Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
Even after an undefeated season, Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer concedes that his team was missing something last year. Meyer said the 2012 Buckeyes lacked speed, particularly on the perimeter of his spread offense.
Granted, the Buckeyes weren’t completely deficient at wide receiver. If they were, then OSU likely wouldn’t have finished the season at 12-0. Rather, the Buckeyes lacked dynamic athletes at the position, and Meyer’s spread offense couldn’t reach its full potential without an electrifying speedster who could make plays in open space.
“We didn’t have the home run hitter,” Meyer said. “We didn’t have enough make-you-miss guys on offense.”
It’s never a good thing when a team lacks playmakers, regardless of offensive philosophy. But in Meyer’s spread, which is designed to create mismatches with explosive athletes, it can be extremely detrimental. Without such playmakers on the perimeter, OSU’s aerial attack faltered in 2012, and the team finished the season ranked 105th nationally in passing yards per game.
“We felt like we were pretty deficient last year in terms of getting the ball in space,” said offensive coordinator Tom Herman. “We get one-on-one with a safety or one-on-one with a corner, or even a linebacker at times, and we can’t make that guy miss.”
It’s not a problem that Meyer has dealt with much in his coaching career. His teams at Florida were stacked with ‘make-you-miss’ talent, the most prominent being Percy Harvin, who is now a receiver for the Minnesota Vikings.
In college, Harvin hardly played a defined, traditional position. Instead he lined up all over the field.
In 2008, his final year at Florida, Harvin led the Gators in receptions and was second in rushing yards. Meyer calls the unorthodox role in which Harvin thrived the “hybrid,” but others simply refer to it as the “Percy Harvin position.”
Harvin, who reportedly might be traded by the Vikings, could not be reached for comment.
Thus, it wasn’t surprising to hear Harvin’s name mentioned several times Feb. 6 – National Signing Day – when Meyer and his coaching staff addressed their 2013 recruiting class, which is ranked No. 1 by Scout.com, No. 2 by Rivals.com and No. 3 by ESPN.com and features plenty of much-needed speed.
In fact, Meyer believes the newest crop of Buckeye talent contains multiple players that fit the Harvin-position mold.
On Feb. 6, the most talked about prospective Harvin-type playmaker was Dontre Wilson. Wilson, ranked by Scout, Rivals and ESPN as a four-star prospect and ESPN’s No. 5 athlete, originally committed to Oregon, but announced that he would sign with OSU just days before National Signing Day.
Wilson caught the OSU coaching staff’s attention while playing for DeSoto High School in DeSoto, Texas, because of his ability to make an impact as a running back and a receiver.
According to ESPN, Wilson accumulated more than 2,600 total yards of offense and 46 touchdowns in 2012.
“There are not too many people in the country that can do that,” Meyer said. “That’s a very unusual athlete.”
After the Buckeyes won the battle with Oregon to acquire Wilson’s services, running backs coach Stan Drayton and receivers coach Zach Smith began fighting for the rights to personally coach the multi-talented athlete.
“We’re so excited to have him in this system,” said Drayton, who coached Harvin with Meyer at Florida.
Like Harvin during his time with the Gators, Wilson will likely receive most of his tutelage directly from Meyer, while spending some time with both Drayton and Smith as well. Drayton, though, didn’t seem too upset about this arrangement.
He beamed while talking about Wilson on National Signing Day, the first day coaches can speak about incoming talent.
It’s easy to understand why OSU coaches are so enthusiastic about Wilson. Many athletes are fast, but few possess world-class speed. Wilson is in the second category. “You sit there and look at his track time. His track times are national times,” Drayton said. “He can be a collegiate track athlete and be an All-American. He is that fast.
“That’s probably one of the missing pieces to the puzzle that we were looking for to complete the spread type of philosophy that we run here.”
Wilson isn’t the only incoming freshman with speed who can help complete OSU’s spread offense, though. In fact, the staff seems just as excited about Jalin Marshall, ESPN.com’s and Rivals.com’s four-star and Scout.com’s five-star wide receiver.
Marshall was a quarterback for Middletown High School in Middletown, Ohio, but was recruited by OSU to play the hybrid-receiver role. Because Marshall committed to OSU more than a year ago, he likely didn’t receive as much fanfare as other last-minute additions, such as Wilson, on National Signing Day.
Meyer believes that had Marshall drawn out his recruiting process, Buckeye Nation would have been on pins and needles, waiting for his signature.
“He’s certainly, we think, if not the best player in Ohio, one of them,” Meyer said.
Finally there is James Clark, a consensus four-star receiver from New Smyrna Beach, Fla., who committed to OSU on National Signing Day. Clark is another ideal fit for Meyer’s spread offense, and the hybrid role in particular, given his combination of speed and agility.
How much of an impact will Wilson, Marshall and Clark make next year in Columbus? Last year some of OSU’s highest ranked recruits were defensive linemen, but they received sporadic playing time as freshmen.
The coaches seem to believe, however, that this particular trio will contribute early and often.
For one thing, it might be easier for a skill position player to adjust to the college level than, say, a defensive lineman.
“The farther you get away from the ball, the easier it is for you to play early,” Herman said.
“We’ve had great success with skill guys (playing early),” Meyer said. “Especially these guys, I think they’re going to help us.”
Playing the young talent early might also come out of necessity. OSU’s freshmen defensive linemen played sparingly last year, in part because the Buckeyes already had a veteran group in the trenches. On the other hand, Wilson, Marshall and Clark are entering a program in need of their athletic abilities.
“We wanted to get some playmakers,” Meyer said. “I think with Dontre, Jalin and James Clark, we have three guys that we would put in that category.”
It would be unrealistic
to say OSU will rely entirely on the group of freshmen. Though the Buckeyes struggled making big plays in 2012, the offense boasted the 10th most prolific rushing attack and averaged 37.2 points per game.
Almost all of OSU’s current offensive talent is returning, too. Rising-senior Carlos Hyde emerged as one of the best running backs in the country toward the end of last season.
He will also benefit from four other 2012 offensive line starters returning with him: rising seniors Jack Mewhort, Andrew Norwell, Corey Linsley and Marcus Hall.
Rising-junior quarterback Braxton Miller is a preseason contender for the Heisman trophy and should continue to progress in his second season as part of Meyer’s spread, a spread tailor-made for dual-threat quarterbacks such as Miller.
It’s no wonder the staff believes that with the addition of the freshmen playmakers, alongside the returning talent already on the roster, OSU’s offense could reach untold heights in 2013.
“We were a little bit one-dimensional this year because we didn’t have that (speed),” Drayton said. “We always felt that if we could bring that type of athlete in this system, in the Big Ten, we can have some incredible success in the future.”
And in the end, OSU didn’t bring in just one of those athletes. It signed three.