Fastest Show on Turf
Meyer Expects Influx of Speed to Add Dynamic Element to Spread Attack
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Chip Kelly made a last-minute decision to leave Oregon for the NFL last month, Urban Meyer was ready. He and his staff at Ohio State quickly moved in on Dontre Wilson, securing a verbal commitment and ultimately a signature from one of the Ducks’ top commits.
That may not be all Meyer is planning to take from Eugene.
One of the primary reasons Wilson, an elite sprinter out of Texas and one of the top high school running backs in the country, was headed to Oregon in the first place is because the offense Kelly implemented six years ago.
More importantly, what Kelly was able to do with guys like LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and DeAnthony Thomas.
He took what Mike Bellotti had started and turned it into one of the most feared offensive attacks in the sport. The Ducks are the only team in Division I football that scored 80+ touchdowns or 600+ points in each of the past three seasons.
They were also first in the country in run plays of 20 yards or more during 2012 football season. The Ducks had 21 rushes for 30 yards or more last season, compared to just five for Ohio State.
“We felt like we were pretty deficient last year in terms of getting the ball in space and really doing a lot of damage,” said OSU offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who was instrumental in helping Meyer land a playmaker like Wilson out of DeSoto, Texas.
“We’re going against a corner or a safety or even a linebacker at times, and we can’t make that guy miss. The premise of a spread offense is to not play football in a phone booth and spread people out and create one-on-one mismatches.”
Photo by Dan Harker
Herman has stressed the importance of what he calls “explosive plays” on offenses, meaning runs of 12 yards or more and passes of 16 yards or more. The Buckeyes found a big-play receiver in sophomore Devin Smith out of Massillon Washington. He averaged over 20 yards per catch this past season, but hauled in only 30 passes all season.
Most of those were plays where Smith simply got behind the defense because of his blazing straight-line speed, but defensive coordinators started to adjust by playing further and further off Ohio State’s “go-get-guy.”
“Big plays are a problem for us. We didn't have the home-run hitter explosiveness, open-space players on offensive, but you know what? Some guys really grew up and did a good job for us,” Meyer said on National Signing Day.
“Philly Brown did a nice job. We don't have enough. When you run into an offense where you can split guys all the time and you only have one or two, that's not enough.”
Photo by Jim Davidson
After Brown (60) and Smith (30), no one else on the roster had more than 16 catches last season. The Buckeyes also didn’t have a run of more than 33 yards outside of quarterback Braxton Miller.
That’s where guys like Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall might be able to come in and provide an instant impact.
From his first carry as a freshman – which went for 56 yards and a touchdown – to his senior year against Cincinnati Moeller – where he ran for a career-high 312 yards – Marshall was the definition of playmaker for Middletown High School.
Although he played mostly quarterback, Marshall rushed for a school-record 4,759 yards during his career, including more than 1,400 yards as a senior with 14 touchdowns. He also passed for 2,240 yards as a senior, accounting for 54 total touchdowns (two receiving).
“I think we're starting to get a little bit of that built up where you're having a Jalin to put out there, and Dontre can play that – that's what he'll do as well. And you can break the formation a little bit and have guys in space,” Meyer said.
“That's the only area if you say, boy, Ohio State wasn't very talented, I wouldn't say that at all. Ohio State was talented. We just didn't have enough – “making-you-miss” guys on offense would be the one area, and I think we addressed that.”
Not only did Meyer and his staff add a pair of dynamic playmakers who can fill the void at his famous ‘pivot’ spot, but also an outside receiver in JUCO transfer Corey Smith and another speed guy in Floridian James Clark, who can play just about anywhere.
Clark had over 1,100 yards as a senior at New Smyrna Beach High School on just 49 catches. He averaged over 22 yards per catch and ran a 10.71 in the 100-meter dash at the Florida outdoor state track championships.
They also added a running back in Ezekiel Elliott, a speed back out of St. Louis who racked up 3,061 all-purpose yards and 50 touchdowns – including 2,155 rush yards, and 40 rushing touchdowns – for John Burroughs High School as a senior this past season.
“When you’re recruiting a guy, I think you’ve certainly got to look at a guy’s ability to make people miss in space,” Herman said. “To break tackles, to show toughness and to make big plays when big plays are there to be made.”
That’s something Oregon has specialized in over the past 4-5 seasons. The Ducks have averaged over 500 yards of offense per game in each of the past three seasons, and they move at rapid pace.
While Meyer won’t copy exactly what Kelly was doing in Eugene, he will try to utilize players like Dontre Wilson – a kid who had 2,600 yards and 46 touchdowns last year – the way they were planning to use him at Oregon.
“He brings all that to the table. He’s a kid who primarily played running back at DeSoto, but he’s a very dynamic athlete,” said OSU running backs coach Stan Drayton, who coached guys like Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps at Florida.
“His track times are national times. He could be a collegiate track athlete and be an all American, he’s that fast. But he can put his foot in the ground and change direction. We’re so excited to have him in this system because that was one of the missing pieces to the puzzle with the spread we run here.”
Put those pieces together with Braxton Miller and that puzzle could look a lot like early January in Pasadena.
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