The dawn of another Ohio State football season is upon us, and 2014 figures to be an unpredictable year with so much change on both sides of the ball.
Most indications are the DNA is going to be different with the offense and the defense, one change being personnel-driven and the other caused by extreme struggles of a year ago. Both ways, Ohio State is going to have to count on a new cast of characters to carry out what is in all likelihood a plan that is at least somewhat different than it was last year, for better or for worse.
Offensively, Ohio State has the best player in the Big Ten back to trigger an attack that is probably going to look more like Urban Meyer and Tom Herman intended it to when they arrived than it has for the past two seasons. They want to have playmakers all over the field, not strictly smashing people up the middle.
Most avid fans of Ohio State football know Michigan football has long made a living off talent from the Buckeye State. Mark Dantonio has taken up the practice at Michigan State over the past seven years, too, but that’s not all.
Turns out the Spartans’ defensive strategy is a direct import from Ohio as well.
Dantonio, of course, first became well known nationally when the defense he coordinated at Ohio State was an integral part of the Buckeyes’ 2002 national championship season. Dantonio, a Zanesville native who was brought to Columbus by Jim Tressel in 2001, moved the Buckeyes from the imposing, press defense installed by Fred Pagac Sr. in the late 1990s to a scheme built around more zone concepts, though pressuring the quarterback was a key for both men. Continue reading →
Evaluating the offense the same way as the defense is hardly fair considering all of the injuries that beset the Ohio State scoring unit, but there were some lessons to take away from the spring nonetheless.
For one thing, the depth the Buckeyes were thought to have at running back is real. Ezekiel Elliott showed he brings a very enticing package of size and skill to the position. A smooth runner, he seems like the perfect back for this offense. I like the way Warren Ball keeps his feet moving and slides through holes, and Bri’onte Dunn leaves no doubt the physical ability is there if he can bring consistency to the table. Ditto Rod Smith, who could be the best of all of them but can’t seem to keep himself on track.
Then of course there is Curtis Samuel. Even with the unprecedented success of Carlos Hyde last season as a power back, Urban Meyer does get enamored with little guys who can go, doesn’t he? Samuel runs strong for his size, but speed and agility are the name of the game for him. It will be interesting to see if they carve out a role for him this fall.
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman mentioned at one point the staff has come to like having a power back, which was new for Meyer’s offense since it was developed at his previous coaching stops, so you can bet they want to maintain that facet, but it’s alway nice to have options. Continue reading →
So what to make of spring football at Ohio State for 2014? Is it possible to come away feeling good about the defense without also questioning the offense? I’m going to start off by saying yes, but I can’t promise not to change my mind.
The OSU secondary appears to have taken to the new, more aggressive approach brought by co-coordinator Chris Ash. Of course, we had not really gotten to see Gareon Conley or Eli Apple in action much before this spring, but veterans Doran Grant and Armani Reeves seemed to thrive in the new attack as well. All of them certainly seemed comfortable, even from the first day reporters were allowed to watch practice. They got right in the faces of the OSU receivers in position drills, seven-on-seven and scrimmaging. We saw a fair amount of coverage busts — especially involving the tight ends deep — on that first day, but those appeared to dissipate as the spring went on. Continue reading →
So Ohio State finally confirmed the hiring of Chris Ash as safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator. Along with new defensive line coach and assistant head coach Larry Johnson, Ash completes Urban Meyer’s staff for 2014.
After the two get off the road from recruiting, they will find a defense left in shambles at the end of last season, the last of three years of regression that followed a decade of stellar play.
Johnson has a reputation as an outstanding position coach, and he will find a group that performed well in a trial by fire this past season. The stout, fundamentally tough play he taught at Penn State could blend very nicely with the aggressive style outgoing coach Mike Vrabel instilled in the group.
Ash’s job figures to be much tougher, though he will have a nearly clean slate when he and holdover Kerry Coombs work to rebuild a secondary that gave up 268.0 yards per game last season, almost 25 more than a year earlier. Continue reading →
Safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers focused his talk on defending empty formations.
He showed a picture of Jack Tatum and said now rulemakers are legislating toughness out of the game, which he doesn’t like. That makes it harder for safeties to protect their home – the middle of the field.
They coach from a foundation of four things – toughness, tackling, turnovers and effort.
Defensively, coaches need to identify their players’ strengths and play to them. They also have to identify what type of quarterback they are facing and how the offense wants to attack.
Defending sideline to sideline is kind of a myth.
A lot of spread teams like to throw inside, but anyway they are often only going to go to a few certain spots. Identify decoys and ignore those, such as a traditional running back split out wide.
In playing zone concepts, he explained they will play a one-high defense to take away short and underneath throws. They want to deny those and move the quarterback off his spot with the pass rush, even if that is only three guys. Then the QB has to resort to throwing it away or going wide, where they should have someone establishing leverage and others rallying to the ball.
Two-deep zones limit inside coverages, and linebackers become key to guarding the voids that develop.
When he moves to man principles, he had a power point with actual pictures of bullets serving as presentation bullets, so that was cool.
They play man to man to do one of two things – force tight, accurate throws or sack the quarterback.
They are still conceding decoys in man or zone. They don’t expect a team to throw wide to the field without rolling that way, something that tips off the defense and gives it time to react.
Offenses with a running quarterback can present an extra threat, so he advised using a safety instead of a linebacker as a hole defender.
If blitzing an empty set, you have to give the players confidence they are going to get there. It takes guts to put yourself out there, but you’ve got to do it, and hitting the quarterback takes its toll on him.
They showed a clip of a blitzer making Taylor Martinez throw badly off his back foot in last year’s Nebraska game, to which Withers quipped, “I’m sure that’s on their clinic tape of how to throw.”
Finally, if the offense stops using empty sets and adds a running back, that means you’ve won as a defense.
Whatever you do, he stressed you have to commit to what you are.
Here is what Mike Vrabel had to say about how they teach leverage and preventing big plays:
OSU defines explosive plays as runs of 15 yards or more and passes of 20 yards or more. Vrabel showed an internal study that found they have averaged allowing 15 explosive runs per season in the past 12 years, then noted the 2011 team that finished 6-7 gave up 25. In contrast, the 2009 team that won the Rose Bowl only allowed nine. (NOTE: They count bubble screens and the like as runs.)
They stress five things in teaching players how to play defense: effort, leverage, tackle, retrace and pursuit.
Effort is covered by the of-repeated mantra from Meyer about going hard for 4-6 seconds every play. The don’t coach effort – they demand it. Meyer runs a high-energy program. They want to get guys out of their comfort zone and don’t mind keeping guys on edge.
For part of this section, he put Ohio State’s goal line stand at Wisconsin last season on the big screen to emphasize that really only effort was going to make that happen. The offense is going to scheme up something to cover gaps and get a yard, so someone has to whip somebody’s ass and make a play. The Montee Ball fumble was made possible by guys up front winning their battles so someone could meet him at the pile and knock the ball away.
Leverage is the most important concept. They only need one leverage guy, though. One person turns the play back in and everyone else should be running to the ball.
Every day they do a leverage drill with four parts – string out, “hat and hands”, “rip and run” and angle tackle. Stringing out the play and angle tackling are self-explanatory. “Hat and hands” is what they call delivering a two-handed blow to the blocker and controlling him to establish position. “Rip and run” is what happens when they brush by a blocker either in pursuit or to get to an outside point to turn a play back in if no one has leverage. (So engage the blocker to maintain leverage abut rip and run to get it back if lost.)
Defensive backs, linebackers and linemen all practice all of these drills, and coaches should see them expressed in games or that means they aren’t being done correctly.
Of course then tackling was a big emphasis. He put up a chart showing a 12-year study that revealed they have averaged 9.7 missed tackles per game in that span. The number in 2002 was 8.2. In 2011, it was 12.5.
They break tackles down into three categories: in the box, angle and open field. Obviously, angle are the easiest and open field are the hardest. That is why the offense – especially now – wants to create open field opportunities.
OSU coaches expect leverage and effort. They coach up tackling by emphasizing keeping the ball on the outside shoulder, breaking down 3-4 yards from impact (too soon gives the ball carrier too much time to change direction), coming to balance in a football position and getting a guy on the ground.
In the open field, they don’t care about blowing a guy up. That’s not the time to do it. Just get him down. They also tell guys, “Don’t go off the diving board,” meaning keep proper football position – reverse arch the back, feet shoulder width apart, head and chest up, shoulders pinched.
Retrace is for dealing with things like screens. It’s how they teach players to recover after getting pressure. For defensive linemen, they work on planting the feet, pointing playside and driving down the line of scrimmage while keeping low hips.
Pursuit is simple – run with great effort to the ball, having confidence everyone is doing their job. That means someone has established leverage and everyone else just has to clean up.
Of course you know by now the major topic of Ohio State football this offseason has been the installation of Urban Meyer’s spread offense. As a football strategy junky, I have found it fascinating to talk to the new coaches about their plans and the players about how they have absorbed everything. You can find example of that in our BuckeyeSports.com archives and in past issues of Buckeye Sports Bulletin (see here).
But before we go any farther, I thought it would be fun to take a look back this summer.
Although Ohio State has been known as the home of three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offenses for more than half a century, there have been plenty of evolutions over the years, some that will probably surprise you.
Woody Hayes took over for Wes Fesler, a former Buckeye who was a star end at Ohio State in the late 1920s. Fesler is one of eight three-time All-Americans to wear the Scarlet and Gray, but he fell out of favor in Columbus when his Buckeyes lost to Michigan in the “Snow Bowl” in 1950.
Fesler’s offense featured a mix of single wing and the T depending on the situation, but Hayes was strictly a practitioner of the T.
The switch proved to be a painful one as the Buckeyes offensive output slipped from 31.8 points per game to a meager 12.1. Their 109 points in nine games were the fewest for the team since Fesler’s first OSU squad managed only 60 in 1947.
The move had a notable negative effect on Vic Janowicz, who won the Heisman Trophy as a junior in 1950. Featured often out of the single wing, Janowicz led the Big Ten in total offense (703 yards) and scoring (48 points) in conference play in ’50 but became just a cog in Hayes’ machine as a senior. He led the team in rushing (376 yards) but quarterback Tony Curcillo took over the passing lead. Janowicz touched the ball 138 times in ’51, 60 fewer than the year before.
Hayes eventually got that T formation humming, of course. It helped produce national championships in 1954, ’57 and ’61, but his program hit a snag in the early ’60s after a decision by the university faculty council denied the Buckeyes a trip to the 1962 Rose Bowl.
That hurt recruiting in the short term, but Hayes rallied to bring in what would prove to be one of the best classes of all time for 1967. Its members were ineligible to play as freshmen, but they began to build their legend during practices that fall when they would give the varsity a run for its money.
When the youngsters were ready to take over in ’68, Hayes gave them a new weapon courtesy newly hired assistant coach George Chaump, who suggested he supplement his venerable T attack with the I formation being made famous by USC.
The move turned out to be a good one: The Buckeyes doubled their scoring output (from 16.1 to 32.3 points per game), went undefeated and won the national championship.
Rex Kern, a sophomore who took over at quarterback in ’68, told me in a past interview that did more to take advantage of the talent Hayes had accumulated.
“The I formation gave you the opportunity to get around the corner much quicker,” he said. “The old-timers will remember the old button-shoe (his term for the Fullhouse T) offense was from tackle to tackle. The I formation was really from tackle to sideline, so it really just expanded the field and gave us more attack points. We could put our skill people against our opponents’ skill people versus us putting our interior line against the interior defense. We were good at either one, but this just gave us a better opportunity. Then when we got into short yardage, we went back to our pure button-shoe offense and attacked from tackle to tackle.”
(Aside: I found this fascinating in light of today’s move from the I formation to the spread. Similar principles at work. We’ll discuss that more in the future…)
Kern threw for 972 yards and ran for 534 more in ’68 while fullback Jim Otis rumbled for 985 yards and halfbacks Leo Hayden, John Brockington and Dave Brungard 732 more.
The end of the Hayes era gave way to the leadership of one of his former assistants, Earle Bruce. The men shared many common traits when it came to coaching football, but Bruce recognized he needed to open things up some to take advantage of another sophomore quarterback who like Kern wore No. 10.
This time it was Art Schlichter, one of the most ballyhooed recruits in Ohio history and a freshman starter in ’78.
While the basic offense remained the same, Schlichter was allowed to show off his famous right arm a bit more often.
After complete 87 of 175 passes for 1,250 yards in ’78, Schlichter went 105 for 200 for 1,816 yards as a sophomore.
Schlichter told me in an 2009 interview the offense became more complex under Bruce, but there was one thing that stayed the same: All of the passing was out of play action, regardless of down and distance.
“That was a result of our protection,” said Schlichter, who likened the offensive progression to moving from the Ice Age to the Stone Age. “Coach Bruce liked the turn-back protection. He thought it protected the quarterback as much as anything, so we used that protection to play-action pass. Third-and-long we were throwing out of a play-action set, which I had hoped that we would have gotten away from that, but we never really did.”
Schlichter, who has run into repeated serious legal problems since the conclusion of his college career and is awaiting a return to prison at this time, ended up with just about every Ohio State passing record before he was finished. His single-season record of 2,551 has since been broken three times, but his career marks of 7,547 yards, 951 pass attempts and 46 interceptions remain school records.
This might be hard to believe today, but an actual headline in the April 1988 issue of Buckeye Sports Bulletin declared, “OSU Offense To Drop-Back This Season.”
That’s right: new offensive coordinator Jim Colletto’s plan to install a drop-back passing game for new head coach John Cooper was big news less than 25 years ago.
“All we’re trying to do is give the offense a few more weapons to try and play the game with,” Colletto said then. “The drop-back will open up the game and make it more difficult for defenses to gang up on us. We’re trying to become a proficient drop-back passing team.
“And we will pass on first down. That is something we keep careful track of.”
Although everyone left spring practice saying the right things that year, early results were not too promising.
The passing game actually lost some proficiency (from a 54.1 percent completion rate to 51.8) from 1987 to ’88 and the offense managed only five more total points (229). The Buckeyes stumbled from 6-4-1 in Bruce’s last campaign to 4-6-1 in ’88 under Cooper, but the offense was hardly to blame for that.
Cooper commented openly about his surprise at the lack of talent he found on the roster, and he was forced to break in a new quarterback that season in sophomore Greg Frey (who spoke glowingly of the new attack as one similar to what he had run at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati under the guidance of a young intern named Urban Meyer).
For more on how these changes were implemented and how they panned out, be sure to check out the next print edition of BSB scheduled for publication in the first week of July. We also examine the move from Cooper’s version of the pro-style offense to Jim Tressel’s.
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What I wonder is if there will be less of an attempt to go overboard in scheme.
I don’t see any lack of knowledge. The guys who have been here a while all have worked with both spread and pro-style principles, and the same appears to be true of the new guy, Stan Drayton*.
But with one less mind in the room, will there be less brainstorming? Could that be a good thing?
I’m inclined to think the answer is probably yes after the Terrelle Pryor era was marked with ups and downs as much attributable to his inexperience and volatility as it was a tendency for the staff to seem to want to prove just how many ways it could use its unique weapon. The results were sometimes spectacular, but there were also days that it looked like plays were being called via roulette wheel.
Fickell said definitively there will be no change in offensive procedure, although that could be construed as intentionally misleading.
It’s no secret Jim Tressel had a major influence on the offense, and Darrell Hazell (now the first-year head coach at Kent State) was regarded as helping diversify the passing game during his six seasons in Columbus.
I doubt Tressel took the playbooks out the door with him when he resigned, so there should not be any trouble reviewing what all they’ve done as a staff.
Conservative or not, Tressel’s playbook didn’t lack diversity even if the game plans and play calls sometimes did. Any play you’ve ever seen on a football field probably was run at least a time or two at Ohio State during Tressel’s 10-year tenure.
If memory serves correctly, the first touchdown of the 2002 national championship season was scored out of the Fullhouse “Robust T” formation, and they used a modified form of the wing-T in short-yardage situations the past couple of years. They weren’t afraid to empty the backfield beginning with the early days, either, and we often saw just about everything in between save for maybe the Maryland Triple ‘I’ or the true Wishbone.
Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor were known for running various kinds of option at Ohio State, but they weren’t the first to do so under Tressel. The most famous example of that would come from Craig Krenzel in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl victory that brought Tressel’s his national title. They ran a traditional option play for the winning touchdown in the Michigan game that season, and there were a variety of designed QB runs throughout the season, even the QB version of “Power” (a.k.a. the “Dave” play) that Rich Rodriguez often called for Denard Robinson last season.
As for 2011, I think Ohio State’s best bet is to take a page out of the 2010 Michigan State playbook* and commit to a pro-style running game with a talented offensive line and a deep backfield, but we’ll have to wait and see if they agree.
Who ends up at quarterback probably will make a difference. I’ve said in the past I think the top two candidates are the youngsters, true freshman Braxton Miller and redshirt freshman Taylor Graham, and they bring drastically different styles as Miller is a great scrambler and Graham is more or less a statue.
Miller’s adjustment to playing under center – they did a lot of things during his career at Huber Heights Wayne High School, but he flourished in a spread passing game last season – might be a stumbling block, but that should not be a major issue if he becomes the starter. A seventh-grader can go under center and run a bootleg, so I think Miller should be fine as far as that goes, and no matter who is quarterback they will most likely be in the shotgun on passing downs either way.
Hints of what is to come have been few and far between, but BuckeyeSports.com insiders offered a hint of what is to come with the nugget that Jordan Hall has become a wide receiver (Though tight ends coach John Peterson denied such a move occurred, I have few doubts Hall is at least going to see more time at wide receiver or in the slot than the typical Ohio State running back).
Putting the undersized and shifty Hall in the slot would be a nod to the influence of Drayton, who should have some new ideas for how to use a player like Hall in the slot thanks to his days working under Urban Meyer with guys such as Percy Harvin at Florida.
Hall and Harvin aren’t really similar players, but I think Hall could thrive in a hybrid role as a slot receiver who can motion into the backfield to help with protections and take handoffs. That’s something Ohio State has allegedly tried to do in the past but with little to no success going all the way back to the days of failed five-star prospect Maurice Wells. Hall, though not in Harvin’s league in terms of explosiveness, has better feet and instincts than Wells.
Removing Hall from the backfield would also speak clearly of the depth in the backfield and the lack of same in the receiver room. It could be an indication of the coaches’ growing confidence in redshirt freshman Rod Smith as well as third-year sophomore Jaamal Berry, a classmate of Hall’s who fell behind him on the depth chart first because of a bad hamstring in 2009 and then because he was slower to embrace doing the little things the staff demands of its backs. Carlos Hyde is a viable option, too, but this staff has never seemed to figure out a way to involve more than three (usually not more than two) backs at once, so moving Hall out of the mix makes sense.
With Hall in the slot and Jake Stoneburner at tight end, there are two nice potential weapons for the quarterback to utilize on the inside against linebackers who want to hug the line of scrimmage too much.
That would help in another area that lacked during the Tressel years: Constraint plays. Those are two potential constraint play weapons that seem suited for both pro and spread sets.
Whatever happens, I am excited to be closing in on the time to find out. This hasn’t been a fun summer for anyone, but I had to chuckle at myself when I went through my Instapaper folder a few weeks ago and noticed a theme common to most of the things that had been aging in it for a while: They were all football related without a single NCAA issue among them. That reminded me what I’ve been missing since spring football ended. But, hey, the annual Big Ten Football Media Days begin two weeks from today, so let’s get Hank Williams Jr. warming up, shall we?
*By the way, MSU’s offensive coordinator last year? Don Treadwell, who played wide receiver Tressel for two years when Tressel was an assistant coach at Miami (Ohio) and later spent six years on Tressel’s YSU staff, when he would have also worked with Bollman.
One of the biggest questions that remains unanswered – and perhaps for now unanswerable – regarding the Ohio State football team for this fall regards the offense.
The Buckeyes face the prospect of five games without All-Big Ten performers at left tackle and running back, not to mention their best wide receiver. The three-year starting quarterback is gone, too, and he isn’t coming back.
Everyone wonders what the loss of head coach Jim Tressel, who had a heavy influence on the game plan and the play calls, will mean, but don’t forget the absence of Darrell Hazell either. Depending on who you talk to, Hazell had an increased influence on the offense the past couple of years, and he will surely be missed after accepting the head coach position at Kent State in December.
While there are many uncertainties, they also have some great pieces if they can figure out how to utilize them.
Since Fickell opted to replace the linebacker coach position he vacated as opposed to addressing the spot in the offensive brain trust Tressel once held, let’s take a look at what we know about the remaining staff.
Years at Ohio State: 10
Spent three years in the NFL (two with Chicago and one with Philadelphia) before joining Tressel’s first staff at OSU in 2001
Three years on Nick Saban’s staff at Michigan State
Spent five years with Tressel at Youngstown State, where he coached on both sides of the ball
Also coached for George Welsh at Virginia
The offensive coordinator for all of Tressel’s time in Columbus, Bollman seems to prefer a pro-style, power attack but has shown a willingness to do a lot of different things at Ohio State
His comments on balancing shotgun and pro-style sets can be seen here
Tressel declared last year “everyone knows Jim Bollman likes to line up with twins to the field and run the ball.”
First year at Ohio State
He replaces Hazell as wide receivers coach, although Drayton has never specifically held such a position on a college staff
Spent four years total coaching running backs on Urban Meyer’s staff at Florida. Learned to coach running backs in the slot in Meyer’s unique spread option offense but expressed some frustration at the lack of emphasis on the position there
Also had single years with Doug Marrone at Syracuse, Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee, Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State and Gary Blackney at Bowling Green
Has three years in NFL (where he did work with wide receivers for the Green Bay Packers) as well as much experience at smaller colleges in the 1990s
The one wild card in this deck. He spent a lot of time working within Meyer’s spread offense but he was exposed to the West Coast Offense under Mike McCarthy in Green Bay
Years at Ohio State: 6
Spent two years at a BFE college in North Carolina before Tressel called him up to the majors
Worked with Tressel as a student at Youngstown State in the ’90s
Also had two years with Bob Stoops at Oklahoma (2000 and ’01), but he was not an on-field coach there
He’s talked about the situational usefulness of putting the quarterback under center (Better play-action fakes) and in the shotgun (easier drops), but it’s tough to tell exactly how of his own philosophy has had a chance to show through as he’s been the low man on the totem pole in Columbus
Years at Ohio State: 10 (counting three years as associate director of football operations)
Spent 23 years as head coach at Hamline College in Minnesota previously
Started career as grad assistant at Florida State in 1970
Seems to be big fan of two-back offense but has explained value of both compact and spread situation in terms of trying to move the football relative to personnel and game situation
Only slightly tongue-in-cheek declared the fullback will never die at Ohio State a couple of years ago (Link – $$)
Years at Ohio State: 7
The Buckeyes’ tight ends coach previously spent four years working in spread offense with Terry Hoeppner at Miami University, where he had title of run game coordinator there
He also coaches the offensive tackles now
Also spent two year on John Cooper’s staff as GA along with stops at Cincinnati and Akron
Played offensive line at Ohio State from 1987-90 under Cooper and Earle Bruce
What does all that mean? Well, there should not be a problem with overall football knowledge. The remaining staff benefits both from its years working with Tressel and Hazell as well as a variety of outside experiences earned from the MAC to the NFL as well as the SEC, Big 12 and Big East.
The familiarity of the majority of them should help ease the transition, but Drayton could bring some interesting new ideas that might help freshen things up.