Ohio State does not convene another congress of shooty hoops until this coming Saturday, when it travels to Lawrence, Kansas to take on the Jaybirds (or whatever they’re called; never heard of ‘em). The same holds for the lady hoops who return home to play Canisius after beating Oklahoma in Norman on Sunday. It is with that in mind that we here at this blog want to dedicate a work week of afternoon features to the hiring of Urban Meyer and what it means for the Buckeyes going forward.
We, as fans, can embrace having what Gerry Dinardo called “the first rock star coaching hire in B1G TEN history” and expect (nay, demand) excellence on and off the field, but that should not distract us from understanding that Ohio State is standing at a crucial fork in the road in its program’s illustrious history. We feel confident in the hire of Meyer, given his past success, but it necessitates discussion. I start that discussion on this blog with a conversation about Urban Meyer as recruiter. Urban Meyer was a smashing success at Florida in part because of his credentials as a recruiter. It is something we expect to carry into his tenure at Ohio State. However, Meyer’s proclivities as an offensive-minded guy puts him at odds with the composition of the current roster. Without coaching any practices heading into bowl season, Meyer will make his first impact on Ohio State by addressing deficiencies on the roster and wedding his philosophy to the current composition of the roster in the short term.
Receivers, and Meyer’s “Need for Speed”
I chose that subtitle for this section of the post to accentuate the hyperbole, not to suggest that wanting speed at skill position somehow makes him a genius as coach and recruiter. The point here brings me back to previous comments I made regarding the likes of Michael Thomas and Ricquan Southward. All else equal, we have enough wide receivers on this team. In fact, I would argue we have more than enough wide receivers on this team since the only sure defection on the roster is DeVier Posey to graduation. Urban Meyer actually needs more.
The problem for Meyer is (hopefully) not the inclination that a team full of receivers/athletes could win championships, much like Rich Rodriguez forgot to recruit linebackers in lieu of a bumper crop of 5’8 slot receivers. His track record suggests better than that. The immediate problem for Meyer is that our better, or more promising, receivers on this team aren’t quite what Meyer wants. Take Verlon Reed, for example. I really like Verlon Reed. Before his season-ending injury near the end of the B1G TEN opener against the Spartans, he had adequately demonstrated having the surest hands on the team. In a pro style offense, he becomes a viable split end. Given what I know of Meyer’s offense, he becomes a player Meyer to whom Meyer will have to tailor his game plan (at least in the short term). Reed is not particularly fast and may not shine as a slot receiver in a base 4-WR set. At a flat 6’0, he lacks the height of a Riley Cooper, on whom Meyer could count to win one-on-one matchups down the field with his size. But with that in mind, Reed is an intriguing talent and showed stretches of being an all-B1G performer in five games this season. How does Meyer incorporate someone like him into the follow-pivot concept that Meyer likes using in his passing game? Or 4-vert? This same question holds for someone like Evan Spencer, another young receiver on whom I’m keen. The short answer is that Reed (and Spencer, to a smaller extent) also showed considerable promise as a downfield blocker, which should be an absolutely necessary condition to playing wide receiver at Ohio State regardless of Urban Meyer. If Reed plays, he helps in that regard. But how does Meyer adapt to a receiver corp without a Percy Harvin?
Well, try to re-recruit a second Percy Harvin is the easiest answer. A good recruiter does not a good coach make, though it is fairly evident that recruiting is the life blood of college athletics. You need to bring in the best for what you believe on offense and defense, and make them better. That is why, in spite of having Frank Epitropolous, Roger Lewis, Michael Thomas and Ricquan Southward on the roster, Urban Meyer has hit the cell phone minutes hard with calls to Joel Caleb, Stefon Diggs and Cyrus Jones. Caleb, an athlete, could be safety for Ohio State, but could be recruited for the offense as well. It’s actually Diggs that is the interesting prospect for Meyer’s offense. The hope is that Meyer is still sufficiently popular and respected at Diggs’ high school, which also produced current Florida linebacker, Jelani Jenkins. There could be some frustration with Meyer leaving Florida just two years after signing Jenkins. With that said, Diggs is a special prospect that has drawn comparisons to Desean Jackson, which may, in part, have prompted his lone official visit on the recruiting trail to Berkeley this weekend. Diggs was non-committal on visiting Ohio State, but the Buckeyes are already in better position with Meyer recruiting him than they were at any time prior to his hire. Cyrus Jones, who has that “next Percy Harvin” label attached to him (rightly or wrongly) is from the same high school in Maryland that Stan White Jr. attended. He could be in line for an official visit in the future, already having visited Alabama, Auburn and Virginia Tech.
In the short term, Ohio State may look for a breakout season from the likes of Devin Smith next year. The hope is that the connection between Braxton Miller and Devin Smith, which led to a season high 4 touchdowns (among the receivers) blossoms with the second year in the program for both. In addition, Philly Brown has shown some promise as an athlete (when he can hold onto the ball) and was also recruited heavily by Urban Meyer while at Florida. That will just be for production, though. A shift from a more pro-style I-formation proclivity under the previous regime toward more base 3-WR or 4-WR sets will put a priority on recruiting receivers for depth as well. Urban Meyer, being who he is, won’t be content with recruiting underneath, or possession, receivers.
My Kingdom for Some Offensive Tackles
Ohio State recruiting under Jim Tressel was always pretty good to real good, with the pendulum swinging one way or the other contingent on a particular recruiting class. One constant criticism under the previous regime has to be what seems like an unwillingness to recruit offensive linemen en masse. The 2008 class gave us a pretty good haul with Adams, Brewster and Shugarts, but, along the way, we forgot they were seniors and are leaving the program. Ohio State signed just one offensive lineman in 2010′s class, offensive tackle Andrew Norwell (who is looking like a good signee). Sandwiching that 2010 recruiting class are the 2009 and 2011 classes that are very heavy on offensive guards. The problem: Andrew Norwell might be our only true offensive tackle on the roster next year if Meyer doesn’t hit a few home runs in the next two months.
Reading reports that Meyer was aghast at the situation on the offensive line when he signed on is comforting. At least, it elicited a “well yeah, duh” reaction among many Ohio State fans that follow recruiting carefully. For those that don’t know; here is the issue. Offensive linemen are usually among the safest projections from college to the NFL. Take someone like Ben Grubbs for example. Even when it is unclear why Grubbs was considered a first round pick and worth first round money when he entered the NFL Draft in 2007, he still is a decent offensive guard for the Baltimore Ravens. Similarly, Robert Gallery was heralded as “the best lineman to come out of college in years” when he entered the 2004 NFL Draft. He flamed out as a “franchise” left tackle. He was mediocre at right tackle, where he was not given the task of protecting the quarterback’s blind side. Now? He is a decent to pretty good left guard, now with the Seattle Seahawks.
While the bust ratio is small for offensive linemen transitioning from college to the NFL, I would argue that it is probably higher for those making the transition from high school to college than it is at any other position in football. Therein, offensive linemen get a bitter dose of reality when they realize they are no longer pushing around 6’0, 200lb defensive ends whose best college football projection is as walk-on at an NAIA school. It is no longer easy. Without the strong incentive to correct bad mistakes (like hand placement, foot work, leverage, et cetera) during high school when there is no need in order to be an all-conference high school offensive lineman, the shock is sometimes too great and a prospect might mentally “check out” in response. It is the most important position in college football, so, without oversigning, you cannot afford to keep the cupboard bare on the offensive line and marry yourself to recruiting misses and players playing out of position. Ohio State did precisely that by playing Bryant Browning and true freshman Antonio Underwood at right tackle, Jimmy Cordle at left tackle, and by playing Ben Person and Steve Rehring at all.
Urban Meyer understands that you have to win the odds game with respect to potential recruiting misses by increasing the n (i.e. number of offensive linemen you sign). Take a look at the table to your right. This table counts the number of offensive linemen signed by the Florida Gators and the Ohio State Buckeyes during the time frame corresponding to Urban Meyer’s full tenure in Gainesville. The differences are stark. In two separate occasions, Ohio State signed just one offensive lineman. The guy we got in 2010 will probably be an NFL right tackle in the very near future (Andrew Norwell). The guy we got in 2007 was Evan Blankenship, a guy who switched from offense to defense as a redshirt junior in 2010 and played only sporadically as a reserve. On no occasion did Florida under Urban Meyer ever have such a lineman-light recruiting class. This underscores a point I also made in the 2009 installment of The Buckeye Battle Cry, where I noted that the past five national champions from 2002 to 2007 (including Ohio State) rarely encountered a situation with only one offensive linemen in a recruiting class. At that time, Ohio State had two (including 2003, in that particular sample). In every case, the national elites signed twice as many offensive linemen as Ohio State.
Once more, examine the table to see the number of offensive tackles signed. Meyer did have a recruiting class with zero offensive tackles, though just one. At this time, the Gators were comfortable with starters Phil Trautwein and Jason Watkins. This was also after Meyer had signed two offensive tackles in 2006, including three year starter and 2nd round draft pick Marcus Gilbert.1 Meyer promptly followed that 2007 class by signing at least two offensive tackles in every class before 2011. Even qualifying that Nick Alajajian and Kyle Koehne, both in the 2009 class, were signed as “maybe tackles” that could be “moved down” to guard does not greatly qualify these results because that same qualification would have to be afforded to Marcus Hall, the only “offensive tackle” signed by Ohio State in 2009.
Even an imperfection on Meyer’s resume when it pertains to offensive tackle still puts him miles ahead of what Ohio State has done recruiting offensive tackles. Simply put, we have been terrible at it. Ohio State has been saved from certain calamity in 2009 and 2010 by banking on “recruiting successes” like Mike Adams and JB Shugarts. Even if we note that Mike Adams never lived up to potential and JB Shugarts was never better than decent (and marred by a never-ending series of false starts as an upperclassmen), both at least held the levee from 2009 to 2011 (barring Mike Adams’ five game suspension, for which Norwell saved us). Both are now graduating and, as it stands, Ohio State has nada going for it at right tackle. This was evident to all when Antonio Underwood, a mid-level at best prospect and offensive guard prospect to boot, became the second team right tackle this year as a true freshman, leading Ohio State fans to pray nothing happened to the first team unit this season. That happened against Indiana, when JB Shugarts got injured and was sidelined for the Purdue game. Enter Antonio Underwood, who was promptly abused by Kawann Short. He was mercifully yanked before intermission for Jack Mewhort, who moved inside-out (exact opposite of what you want) to do what he could in a losing effort.
As it stands right now, Antonio Underwood or Jack Mewhort are our options at right tackle. I do not want this, nor should you. The other option is Marcus Hall at right tackle, and I don’t think he’s fit to be great at it either. The other option: NEED MOAR TACKLES, for which I’ve been screaming for some time. Kyle Kalis is out of the picture, but Meyer has hit the road hard in recruiting the likes of Jordan Diamond. Diamond is the highest rated offensive tackle in the Midwest still left on the board and Meyer’s efforts have given a new trajectory to our position with him. Expect an official visit in the near future. In addition, Meyer put out feelers to Taylor Decker and Kyle Dodson, mostly through their respective head coaches (proper protocol in the Buckeye State). Both are currently committed to Notre Dame and Wisconsin respectively and, unfortunately for Ohio State fans, both 4-star in-state prospects were curiously passed over by Jim Bollman and not recruited very heavily. The ship for Decker sailed probably before Ohio State ever got to port, but the Buckeyes could “snake oil” Dodson away with some effort. Dodson was very keen on the Buckeyes before getting slow-played, magnified by the ongoing scandal, led Dodson to commit to the Badgers.
Meyer is exploring all options. He was recently in contact with Evan Goodman, a verbal commitment to Arizona State that is likely to flip in light of Dennis Erickson’s dismissal in Tempe. Goodman, a big time prospect, committed to Arizona State to be with his brother (Devin Goodman), currently on the Sun Devils’ roster. With Erickson out of the picture, Goodman remains nominally committed to Arizona State though is open game for anyone. Meyer has subsequently entered Ohio State into the fray. Future Director of Football Administration and Recruiting Coordinator Mark Pantoni contacted Evan Goodman about Meyer visiting him, along with his high school teammate and future Buckeye Ricquan Southward. With Kevin Sumlin not becoming head coach at Arizona State, Ohio State is in prime position to get in Goodman’s ear and steer him to Columbus. I’m not saying it will happen, but it very well could. I hope it does.
Elsewhere, Meyer will have to stay on Nick Davidson, the one offensive tackle we were kinda-recruiting under Jim Bollman and company. I think Ohio State is in fine position with him, though nothing is certain. Even if we sign Davidson, we can expect him to redshirt after he broke his leg during a state playoff game. Further, Ohio State should make sure it is in fine position Alex Kozan, who I think would like to be a Buckeye (though that does not mean he is a lock). Kozan is listed as an offensive tackle prospect, but expect him to fit in better as a guard. Regardless, he is an option, and Ohio State does not have many right now.
Tailbacks Under Meyer and for Ohio State Going Forward
You think of Ohio State football and you think tailbacks. Easy. You think of Archie Griffin, Keith Byars, Eddie George, and Beanie Wells, among others. Hell, even one of our most celebrated wide receivers at Ohio State — Paul Warfield — was a glorified tailback in college. You think of tailbacks under Urban Meyer and you think… Kestahn Moore? DeShawn Wynn?
During Meyer’s glory years at Florida, he did not get great value from his designated tailbacks in spite of an offense that is positively inspired by the likes of Woody Hayes and Joe Gibbs. Neither made their name in the passing game like Don Coryell, and neither did Urban Meyer. How Meyer successfully executed a run-first offense with a spread twist was in large part through his quarterback and wide receiver du jour – Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin. As you well recall, Tim Tebow was (and basically still is) a baby rhinoceros playing quarterback. In 2006, he was the running game for the Florida Gators’ national championship team. In spite of being the backup quarterback on the team, he led all rushers in touchdowns and was second (behind DeShawn Wynn) in rushing yards. More of a redzone threat as a true freshman, he became the offense as a sophomore (resulting in his Heisman trophy).
How he led all rushers on his team in 2007 was through zone read plays that you’ve seen by now, but also through QB Power. Not to be confused with the QB Draw you’ve seen too often at Ohio State this year, QB Power is basic smashmouth football and an equivalent play to Dave. In Ohio State’s “Dave” series, the backside guard pulls out and comes playside to lead block through a hole between playside guard and tackle. The tailback follows. The fullback kicks out the defensive end on the playside. In QB Power in a spread alignment with 4 wide receivers, the quarterback is the tailback and the tailback is the fullback. This gives the offense a distinct numbers advantage in the box. In the diagram to your right, you’ll notice all players in the box are accounted for with blockers. It’s basic football that everyone does (including, but especially, Ohio State), but Meyer likes his twist on it and he had considerable success at it with his quarterback.
Another staple in Meyer’s playbook is Counter Trey, a play that Joe Gibbs made famous while coaching the Redskins and for which John Riggins became a millionaire. In an I-formation, the fullback (usually an H-back these days) comes weakside to strongside to “kick out” block the end in a manner analogous to fullback’s responsibility in Power I (or “Dave” for Ohio State fans). Backside offensive guard pulls out to lead block into the hole (assuming the H-back/fullback has satisfied his obligation), ideally blocking the playside linebacker. This is what it looks like in the pros, both schematically and applied in a game. The mechanics of it may differ. Sometimes a tackle pulls in lieu of a guard and sometimes the H-back is “first man through” (and vice versa). It is still the same concept, but here’s what it looked like for Urban Meyer at Florida (via Smart Football). I loved watching this play when it was properly executed at Florida; I just hated that team.
It all looks very sexy for the casual Buckeye football fan, even when it’s basic, fundamental football. Maybe after ten years of Tressel Ball, we could use a little sexy in the offense. Issue being, the current personnel does not match what you have seen here. Braxton Miller showed considerable shiftiness as a true freshman, but is not the battering ram Tim Tebow is and should not be treated as one. Devin Smith could be a very sneaky wide receiver as a true sophomore, but is not the athlete that Percy Harvin was and should not be treated as one. Urban Meyer incorporated basic, tried and true, ground game concepts from any playbook in the NFL to his system at the University of Florida. His quarterback was his Power-I tailback. Percy Harvin, now a wide receiver in the NFL, was his John Riggins. Meyer found ways to compensate not having quality tailback play by having special athletes at wide receiver and quarterback. We have the opposite situation now: we have good tailbacks, but (for all intents and purposes) not the special athletes at wide receiver and quarterback. So what does Meyer do?
The task for Meyer in the short term to find ways to adequately use tailbacks like Jordan Hall, Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith, almost all of whom are built for running between tackles and not necessarily for finding edges off tackle. When Urban Meyer put in the call to Bri’onte Dunn (who could still very well flip to That State Up North), he told Dunn that he had never had a big tailback like Dunn and will tailor his offense for players like him. That is true at Florida, especially true because he never really recruited a big tailback while at Florida. You think Florida tailbacks and you probably conjure the diminutive Chris Rainey and Jeffrey Demps, both no bigger than 5’8 and 165lbs coming out of high school. Nothing ever came of players like Bo Williams, who transferred out, or Emmanuel Moody, who transferred in from USC and had very limited success at Florida. The lone “big back” that had some success under Meyer was Marty Johnson. The oft-troubled 6’0, 230lb Marty Johnson turned his life around as a senior and led the undefeated 2004 Utah Utes with 802 rushing yards, averaging 4.9 yards a carry. In addition, Quinton Ganther, a shorter but still bigger tailback, added 654 yards. But that seems so long ago.
Finding ways to incorporate the existing talent on the roster will be critical for Meyer in the short term. This includes fullbacks like Zach Boren and more conventional tight ends like Reid Fragel Rock and Jeff Heuerman, though I am more confident they will find new life in Meyer’s system than I am about the situation at tailback. His offenses at Florida found ways around having running backs that Ohio State cannot do next year. Meyer’s offenses were very Tebow-centric when it worked and I don’t particularly like the prospects of trying to do that with Braxton Miller as a sophomore in his first year in the system. Miller can’t take the beating Tebow did in 2007. Further, we currently have no “Percy Harvin” on roster and, should we sign the “next Percy Harvin” in this class, he will only be a freshman.
Finding ways to utilize players like Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith will mollify future anxieties of players like Bri’onte Dunn, who openly say they do not want to play in the spread because of pre-existing judgments of what it means for them as a more conventional tailback. This will be important on the recruiting trail. Whether it is merging Meyer’s spread philosophy with more pistol sets to improve play-action and the downhill running game (or whatever), Ohio State has a strong incentive to field an offense that is amenable to keeping all talent in-state. The state of Ohio is usually good for producing some great tailbacks in the region (e.g. Beanie Wells, Brandon Saine, Dan Herron, Morgan Williams [Toledo], Braylon Heard [Nebrasky], all nationally ranked tailbacks from the Buckeye State). Losing the cream of the crop to rivals just creates more problems for us in conference play.
Tomorrow, Urban Week continues with new contributor Dan leading a discussion of the future staff under Urban Meyer, including additions of which we know and possibilities at key positions like defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator, quarterback coach and offensive line coach.