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Once an afterthought, Demario McCall is ready for his breakthrough

With a new offense, Demario McCall may finally get his chance to shine in 2019

Graphic by Patrick Mayhorn
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It’s hard to forget about Demario McCall. In fact, the former top-50 recruit and North Ridgeville, Ohio native may be the most talked about Buckeye of the past three years to see the field exclusively as a reserve, and that’s easy to understand. McCall runs a sub 4.4 40-time, and glides around a football field with the kind of ease and grace that makes you think he was born to play football.

On top of his natural ability, McCall has looked just as electric as expected in the rare times that he has seen the field in his first three years as a Buckeye. As a freshman, he looked ready for more playing time in several games, including his big performances against Rutgers, Bowling Green, Maryland and Nebraska. He spent most of that season playing in his true position at running back, and looked primed to see more significant time in the following year.

But He didn’t. With J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber in the backfield (two obviously very capable backs in their own rights), McCall’s touches fell off of a cliff, dropping from 49 in year one to just 14 in year two. He saw significant time just once, again against Rutgers, as he racked up 103 yards and a score on 11 carries. McCall, despite his immense talent, was seemingly buried on the bench behind the younger Dobbins, with no real stated reason from the coaching staff other than vague talk about special teams work, and rumors of a leg injury that were never truly fleshed out.

Once again, the following year, 2018, was expected to be the year that Demario broke out, but not as a running back, rather as a receiver. That, obviously, wasn’t the case. McCall continued to only see the field in garbage time, serving as the continuation of Urban Meyer’s career-long obsession with trying to turn players into Percy Harvin and instead making them completely useless. McCall started to see legitimate time late this past season, specifically in the final three games, but still rarely touched the ball.

However, something seemed to switch in those final three games. While his stats are nothing to write home about over those games, there was a noticeable shift in the way that Demario McCall was being used in the Ohio State offense. No longer was he condemned to the H-back graveyard where we’ve seen so many elite talents go underutilized. Instead, he was back at running back.

Sure, he still wasn’t playing a lot, and, sure, he was still mostly used as a receiver out of the backfield, but for the first time since his freshman year, Ohio State was playing McCall at the position that he should’ve been playing the whole time, rather than trying to force him to be something he’s not. Ohio State was letting Demario be Demario.

That, at its core, seems to be the best way to utilizing McCall. Demario is electric with the football in his hands, and the easiest way to get the football in his hands — and him into open space — is by handing it off to him and giving him five large adult linemen to open up room for him. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Sometimes, football is easy, and when you have someone like Demario McCall, that has the speed and elusiveness to make Division I athletes look like high schoolers, all you have to do is hand him the ball and get the hell out of his way. Meyer, for all he did for this program, never really realized that he didn’t have to replicate his success with Harvin. It didn’t have to be that hard.

That’s why those last three games are so encouraging. Ohio State realized that putting Demario McCall in the backfield creates more mismatches while also putting him in a much better position to succeed. With that much speed, and that ability to run routes out of the backfield, Ohio State has the ability to wear linebackers thin across the middle, or force them to cover far more of the field than they’d like to. It opens up the playbook for five-wide sets with a motion into the backfield, and provides more speed at the running back position than we’ve seen in Columbus, perhaps ever.

We’ve seen this story before though. We saw it with Dontre Wilson, we saw it with Curtis Samuel (though he did eventually force Ohio State’s hand), and for the first three years, we saw it with McCall. A late season spark, a sudden realization that, “Hey, this guy is a running back!” only means so much in the offseason. Coach quotes are great for what they are, and Tony Alford claiming Demario McCall as a member of the running back room is a good sign, but until Ohio State is actually putting Demario on the field in his true position for a significant amount of time, there’s nothing to actually prove that this year will be different.

However, there was a shift at Ohio State this offseason, and dear reader, it was a pretty big one. You may remember that on January 2nd, Ohio State was under new command. Meyer was out, Ryan Day was in.

And the H-back position, the Percy Harvin obsession, that’s all gone with Meyer. Day isn’t that guy. He doesn’t have an H-back in his offense, because his offense is infinitely more modern than Meyer’s (in football, that means like, five years; the sport moves fast), and modern offenses know better than to try to force every small, fast player into a position very few can play.

To really drive the point home that he has no interest in Meyer’s spread-option, Day made just about the most telling hire imaginable, and brought in Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.

Yurcich is from the school of what we’ll call the “modern air-raid” because the air-raid we’re seeing now at schools like Oklahoma State and Oklahoma is certainly a mutation of the offense brought to prominence by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, but is in no way the same.

The modern air-raid is all about spacing, just as the original still is, but it realizes, more than its forefathers did, that spacing can include the running back, and in fact, it can feature him. You can still air the ball out, and devastate opponents with mesh all day long, but those wide offensive-line splits, and the constant stress being put on the defense, can create some pretty massive running lanes, and the best offenses in college football have realized that.

The modern air-raid, like the old air-raid, is also all about doing things quickly. Everything is quick, reads are happening in a split second, and as soon as the defense is out of place, you have to hit them. That’s true of the running game too. Draws, outside runs, and sweeps all take a moment to develop, but once they do, there’s going to be a split second of wide open grass. Now, just from a physics perspective, what’s the best way to attack a bunch of wide open space that probably isn’t going to be there very long? Maybe a little guy, that moves very quickly? Maybe somebody like Justice Hill, T.J. Pledger, or Trey Sermon?

Maybe somebody like Demario McCall?

McCall, obviously, isn’t going to be the workhorse back for Ohio State in 2019, and honestly, he’ll probably never be. Football still hasn’t quite evolved past traditional size expectations for their lead running backs, and unfortunately, Demario is considered “too small” to carry the ball 25 times a game. On top of that, Ohio State does still have Dobbins, and if he drops back to a comfortable playing weight (he was too heavy in 2018) he’ll continue to do the majority of rock toting. And, that’s fine! Dobbins is a great lead back, and should be able to net the Buckeyes five yards per carry with ease if the line isn’t awful (that’s a big if, given the line coach).

Dobbins isn’t a home run hitter though. He can’t quite take advantage of open space in a defense, because he’s not built that way. Demario McCall is. Demario McCall is built for an air-raid offense, he’s designed perfectly to compliment Dobbins, carry the ball ten times a game on draws and outside runs, and gash the defense on wheel routes. He’ll make some mistakes, because that’s part of the Demario McCall Experience, but he’ll also be one hell of a playmaker for an offense absolutely packed with playmakers. Hell, he may be the most electric of the bunch.

The key, and I really cannot stress this enough, is that Ohio State can’t choose what Demario is. Ohio State can’t make Demario McCall a receiver, because Demario McCall isn’t a receiver. Ohio State can’t make Demario McCall an H-back, because he’s not an H-back. Demario McCall doesn’t need your labels, and he doesn’t need to be pigeonholed. Demario McCall is Demario McCall, and Demario McCall is going to win Ohio State some football games if they just give him the football, and get the hell out of the way.