Last night, Braxton Miller told SI that he would be primarily moving to H-Back for the Buckeyes next season, a decision that brought quite a bit of excitement to the Ohio State fanbase. After all, moving Miller to a different position provides some clarity to a muddled quarterback derby, and also gives the Buckeyes yet another dynamite athlete to play in the open field.
After numerous years of top recruiting classes, and with most of the offense returning from a championship squad last season, it's easy to be giddy about what Ohio State can do this season. When healthy, after all, Braxton Miller could do stuff like this.
There's just one tiny problem. No matter how many shiny toys Ohio State has at wideout and H-Back, they only have one football. And if Miller is going to start competing for touches, somebody is going to be getting the ball less. But who? And what is a reasonable expectation for Miller's offensive output if he is't playing quarterback?
There's only so much insight we can tease from last year, but for what it's worth, Ohio State didn't actually give a ton of touches to H-Backs last season, and that position group is looking even more crowded this year.
During Ohio State's last three games, H-Backs (defined here as Curtis Samuel, Jalin Marshall, Noah Brown or Dontre Wilson) got five carries a game out of the backfield. That number occasionally ticked up during the regular season in blowouts against lesser opponents (eight carries against Rutgers and Cincinnati), or dropped off the board entirely (zero against Maryland).
Of course, not ever H-Back touch is a traditional carry out of the backfield. They can also be passing targets, and occasionally, Buckeye H-Backs had their number called much more often in the passing game.
Dontre Wilson had six receptions for 71 yards against Cincinnati, Jalin Marshall caught a pass in every single game but one last season (against Virginia Tech), and have five receptions four different times, most famously his three touchdown game against Indiana, or two five reception games in the Playoffs. If you combine receptions and carries, Marshall was getting between four-eight 'touches' a game. Incomplete pass attempts in his direction pad that number a little more.
The ball distribution was a little easier for Ohio State at the end of last season, as Dontre Wilson as injured and out of the lineup, and Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown didn't figure into the rotation quite as much as freshman.
With this coming season, Wilson (a very fast player and top recruit in his own right) projects to be healthy, and Samuel has been talked up continuously by the coaching staff as somebody who needs to get the ball more. Jalin Marshall has now moved to the outside which could take him out of the H-Back conversation a little more, but now Meyer has to balance touches with Samuel, Wilson, Noah Brown, Braxton Miller, potentially Marshall out of the backfield, and maybe with some of his other young speedsters. All of that while that group, entirely, may only account for ten snaps in a game.
So if Miller is healthy and works his way into that rotation, you want to find ways to give him the ball. If Miller is getting a handful of targets a game, what does that mean for the rest of the offense? Here are some possibilities:
Total H-Back targets increase at the expense of designed QB runs. This seems even more plausible if Cardale Jones wins the quarterback battle, as the limited sample size from last year indicates he wasn't as efficient of a runner as Barrett, despite being the size of an armored car.
No matter who has been under center under Meyer at Ohio State, they've been running the ball quite a bit (Jones got 21 carries against Oregon, 17 against Alabama, and Barrett ran 20 times against both Penn State and Indiana). If those numbers were all trimmed a few, that frees up a few more touches for the other playmakers, and can help extend the health of whoever is at quarterback. Although I hear Ohio State has a deep bench at that position group.
Total H-Back targets increase at the expense of pure WR targets. On paper, it seems like H-Back type players may actually be a deeper group than the pure wideouts, led by Michael Thomas, Corey Smith, the new Jalin Marshall (who may still end up doing some H-Back type things), and then a lot of very talented, but very unproven players. Thomas and Smith will still see plenty of passes, but perhaps Ohio State decides to lean a little heavier on the H group to make plays, especially now that Miller is in that fold.
Braxton Miller's targets increase at the expense of other H-Backs. Maybe Urban Meyer doesn't want to change up the playbook too much. After all, that allocation of touches turned out pretty well last year. Miller's specific touches then could come at the ends of other players in that group. Maybe Miller passes Dontre Wilson on the depth chart.
Maybe Curtis Samuel has to get more carries out of the backfield as a traditional running back. Maybe Noah Brown doesn't get the ball next year. If the total H-Back targets don't go up, any Miller touch or target will come from somebody already in that group. That seems like a tough decision.
Braxton Miller doesn't actually get very many touches. Perhaps an unpopular suggestion to float in the wake of yesterday's euphoria, but I wouldn't count out this scenario, especially early in the season, where Miller has already admitted that his shoulder isn't healthy enough to play QB.
Would Meyer want to risk exposing him to lots of contact in the early season? Will Miller learn the ins and outs of the position quickly enough to demand the ball over his other, also talented, peers? Could Miller potentially primarily contribute as a punt returner? It's worth nothing, after all, that as long as Miller is on the field, he can still be very valuable just as a decoy. Even if there is only a small chance Miller is getting the ball, given his prodigious athletic gifts, you have to account for him if you're the defense.
Having "too many playmakers" is a horrible, first-world college football fan problem, and it's far more likely that Miller finds a way to help Ohio State's already dangerous offense this season one way or another, but there are questions to be raised. With this many players who are talented enough to get the ball (and regularly), can the locker room keep everybody happy? Could a player who suddenly is doing less because of Miller show resentment? Can Miller stay healthy and consistent enough to be truly effective in his new position?
Who knows? It's July. It's perfectly fine to be excited (I certainly am). But there is only one football, and making every happy will be another challenge the defending champs will have to figure out. I'm told that having too many cooks, after all, can spoil the stew.