Last week we took a look at what the advanced stats have to say about Ohio State's wide receivers next season. One of my takeaways from the data was that replacing Devin Smith's production will be a major priority next season.
Smith was clearly an extremely talented, athletic receiver who even has an opportunity to be a first-round pick in the NFL draft, but replacing him on the 2015 team is even more important than simply finding a new number one receiving threat.
The advanced stats demonstrated that Smith averaged almost double the yards per catch of the second-leading receiver on the team last year (28.2 to Michael Thomas's 14.8) despite being just the third-most targeted receiver on the roster. 58% of his receiving yards were considered explosive and he was ranked 27th in overall receiver value according to Bill's RYPR measure.
However, Ian Boyd's recent article on the future of dual threat quarterbacks (and spread offenses more broadly) not only demonstrates how valuable Devin Smith was to the 2014 offense, but how important his position overall is to third-generation spread offenses.
As Boyd describes in his article, third generation spread offenses, and specifically Urban Meyer's version, is built around a power run game balanced by perimeter rushing and a deep vertical threat:
The run game will often incorporate screens or sweeps to attack the perimeter in lieu of carrying multiple passing game plays... But the real key to these offenses comes with the vertical passing game which can easily turn into an opportunity for the QB to run amok.
These teams will often focus their passing reps on running vertical option routes to run into open space deep and to build timing and chemistry between the QB and WRs on plays that can do real damage...
With schemes like this, why bother trying to teach your better athletes the precise footwork and timing of the quick passing game when you can create horizontal stress with the option and focus your passing game reps on drilling opponents with deep bombs?
The benefit of this balanced offensive strategy is clear: "These teams are well-equipped to either score quickly to catch up or run out the clock when ahead." So the Buckeyes could run 2013's most popular play or packaged screens/quick hitches to repeatedly stress the perimeter or inside (based on post-snap quarterback reads), then create explosive plays with deep bombs after the defensive backs are forced in to close run support.
It's easy to see that this is a complete, balanced offensive attack, especially when it is predicated on a road-grating offensive line and smart post-snap decision making by the quarterback. Opposing defenses are unable to fully dictate the flow of either the inside run game, the perimeter, or the vertical deep threat -- post-snap reads, field-wide options, and better athletes are a deadly combination.
However, the biggest key for the 2015 Buckeyes -- likely at any position, really -- is replacing Devin Smith. That balance doesn't happen without a deep threat off of play action. The vertical threat is not only a way to gain quick explosive points, but it helps balance out the more efficient perimeter rushing/passing and inside rushing plays. For the Buckeyes (and many third-generation spread offenses) explosive plays come off of play action and deep balls rather than "athletes-in-space making plays" and turning short-yardage rushes and passes in to big gains. Without explosiveness, efficiency can suffer. Safeties can creep up in to run support without fear of getting burned in the passing game. Corners can take a more active role in run support as well. In short, the previously-balanced offense can become one-dimensional.
To some extent, Devin Smith's (and his successor's) role isn't all that complicated: run as fast as you can in a straight line and catch three deep balls a game. Smith himself wasn't a perfect receiver despite his stats and NFL potential -- many argued that he had stiff hands, was a poor blocker, and lacked route-running finesse. But the 6' 190 lbs. receiver nonetheless will need to be replaced -- and the sooner the better. Whether it's Corey Smith, Terry McLaurin, Parris Campbell, or one of the incoming recruits remains to be seen, but the race to replace Smith might be more important than who wins the quarterback competition.