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Can Jaelen Gill escape the H-back curse?

The Buckeyes have seen this story before. Will this time be different?

Graphic via Patrick Mayhorn
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Inefficiency and struggles at the over-hyped “H-back position,” it’s become a story all too familiar at Ohio State since November 2011 when Urban Meyer took over. When he was hired in Columbus, Meyer brought with him the promise of explosive offenses, heavy hitting defenses, national titles, and the position that he essentially invented at Notre Dame with wideout David Givens, the aforementioned H-back.

You don’t really need a refresher on what Meyer did with his hybrid halfback/receiver spot at Florida with Percy Harvin. Harvin changed the way college football was played, and teams have been chasing that dream even since, including Meyer. Nothing stood out more in the Meyer era at Ohio State than his desire to find another Harvin-esque figure that could do it all, lighting up defenses on jet sweeps, downfield routes, handoffs and screen. He recruited at least one H-back in every class that he landed in Columbus, and was sure to find a place on the field for one in essentially every formation.

Despite his best efforts, Ohio State was never really able to recreate the Harvin magic, because, well, Percy Harvin was a really special player. He was truly unique, and it’s hard to find someone as talented as he was a second time. That’s what made him the player that he was; if everyone could do what he did, it wouldn’t be so special.

In trying to fill that spot, Ohio State threw out a massive list of potential Harvin successors. Early on, Corey Brown tried his best to fill the role, before returning to his true receiver spot in 2013, making room for Dontre Wilson. Jalin Marshall, Curtis Samuel, Braxton Miller, and most recently (and most successfully) Parris Campbell. While all of these players enjoyed varying degrees of success in the ever evolving position, none ever truly met the expectations of Harvin’s legacy.

While Brown was the least “Harvin-like” of the bunch, both in production and comfort at the position, none of the players on that list were ever able to replicate what Harvin did at Florida. Few felt like the touchdown threat every that Harvin was every time he touched the ball, and those that did were used mostly as receivers and jet-sweep machines, like Curtis Samuel and Parris Campbell.

You could say that those two were successful recreations, but I don’t think it’s fair to call either a real representation of that H-back position. Campbell was more of a true receiver, and Samuel was essentially a running back that could catch the ball out of the backfield.

Outside of those two, Ohio State found a whole lot of talent and not a whole lot of production at the H-back spot. Wilson, Marshall, and Miller all met similar fates, serving as exciting sideshows that fans could create hypotheticals over, but nothing more than gadget players.

None were able to live up to their expectations, because they were, frankly, being asked to do too much, and they were being asked to do it by a receivers coach that we now know lacked the competency to coach at this level.

That’s going to be a hard chain to break, even as the Buckeyes have found more success and a better balance with Campbell, and as a new era takes over under Ryan Day. There’s a decent chance that the position just can’t be saved, that after Harvin ripped through defenses, coordinators adapted limiting the potential impact that the position could impose, even with the most talented of athletes carrying the ball.

In fact, it’s probably just as likely that Ohio State scraps the position altogether as it is that Ryan Day is able to find a way to fit a hybrid halfback into his pass-heavy system.

If the Buckeyes do phase out the h-back position, it could make for a pretty radical change in the career paths for two Buckeyes: Demario McCall and Jaelen Gill.

I’ve already gone in-depth on McCall, and have made my feelings known that the North Ridgeville product is almost certainly a running back, and using him as a hybrid is doing him a disservice.

Gill is a little more complicated, and the answers for him are a bit less clear. He was a halfback in high school, but he’s looked comfortable as a hybrid in limited game action, and even more so in Ohio State’s spring game, where he was pretty easily the best playmaker on his offense. His ability as a receiver makes me think twice about mentally slotting him in exclusively as a true running back like McCall, but he’s also too talented as a halfback to use solely as a pure receiver.

Does that mean that he’s in for a Parris Campbell-type role? He could do it, but I think he’s a better route runner down the field than Campbell was, and having him do 90 percent of his work within five yards of the line of scrimmage may be a waste of that talent.

Perhaps the more realistic and beneficial option is for Day to create a new spot for Gill. Moving away from H-back — and specifically, the gadget plays behind the line that come with it — and figure out a new form of wideout/halfback combo, where Gill’s speed and vision out of the backfield can be used frequently enough that he serves as a threat on the ground, but also allowing him to run the same routes as everyone else, making him a true multi-dimensional threat.

This wouldn’t be the first time that we’ve seen something like that in college football over the past few years. Tavon Austin essentially served that role for West Virginia in 2012, and I think that his style of play and that particular offense compare pretty favorably to what Day wants to do in Columbus.

Jeremy Maclin and Randall Cobb both had similar success in the role of a receiver who can make plays down the field, but can also make plays as a ball carrier out of the backfield.

If Ohio State would prefer Gill as a halfback first, Saquon Barkley, Phillip Lindsay, and even Ohio State’s own Curtis Samuel could serve as the archetypes for that role. However, I can’t imagine that the Buckeyes will go that route, but it’s not impossible to envision a season in which Gill carries the ball 90+ times, catches it 50+ times, and puts up a yards-per-catch average greater than the 9 or ten that you’d usually expect from an H-back type that does most of his work underneath.

Whichever way Ohio State chooses to emphasize for Gill there will be plenty of logic to support it, and both paths would likely lead to success for the youngster, because he seems to be one of the most naturally talented players on the entire team.

If they want him as a speedy change of pace back that also threatens teams down the field, he can do that. If they want him primarily as a receiver, who can be motioned into the backfield and rack up yards inside and outside of the tackles, he can thrive there as well.

Ultimately, the only real way to screw this up is to use him in the way H-backs are expected to be used. If Gill becomes a drag route, screen, and jet sweep exclusive player, defenses won’t really have to worry about him, and he won’t be able to use his greatest strength: his versatility.

Essentially, the key for Gill’s development is to get creative, find the usage that best suits him, and stick to it. None of that swapping between halfbacks and wideouts rooms. He’s got the talent to shine, he just needs Ohio State to find a way to get him the ball all over the field, rather than just behind the line of scrimmage.