H-back key as OSU offense evolves

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Perhaps lost in the hoopla before the arrival of Urban Meyer’s spread offense at Ohio State, then overlooked when the scoreboard started lighting up on the way to a perfect record, was a secret about the vaunted attack.

The passing game improved dramatically, but it wasn’t a consistent threat vertically or able to generate as many backbreaking plays as planned.

The Buckeyes were one of the most successful rushing teams in the nation, but they really didn’t rely much on the kind of read plays Meyer has been known for and could occasionally be slowed by defenses loading up near the line of scrimmage.

Perhaps most important, there wasn’t a guy on the roster truly capable of lending a hand in both of those areas and giving Ohio State the explosive, multipurpose weapon the likes of which Meyer famously had at Florida.

And without somebody like Percy Harvin to line up all over the field to drive opposing coordinators crazy or a blindingly fast runner with the hands of a receiver to torment defenders, there was an entire element of the system missing a year ago.

The dirty, little secret? Without being able to feature anybody in the hybrid, H-back position, the spread as Meyer has known it almost didn’t exist at all last season.

“If you evaluate last year’s offense, we were a pro offense,” Meyer said. “There was not a lot of read components. The whole equation where there’s one extra guy in the box, read one -- whether it’s second level, first level, which is kind of the essence of what spread football is -- really didn’t exist for us.

“You’ll see a different style of offense this year.”

There are any number of factors involved with the evolution of Meyer’s offense with the Buckeyes heading into his second season with the program, and likewise simply trusting a player with the various responsibilities of the H-back isn’t enough to completely alter the approach by itself.

More development of the receivers and the offensive line, a deeper stable of running backs and the marked improvement as a passer by quarterback Braxton Miller all will play a hand in turning Ohio State into a unit that more neatly fits the definition of a spread offense. But there might not be a spot that highlights the difference from a year ago to what the Buckeyes will unveil Saturday against Buffalo better than H-back. There might not be a Harvin, but there are at least a couple of options on hand now capable of filling those shoes.

Jordan Hall was expected to do it a year ago before a series of injuries forced him to redshirt, and his elusiveness with the football and soft hands again make him an intriguing candidate when he’s not starting at running back. But it’s freshman Dontre Wilson who may actually be the final piece of the spread puzzle with his track-star speed and a set of skills that allow him to be deployed all over the field, potentially giving Meyer and his offensive staff a chance to put a few more chapters back in the playbook after editing them out a year ago.

“It’s just playmaker ability [at H-back],” running backs coach Stan Drayton said. “You have to be able to play in space, you have to be able to catch the ball, you have to be able to run the ball.

“It’s a unique skill set that is required at that position, and we feel like we’ve got three or four guys right now that provide that mindset and skill set we’re looking for.”

The Buckeyes surely would have settled for one last season, though they ultimately didn’t need anybody in that role on the way to leading the Big Ten in scoring.

Now with Hall, Wilson and maybe another newcomer like Jalin Marshall, Ohio State has quickly stocked up on guys suited for the sideline-to-sideline game and capable of providing the big-play ability as both a rusher and receiver that was largely absent a year ago. And plugging at least one of those options into the rotation could change the entire complexion of the offense around them.

“We led the Big Ten in scoring, but it’s not to our standard, that’s not what we were expecting,” Meyer said. “The theory, what is a spread offense? It has a read component, and you force a defense to defend 53⅓ yards. The Ohio State Buckeyes did not do that a year ago. Didn’t have to defend it.

“It’s all speed. That’s creating space and guys in space doing things with the ball, and I’m seeing more of that.”

It will all be on public display soon enough. But at this point, it’s no secret that the Buckeyes are much closer to what Meyer envisions from his offense than they were a year ago.

They might only need one position to prove it.