My No. 1 takeaway from Ohio State spring football: There are lots of good pieces available on offense, but I don’t think they are distributed in the most natural way for them to be used.
Head coach Urban Meyer’s system is based on combining the space created by spread (i.e., three receivers or more) formations with the power of good ol’ fashioned Midwest football. Essentially he wants to run Woody Hayes’ plays without facing as many defenders in the box as the Hall of Fame coach did. Why try to win with eight blockers on nine when you can make force the defense to play seven on eight? (Hayes was comfortable playing nine on 10 for that matter, but the old man went through his own evolutions during his time in Columbus, expanding from the “T” to the “I” in 1968 in a move that in some ways resembles the move from the I to a one-back offense these days but is much different in others.)
But the effectiveness of spreading teams out depends in large part on one thing Meyer has lamented the absence of at Ohio State this spring: Pure speed*. While pro-style two-back offenses let the defense gang up on them then make them pay the price with deceptive actions (a.k.a., play action), the spread is more about individual matchups.
Space is no good if you can’t take advantage of it. The easiest way to take advantage of space is with speed. If you put someone outside who can outrun a defender deep, the defense has to adjust. Same with having a guy who can outrun a containment defender from the inside of the formation out. A defense that fears losing individual matchups like that has to give help, creating more potential weak points the offense can in turn exploit.
Much has been made about the move from the pro-style hodgepodge offense the previous staff preferred to Meyer’s system, although Meyer pointed out the day he was hired there are some similarities.
Offensive line coach Ed Warinner went to great lengths to stress the offense will remain physical and that anyone thinking “spread” equates to “finesse” is mistaken. That should be proven soon enough if for no other reason than the pieces necessary to implement the finesse part of the offense are not necessarily in place.
Meyer volunteered seven names when asked about the playmakers he identified during the spring. In order, they were Jordan Hall, Jake Stoneburner, Carlos Hyde, Brown, Michael Thomas and Smith.
Notice and do not ignore the significance of their positions: Two running backs (Hall and Hyde) and a tight end (Stoneburner) followed by a trio of receivers. Meyer added that two more players – Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman – were on the verge of joining that group. They two are tight ends, too.
What does that mean? The staff has plenty of options for attacking opposing defenses, but they are at their best within a confined area of the field. That area should be less crowded than it used to be, but the staff will still have to get creative in terms of how it uses those pieces.
We may end up seeing an Ohio State offense that lacks of big plays but puts up a lot of consistent medium gains, which is not the worst thing in the world.
Because they can’t depend on someone to run past the defense, they will have to go through it with the power of Hyde, the quickness of Hall and the combination of both in Stoneburner.
Of course, we can’t leave the quarterback out of this equation. Braxton Miller should also be a source of big plays. He might actually be the guy who can get outside containment, to outflank a defense with his speed. In that way I suppose he could be the inverse Tim Tebow. The quarterback was the power back in the Florida spread days. He distributed the ball to playmakers and moved the chains in short-yardage situations. Miller may be the guy creating the big plays and leaving the dirty work to guys like Hyde, Hall or the tight ends later in the series.
The difference is those guys are probably not going to go the distance very regularly. They can use their abilities to turn two yards into six, but they won’t do more than that because the pursuit will have time to get to them. Consistency is not a bad alternative to explosiveness, but sometimes it’s not as productive where it truly counts: The scoreboard.
How it all shakes out between now and the season opener against Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 1 should be interesting.
*At this point it should be observed that complaints about lack of speed are not exactly what they seem on the surface. There are some guys who can stretch the field (Devin Smith and Corey “Philly” Brown come to mind) but the staff is not yet convinced they are worthy of major roles. That’s a result of discipline, experience and consistency, and it figures to be a fluid situation moving forward. As guys prove they know what they are doing and will use their natural gifts the right way, the total of weapons available could grow. In the meantime, it sounds like the staff is proceeding with caution.