At the time of his knee injury as a true freshman in 2019, Ohio State running back Marcus Crowley had carried the ball 25 times over the course of nine games, picking up 237 yards rushing and scoring one touchdown. He averaged 9.5 yards per carry prior to his injury and was only picking up steam.
As evidence of that, in his last three outings of 2019 — against Nebraska, Northwestern, and Maryland — Crowley rushed for 180 yards on just 14 carries (12.9 ypc). It was his final carry in an 82-yard outing against the Terps that cost him an ACL. He missed the final five games of 2019 and the first five games of 2020.
While he may have only missed 10 total games, Crowley was out of action for over a year, which is a bit unusual following an ACL tear. As it turns out, it isn’t that easy to rehab from an injury during a pandemic when you’ve been sent home and are 800 miles away from the Ohio State medical and rehabilitation team.
Fifty-seven weeks after his injury, Crowley returned to the field. It was the Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern, but he only received some some special teams duty. The same thing happened against Clemson. He was back on the field, but it wasn’t quite where he wanted to be yet.
“Well, I think last year he was a little frustrated as we went through the year and he wasn’t playing much, and as he was coming back from injury he had some setbacks and things like that,” Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford said this spring.
Crowley did finally get to carry the ball last year against Alabama. He had to step in to spell Master Teague in the national championship game because the Buckeyes lost starter Trey Sermon on the first carry of the game and freshman Miyan Williams was back in Columbus in quarantine.
While Teague was able to post 65 yards rushing on 15 attempts, Crowley managed just 14 yards on his six carries. Even though he was back, it was clear he wasn’t back.
“A quick story,” Alford began, “we’re playing the Alabama game and he has a couple of carries and things happen and he gets tackled and he comes to me, I’m standing on the sideline. He looks up and he says, ‘Hey, man, I apologize.’ It’s in the middle of the game. I said, ‘Apologize? What are you talking about?’ He goes, ‘You’ve been saying I wasn’t ready.’ And he goes, ‘I’m not.’ He goes, ‘You’re right.’ And it took him playing, kind of getting knocked off balance because he wasn’t strong enough and things like that. Upon himself, he was like, ‘Yeah, I see it. You’re right.’ And sometimes again, those are hard conversations, but their real conversations, right?”
Crowley is now 17 months removed from that injury and while he won’t know for sure if he has returned to form until he’s playing in a live game again, the reviews from spring practice have been very positive. There have been tales of long runs in scrimmages and the kind of vision and balance that won him the Gatorade Player of the Year Award for the state of Florida in 2018.
And if Alford is any judge (and he is), then Crowley is looking more and more like his old self. Most importantly, the drive is there as well.
“But now I think he’s getting better,” he said. “He really has done a good job of committing himself or trying to commit himself to getting stronger. Just more girth and strength so he doesn’t get knocked off his feet as easily. His change of direction. But Marcus is a competitive kid and he’s had a really good offseason. He’s had a really good offseason. So I’m anxious to see where this continues to go.”
It has been a long time since the Ohio State running backs were in a room this deep and competitive, and the more a running back can do, the more likely he is to see the field of play. Crowley rehabbed to get his knee to full strength, but his focus has also been on rounding out the entirety of his body and his game.
And it’s showing.
“He’s gaining the weight, he’s getting the weight on that we want him to have,” Alford said. “Now is he going to be able hold it and sustain the weight as we want him to do? But he’s had a really good focus. He’s had a really good focus this past couple months during the offseason as we move into the spring, and I’m excited. I’m really excited to see what he does because Marcus has got a lot of talent.”