Urban Meyer is a coach known for fielding high-octane offenses. Ohio State has an offense composed of mostly unknown talent. Something will have to give in 2016.
The Buckeyes replace eight starters from last year’s offense, including four players selected in the first three rounds of last spring’s NFL Draft. Meyer likes to patrol the sidelines equipped with a list of his top playmakers. Many on the list will be playing for an audience of 100,000 screaming fans for the first time in their life when the Buckeyes host Bowling Green on Saturday.
Curtis Samuel has performed in the shadow of giants. Listed as an athlete during his recruiting cycle, the Brooklyn native sporadically flashed elite playmaking ability as a freshman running back in 2014. Still, he could not outshine Ezekiel Elliott’s 1,878 rushing yards, second-best in the program’s storied history.
With Elliott set to return in 2015, Samuel was moved out wide to H-back in the spring. The plan was for the talented sophomore to be an integral weapon in Ohio State’s passing and rushing attack. Those plans changed that summer when Braxton Miller, a two-time conference player of the year, moved from quarterback to H-back himself.
Miller and Elliott are now preparing to play football on Sundays. So is Jalin Marshall, the Buckeyes’ starting H-back in 2014. It finally appears to be Samuel’s time to shine in Columbus. By all accounts, he’ll be one of the first names on Meyer’s vaunted list.
You’ll be hard pressed to listen to an interview and not hear a player or coach sing the junior’s praises. But with just over 100 career touches to his name, it’s fair for Buckeye Nation to ask, just how good is Curtis Samuel? Better yet, what is Curtis Samuel?
Is he a running back? Is he a receiver? Truth is, Samuel is a little bit of both. The H-back position has been a staple of Meyer’s offense throughout his career, a hybrid role best suited for fast-twitch athletes capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. Samuel seems to be an ideal fit to not just contribute, but be a game-breaker in this role.
Of all the H-backs that Meyer has coached, none is more celebrated than Percy Harvin. Harvin was a human highlight reel at Florida, and Meyer fed him the ball in every conceivable fashion. As a junior in 2008 Harvin was second for the Gators in both rushing and receiving yards and scored a total of 17 touchdowns. Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey were used similarly as his successors, albeit to a lesser degree of success.
“At Florida, H-back kind of became the Cadillac position,” Meyer said in July at Big Ten Media Days.
Through four years in Columbus, the H-back has been more of a hood ornament for Meyer. More often than not, the position has been used as a decoy to open lanes for Ohio State’s running backs. Against Oregon in the 2014 National Championship Game, Jalin Marshall was consistently brought into motion for a fake jet sweep, moving the Ducks’ over aggressive defense out of position to defend Ezekiel Elliott counters. Ohio State’s tailback feasted on this play, rushing for a then career-high 246 yards.
It could be argued that the H-back is better suited for a southern school like Florida, where the weather is warm and the track is fast. In Big Ten country a Cadillac Coupe might not be pragmatic on a cold, wet, slippery afternoon in November - especially when there’s an SUV in the form of a bruising tailback like Elliott ready to tote the rock 25 times a game.
At the same time, Ohio State’s redshirt freshman tailback Mike Weber has never taken a snap in college, let alone suffered the punishment of a grueling conference battle. Meyer and offensive coordinator Ed Warinner are also searching for more offensive balance, after relying on the run 64% of the time a year ago. Ideally, the OSU offense should generate as many passing yards as it does rushing. What better way to achieve this goal than through the versatile Samuel?
“Curtis is a very skilled athlete, a very elite player with the ball in his hands,” Warinner told the media Monday. “We’re just going to try to find as many ways to use him as possible.”
It will be interesting to see just how creative Warinner gets when utilizing Samuel. The offensive play calling was at its most imaginative when Warinner was moved to the press box for the final two games last season, in which the Buckeyes unleashed several new ways to feature their H-backs.
Facing third-and-three in the third quarter of the Michigan game, J.T. Barrett lined up in the shotgun with an H-back behind each offensive tackle. At the snap the H-back to Barrett’s left, Samuel, darted backwards to run a speed option with his quarterback. At the same time fellow H-back Jalin Marshall moved toward the A-gap, making himself available for a shovel pass. Barrett read the defensive end perfectly, pitching the ball to Samuel at the last moment, which allowed the speedster to race for a first down.
Later in the drive the Buckeyes faced another third-and-short. This time Warinner sent Samuel in motion out of the backfield, first a few paces to the left of Barrett, and then dashing to the right toward the strong side of the formation. This action exposed Michigan’s man defense, and the plodding linebacker tasked with chasing Samuel.
Even with so many new starters seeing action for the first time, Ohio State shouldn’t need any one particular player to step up against the Falcons this Saturday. Instead, the opener will serve as a lens into what the Buckeyes’ offense will look like in 2016, and how Meyer and Warinner plan to achieve balance.
No one epitomizes this better than the Buckeyes’ all-purpose H-back. Chances are we see more sets like the ones used against Michigan to take pressure off Weber in the run game, and to give Barrett a safety-valve as a passer.
“He’s been kind of in the shadows, with the talent we have at Ohio State,” said Barrett last week on ESPN’s Russillo & Kanell radio show. “This year he’s going to be a major part of our offense.”
We’ll get our first glimpse into exactly what that means this Saturday.