While Hilliard’s hop on board highlights one issue of interest in regards to recent recruiting (Ohio State in Cincinnati), Cornell’s commitment has its own significance. The 6-3.5, 270-pounder is in line to be the first player from Minnesota to pick Ohio State since Willie Mobley in 2008 and only the third since 1988 (but probably much longer). When eventual All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis signed with Ohio State in 2005, he was believed to be the first scholarship Buckeye football player from the Land of 1,000 Lakes since the great Sid Gillman in the early 1930s.
Justin Hilliard of Cincinnati St. Xavier is the 11th verbal commitment for Ohio State’s 2015 recruiting class and the second linebacker, joining Nick Connor of Dublin Scioto.
He is the seventh recruit from southwestern Ohio in Urban Meyer’s three-plus years as head coach of the Buckeyes and the third from Cincinnati, joining Adolphus Washington (Taft) and Sam Hubbard (Moeller). That makes a pair of Greater Catholic League pickups for Meyer in as many years with Hubbard having been the top-rated player in the state last year. Continue reading Meyer mines Cincinnati for top linebacker prospect for Ohio State→
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.
If you’re not a subscriber, email us at subscriptions@BuckeyeSports.com and ask about how you can get a free trial.
“I’ve been a little disappointed in what I’ve seen talent-wise. I know we’ve lost a lot of great players. I’m not crying the blues and I’m not trying to downplay the players we’ve got here, but I would have thought coming in here that Ohio State would have had stronger linemen. I think we’ve got some good backs and the offensive line will be good, but we need to be stronger.”
“As I’ve said before, Earle Bruce did a great job of coaching here. I’m telling you, Earle can flat coach, unless the talent here is a hell of a lot better than in the past than it is right now.”
That’s a bit more extreme than Meyer has been since he took over this past year, but I guess some things never change.
For what it’s worth, there were eight players drafted in the spring of ’88 off of Bruce’s last Ohio State team. Ten were picked in the following three drafts. Six players were drafted in 2001 after Cooper’s last season… and 27 in the three drafts after that (2002-04).
With a song from The Doors stuck in my head, here’s the first edition of my weekly college football column:
What we learned last week (or year in this case): Robert Burns knew about what he wrote.
What we might learn this week: As one of the worst teams in the NCAA FBS last season, Akron is not expected to offer much of a challenge, but the Buckeyes have plenty to prove no matter who is on the opposing sidelines. They only get 12 or 13 chances to represent their university on the football field per year, but surely there has not been one in a long time that has seen the school in such need of a good show.
A lively fall camp helped wash some of the bad taste of a nightmarish offseason away, but the healing will not truly begin until the ball goes in the air Saturday for the 122nd season of Ohio State football.
The last time we saw the men of the Scarlet and Gray, they had one more national championship-winning coach on the sideline and one more BCS bowl game MVP quarterback calling the signals, not to mention the graduation of five All-Big Ten defensive starters who were drafted by NFL teams in April and the transfer of two once-highly touted linebackers.
The program might have suffered a black eye with the revelation that a half dozen players were involved in an improper benefits scandal, but that did not stand in the way of a rousing Sugar Bowl win over a 10-win team from the nation’s top conference.
It was nothing compared to the repeated blows that were inflicted throughout the ensuing months. Disclosure of Tressel’s failure to disclose information about potential NCAA violations came as the state was thawing from another winter, and from there the heat would rise to the point he was forced out of his dream job before the official start of summer.
That thrust the program into uncertainty Luke Fickell hopes to eliminate with a steady hand and a vengeful football squad looking to take out its frustrations on a dozen or so opposing teams in the next three months.
He took the reins with a June press conference at which he professed his love for the university and his belief in the power of actions over words. By the time the leaves have changed colors and abandoned the trees, we should have a pretty good idea how good Fickell is at turning words into actions.
We know already he can keep a group together through an offseason of unexpected departures and sometimes unfair criticisms, but how he gets them to channel their knowledge, frustration and talent for three hours a week every Saturday this fall promises to go further in determining if this is his only shot to prove himself.
A coach, of course, is only as good as his players. Fickell’s college coach, John Cooper, will tell you that still today if you’re lucky enough to strike up a conversation with him. Off-field problems caused the demise of Tressel and Cooper (though Cooper often points out he never ran afoul of the NCAA), but both coaches left the cupboard quite well stocked.
Tressel’s touch turned Cooper’s kids into not just Big Ten champions but the kings of college football within 24 months of his ascension to the throne once graced by Woody Hayes and Paul Brown. How will Fickell handle Tressel’s players?
Truth be told, some aspects of Fickell’s job might be easier than the task that greeted Tressel. The new coach knows the kids better this time around, so there should not be the same feeling out process that had to occur in 2001. There’s little if any scheme change.
Fickell also inherits a welcoming group of Ohio high school coaches who exalted in Tressel’s embracing of them after they felt a cold shoulder from Cooper.
What remains to be seen about Fickell is what he will do when the chips are down.
While Cooper’s greatest talent as a college coach was convincing some of the nation’s top players to join his program, his hands-off approach left his teams somewhat mercurial. They usually got out of the gate well but struggled to respond when things started to go bad.
His successor was quite the opposite. There were some slow starts to seasons, but nobody circled the wagons like Jim Tressel. Each of his last six seasons ended with a Big Ten championship, and five of them included a crisis moment or two that could have easily led down a far different path (like one that ends with a Florida bowl game). His 2002 squad seemed to encounter some kind of mini disaster every other week or so but never succumbed to the pressure.
Tressel’s greatest strength was not his charisma nor his offensive acumen, although he probably possessed more of both than he often gets credit. It was the steady way he steered his ships out of trouble that made them seven-time Big Ten champs and eight-time BCS game participants. That’s what kept him from being his one-time boss, “ol’ 9-3 Earle”, or his predecessor, whose teams were famous for Michigan meltdowns.
Fickell has already proven he picked up some of his former coach’s ability to acquire talent. The Columbus native was regarded as the best recruiter on Tressel’s staff, and though he has suffered a handful of in-state losses in the past few months, those are more attributable to the uncertainty of an NCAA investigation (and a Michigan roster that happens to be quite depleted) than to any individual failure on the OSU coach’s part.
He knows this state, and he has a great blueprint to follow for balancing local and national recruiting. The name brand and the facilities at Ohio State go a long way in selling the place, too.
That leads me to conclude Fickell will need to prove he learned a thing or two from his mentor and predecessor about crisis management to turn his one-year audition into something more.
There will be ups and there will be downs. How the new head coach handles them will determine if this is another special year in the history of Fickell’s alma mater or a footnote in a chapter about transition.
I know I’m ready to see what happens. How about you?
DVR Directions: The opening-night slate is pretty underwhelming, but it’s better than nothing, right? I’m sure you will like me take an early chance to start a scouting report on Wisconsin as the Badgers play host to UNLV (8 p.m. EST, ESPN). Michigan State kicks things off one night later with a visit from Youngstown State (7:30, Big Ten Network).
Since you don’t want to get that DVR filled up too fast, I recommend judicious recording Saturday, CFB’s true opening day. The most interesting game of the first viewing window of the day involves Northwestern at Boston College (ESPNU), but you only need to record that one if you’re scouting the Wildcats as potential Big Ten Championship game opponents (maybe stretching it at this point).
At 3:30, save your hard drive space and flip back and forth between Western Michigan at Michigan (ABC or ESPN2, depending on where you are) Chattanooga-Nebraska (BTN). If you’re really desperate during a commercial break, Minnesota will be entertaining USC on the opposite of whatever channel you’re getting WMU-UM happens to be, but I don’t expect the Golden Gophers to put up much of a fight.
For the night shift, you’ll probably want to watch LSU-Oregon on ABC, but keep an eye on the score of Tulsa-Oklahoma. Something tells me the Golden Hurricane might be able this one interesting if only because Gus Johnson will be making his FX college football debut.
All-Buckeye Beater Nominees: Check back next week for the first candidates to populate my annual team of the players who look the best against Ohio State all season.
Cus Words Big Ten Power Poll: When I did my initial pre-preseason rankings, I broke it down by division, but I’m switching it up here and just going top to bottom.
Nebraska (Loaded defense and great potential on offense)
Michigan State (Loaded offense and good potential on defense)
Ohio State (Lots of talent but very young)
Wisconsin (Running game shouldn’t miss a beat but defense could struggle without Watt)
Iowa (New pieces are surprisingly intriguing thanks to some cameos past two seasons)
Penn State (Should run it well, but can Nittany Lions stop good teams on defense?)
Northwestern (Must get Dan Persa back to 100 percent, ASAP; Can they keep winning the close ones?)
Michigan (Mismatched offensive personnel and woeful defensive ability)
Illinois (Intrigued by the offense but skeptical about the defense)
Purdue (Will probably run out of knee ligaments by Halloween)
Minnesota (Like Michigan, but much worse)
Indiana (We’ll see if Kevin Wilson is a miracle worker)
I moved Ohio State ahead of Wisconsin based on the improvement Joe Bauserman and the Buckeye wide receivers showed in camp. Questions about the health of Wisconsin linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland in the preseason make me wonder about the Badgers’ defense as a whole. Their playmaking is crucial to the success of a unit that was somewhat overrated last year but didn’t have to do much thanks to the offense.