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Ohio State’s running backs coach Tony Alford sits down with Niners Nation to talk about Trey Sermon

We spoke Sermon’s personality, leadership, background, and what he’ll bring to the 49ers

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Ohio State’s running back coach Tony Alford has coached running backs for 23 years. He’s been everywhere from Mount Union to Iowa State to Notre Dame. Alford has been with the Buckeyes since 2015. He also played for Colorado State in the late 80s, where Alford was a Doak Walker Award nominee.

If there’s someone who knows a thing or two about running backs, it’s Coach Alford. I spoke to Alford for just under a half-hour, where he provided insight about 49ers running back Trey Sermon that we couldn’t get anywhere else. Alford recruited Sermon out of high school and once again when he decided to transfer from Oklahoma.

Here’s my conversation with Sermon.

Initially, they had canceled the B1G season, while the Big-12 was all systems go. Did you ever get the sense that Sermon felt like his career was in limbo?

Actually, I thought if they’re going to cancel here I was wondering if they’re going to leave here and go either back [to Oklahoma] or go play somewhere else. We had those conversations, and he was like ‘Coach, I’m good. I’m not going anywhere.’

His faith was unbelievable. He told me, ‘Coach, we’re gonna play. It’ll work out. Everything is gonna work out. This is what we’re gonna do.’

How familiar were you with Sermon out of OU? I remember watching him as a true freshman and being blown away.

[ Laughing] I always thought he was a hell of a player, or else we wouldn’t have recruited him as a player and we dang sure wouldn’t have gone after him as a grad transfer.

I think one of the things is that he had a slow start with us, if you will. A lot of that was attributed to him coming off a serious knee injury. He missed half of the season. Then he doesn’t get a spring. COVID knocked out any real type of training camp.

He’s now in a new setting, new offense, different type of offense. There’s a lot that played into that. The one thing about him is he kept his nose down. He didn’t freak out. He’s very calm and collected. Calculated. When it was time for him to show up, he did.

You mentioned not having a spring, and that has a lot to do with what I’m about to ask you. He was essentially RB2 for the first five games. You rotated [Master] Teague, but Teague was getting more carries. How will that help him going to a situation like the 49ers who constantly rotate running backs?

I think his whole career has been like that. You go back to Oklahoma and it’s been like that. Then he came here and it was like that. Whether he wanted it that way or whether we wanted it that way or not, that’s what it was. Whatever those reasons were that manifested itself to that, it is what it is.

So that’s not going to shock his system, one. Two, he’s got less wear and tear on his body. Trey doesn’t have a lot of wear and tear on that tread, now. Where some guys you walk out and they’re all beat to hell after four years of getting mashed. He doesn’t have that type of wear and tear on his body, which is going to help him.

He’s had his share of injuries. If you play this game, you can 100% with certainty say you’re going to have injuries if you play this game at a high level. Not 50%, not maybe 100%. Something is going to happen to you, however severe or not, something is going to happen.

So he doesn’t have the wear and tear on him. His mental state... that kid is so grounded. He’s singularly grounded. Whatever comes at him, Trey Sermon is going to be fine.

You mentioned no spring, coming off an injury. How many practices did it take you, once you got your hands on him, to figure out that you were working with something special?

I would say we knew. When it really started to show its head was maybe three games in. He would occasionally do some things, like ‘ok.’ He obviously had some frustrations where he wasn’t playing as much. He was getting bothered, and you could tell that.

What we had to do, or what I had to do, was look at the bigger picture and really champion all of the small victories. I think we might have been running “counter” in practice. He made a move, and kinda dipped his shoulder.

I’ve been asking him, ‘hey, you gotta run behind your pads more when you’re going through the line of scrimmage and to the second level of the defense.” He actually did it. We weren’t tackling, but he did it. It would have been like a five-yard run, nothing major.

But he did this one little thing that I had been asking him to do. It’s one little small little detail that a lot of people wouldn’t have even recognized. You know how coaches go crazy when you mess up? Well, you better go crazy when they do it right. You better be just as enthusiastic with a kid when he does something right as when he does something poorly, or else you’re going to lose him.

I remember making a huge deal about it in the film room, like, ‘hey look at this.’ So, then he hit it. At Michigan State, he started taking off. You could see it. Then he started really taking off. Then, the next game was Northwestern.

And I say this too, because you hear, “well, he had a slow start.” A lot of running backs have finished great. Like J.K. Dobbins. He rushed for 2,000 yards. You look at Zeke Elliott’s first year, when he really came into his own and blew it up at the end of the year and beat Alabama and they beat Oregon.

He really didn’t start smoking until game seven, and then he just took off. A lot of guys really don’t start hitting their stride until about midseason. They really start that rise. When you look at Trey, people say, “he didn’t really start to do anything until the end of the season.”

The end of the season was really game six because we had all of those cancellations. So, the first three games — does everyone wish there would have been more spark early? Yeah, of course — but really when he started hitting his stride was about game four, which was Michigan State.

You talked about him being bothered. Wouldn’t that be a concern as a coach? If you took a guy out and he was OK with that and being on the sideline. Can you speak about his mentality in that sense.

That’d be a major league problem. That’d be a major red flag if the kid was not playing and he’s OK with not playing. To me, that’s a major red flag. He wasn’t OK with not playing by any stretch of the imagination.

At the same time, you can only control what you can control. You can only control how hard you play. When your number is called, you better be able to deliver, which we call competitive excellence — which he did.

It wasn’t like he was playing poorly when we were rotating.

What would you say Sermon’s best trait is? What stands out and what separates Trey?

I think he’s got exceptional vision and exceptional burst. Now, his top-end speed may not be what others may be. From making a decision to putting your foot in the ground and going from point A to point B, that initial burst is elite.

The one thing that he has — and it was really weird because I’ve never had a guy like this, so it took me some time to figure it out because I couldn’t just figure it out — you say he doesn’t run hard. He’s not running guys over in that physical manner where he hits you and his hips snap back and all that.

Well, he doesn’t have to because Trey is so long. Look at his leverage. Look at his arms. He’s so long, that he can push off you and stiff arm you, that you can never really get to his body. You can never really get to him because of his length.

He’s got an amazing stiff arm, so he can keep you off of him. Trey does an amazing job of making space because he’s so long and can keep people off him. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. When you describe it, you can see all of that. When you mention his burst being elite, he had one of the fastest 10-yard splits in the entire draft, at 1.49, which is unreal. That’s as fast as Raheem Mostert, who’s arguably the fastest player in the NFL.

You mention his home run speed. That’s one of his biggest knocks. But in college, at both OU and Ohio State, it seemed like he broke a long run every game. How would you describe his speed?

He’s got great game speed. I guess you can say, “well, he didn’t time that well in the 40.” I’ll take the 35-yard touchdown run against Clemson every time. I know it wasn’t 40 yard, but I’ll take those 35-yard runs where he’s scoring touchdowns. He was fast enough to get there, so I’ll take that, I guess.

It’s not rocket science to me. I know he makes plays, and when the opportunity presents itself, he makes plays for us.

He may have been drafted in the third round, but I don’t know if you saw his shirt on draft night, it was easily a top-10 shirt. It was bright, colorful, loud. Does that kind of describe the person/personality that Trey Sermon is? What are the 49ers getting as far as the person?

They’re getting an unbelievable young guy. I call him a kid because they’re like my sons, my boys. He’s not flamboyant at all. At all. He’s the furthest thing from that, as you’ll ever find.

He’s reserved. He’s a team guy. He’s not a guy that’s going to be out front with the “look at me” loud bravado. That’s not who he is.

He’s a guy that’s going to go back to his apartment with his dog Lucky and play video games and watch film. That’s what he’s going to do. He’s not a big guy that’s going to go out and party and to bars. That’s not who he’s been here, so I assume that’s not going to change.

He’s a very grounded individual. He’s a very appreciative young man for the things that have been given to him and the things that he’s earned. You talk about a guy that comes from an amazing mom. Natasha is amazing, amazing, amazing. He honors his mom every single day. And he does that by the way that he handles his business. He’s such a grounded man. Very faithful.

Never too high, never too low. The highs are the highs, and the lows are the lows. He takes it all in stride. He’s a guy that has great respect for authoritarian figures, like coaches. He may disagree, but he’s not going to make a way. He’ll ask questions like “why this or why this” in a very professional man-like manner. He’s a man’s man. That’s who he is.

That sounds like the ideal human that you want to work for.

He’s a consummate pro. You coach these kids like they’re your own children, right. One of the things for me when my guys go to the next level, like when Zeke [Elliot] went to Dallas, I love that he went to Gary Brown — who I respect greatly and is a dear friend — I have unbelievable respect for Bobby Turner.

He’s a mentor to young people, a mentor to myself, and to all coaches. Bobby’s 72-years-old (today is Coach Turner’s birthday) and has been coaching for 49 years. You want your kid to go somewhere where people are going to care about him and have a track record and history for caring about young men.

I know Bobby certainly does, as does Kyle Shanahan. For me, on a personal level, and maybe a selfish level, I’m fired up because I know he’s going to around people that care about him.

They’re going to treat him the right way. They’re going to demand that he acts like a professional and acts like a grown-ass man. Which he will, but he’s going to be around people that put good stuff in his heart every day.

Bobby’s a legend. It doesn’t get much better than him. As far as what the players mention, they appreciate how open and upfront, like Bobby and Kyle, are with them. There’s no sugar-coating. There’s no gray area. So he’s going to fit right in.

We’re the same way here, so he’ll fit right in. That culture is the same thing we have here at Ohio State.

That’s the culture that wins, by the way, and I’m sure you know that.

I agree with that.

You mention he’s not this flamboyant, outgoing type of guy. Do you have any examples of Sermon being a leader or having leadership traits?

You have to remember he comes to Ohio State, and it’s not like we don’t have players here. We got guys scattered all over the locker room. We got ten guys drafted. He didn’t come into a situation where he was the only guy on the cover.

He didn’t come in loud and bravado. He came and said, “how can I help? How can I help this team be more successful? In turn, that’ll help me be more successful, and we all win here.”

The one thing that he did, and I made the comment to him and said, “listen, take over the leadership of the room. We have a bunch of young players. Nobody has really played a lot. Even Master hadn’t played a lot. You have played in more playoff games than any of these guys.

You’ve done this at a higher rate and had more carries than all of these players combined. Take some leadership of the room. If you see something and feel something, say it.”

One thing he did in our room was he would talk to the young players — particularly Miyan Williams ( a redshirt freshman) and talk to the young players about practice habits. They’d watch film and a linebacker here, or on this blocking scheme, he’d tell them to watch this.

He’d give out these details of a veteran player. A lot of these young guys don’t have that knowledge. Not because they don’t want to have it, but they don’t have the experience of playing. He had that experience, so he was able to partake and move that experience to some of the younger players.

And it wasn’t in a loud, vociferous way. It wasn’t like that. We’d be in practice, and Trey would be in the back since he wasn’t in on that rep and watching. He’d coach the young guy and tell him to watch this or look at this. Then they’d come back, and he’d say nice job or that was really good. He was almost like a coach on the field to some of the young guys.

To him, I don’t know if he looked at that as a sign of leadership or that it’s just the person who he is. To me, that was his way of leading. Not to stand up front and be the rah-rah guy breaking the team down. That’s not who he is.

He’d rather sit down and talk to a guy and maybe say, “coach explained it this way, but look at it this way.” So he’s breaking it down and speaking more player language if you will.

Tying it into your peers and relating to your peers sounds like we’re talking about Grade A character here again. He didn’t make it about himself, which is a big deal.

Never was. Let me tell you another thing about him. Kid comes to Ohio St. and has a degree from Oklahoma. He comes here with no intentions, but he has to go to school. He takes his master’s program, and all he did was get a 4.0.

He had no intentions of, “I gotta get my masters,” but he figured, hell, if I’m here, I’m going to do it right. He got a 4.0.

What would you say are some areas where Sermon has to improve and needs to sharpen? What were you guys working on?

He has to improve that top-end speed. At this level, the holes are going to close astronomically faster. The tracking speed of linebackers, defensive lineman, safeties, the tracking speed is much faster. There can’t be any wasted movements. When he sees it, he has to use that elite burst. Again, he has to really work on, this late in the game, on his top-end speed.

Finishing runs in a physical manner. He can block. He’s a willing participant. Just being a physically dominant player. Continue to work on that. Finishing off runs. He never takes plays off. Just continue to be a physically dominant runner.

He’s going to create matchup problems out in space because he can catch the football, and he understands routes and how to run routes. He’s going to be a guy that I think will have a long career. He has to indoctrinate himself into the special teams, which he will. We just didn’t do it with him.

He was always in those special teams’ meetings. He knew what to do; we just didn’t throw him in it. Because he’s got good length, there’s a lot of things he can do.

You mention his receiving skills. I remember him catching wheel routes and seam routes at OU, but you didn’t really use him much at Ohio State, is that right?

Here’s the thing, which is funny. Again, we only had six games with him, right? One of the things we were trying to do at Alabama we had some things where we were trying to isolate him. We were trying to get him isolated on the Moses kid, their linebacker. Then Trey got hurt.

We had some things in the works where we were trying to get him isolated on some backers because we thought he was a matchup problem. Again, we didn’t have to do a lot because we had some pretty dynamic receivers, too.

It doesn’t hurt to have Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave on the outside.

Sermon was the fourth RB selected in the draft. Whenever a team trades up for a player, he probably possesses some special qualities. That’s usually amplified when we’re talking about a running back — especially when we’re talking about a team whose head coach is Kyle Shanahan. Were you surprised when you heard a team traded up for Sermon? Where did you think he would go in the draft?

I thought he’d go in the third round. Maybe mid to late third round, or even early fourth. I know that may piss him off because he was thinking second. But that’s what I thought because that’s what I was hearing from the people that I know in the league.

I’ve had numerous conversations with Bobby about him. He’s in a great place. It’s always important to not only feel like you’re wanted but to know you’re wanted, for a team to move up into the draft to get you, not take you because you’re still there. “Oh, he’s still there; let’s take him.” That’s kind of like going to prom, where you can’t find a date, “oh, they’re still there, I’ll guess I’ll go with them.”

They actually moved up to get him and made a concentrated effort to get him. I think that speaks volumes. That should light some fire into him and think, “Hey man, these people like me. They really wanted me. And they made a move to get me.”

How do you repay them? You repay them by how damn hard you play. By being a consummate pro. I say a consummate pro by how you go to work and handle your business every day. Prove that they made the right decision by moving up to get you.

It’s tough to find a better fit for Sermon than the 49ers.

I would think so, but I don’t know everybody in the league. I’ll tell you this, that kid is so jacked up to be there. He was in tears when they drafted him, as was his mom. They called me; we were on the phone right away afterward.

He’s so excited to be there. He really is. I’m excited for him. I’ve talked to him three or four times since the draft night. He’s fired up, and I’m fired up for him.

What was your pre-draft communication like with the 49ers?

I talked to them before, but not at the pro day. Bobby never came out. I talked to Kyle and John Lynch when they came out to the second thing that they were there for Justin [Fields], but Trey didn’t run routes for them.

Maybe they had a scout there for the first pro day, but I didn’t see that guy. I really shot he had a shot to go to Arizona. The guy that I spent the most time with during the pre-draft was a guy with the Cardinals.

I talked to Bobby a lot, and I knew Bobby loved him. But the 49ers, historically, Bobby takes guys in the draft late. Like, real late. That’s usually not what the 49ers do. They usually go later in the draft if memory serves me. I really didn’t have any inkling that he’d end up with the 49ers.

Most of their leading rushers during the past few seasons are UDFA’s. That tells you what they think of Sermon. Not to move up for him in the late rounds but in the third round. About the person and the player.

Is there anything else you want to touch on or get out there before we get out of here?

I’m just excited for the kid. Really excited for him and his family and that this opportunity exists for him. I’m happy I was able to be a small part of his journey. I think a lot of time, we, as coaches, teachers, parents, mentors of young people, we always talk about what you did for that young kid.

I think sometimes we fail to realize, yeah, we’re impactful to young people, sometimes we don’t talk about how impactful those young people are to us. How much they help us and teach us. As a father and a coach, I’m thankful for Trey. He helped me be a better coach and a better man.

He made Ohio State better. He made Tony Alford better.