he and Saine are close but that he looks up to his elder.
“He got a lot better,” he said. “I think the more he plays, the more he gets better. I think with any running back, the more reps that you get, the more you get better. We’re both going to keep working hard.”
Herron added that he wants to make the same strides in his junior season.
“I want to do a lot more things to be a lot better,” he said. “This isn’t the season that I wanted. That’s something that I’ll be working hard at in the offseason, to get better at a lot of things. I’m the kind of person that is not satisfied with just being able to do one thing. I want to get better at everything. It was fine, but at the same time I would like it to be a lot better.”