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COLUMBUS — Urban Meyer’s arrival at Ohio State last year came with the promise of an explosive, point-a-minute spread offense that would upend more than a century of Buckeyes football.
A perfect season later, he is still waiting to deliver.
“If you look at our offense last year, we were a pro offense,” Meyer said. “There were not a lot of read components ... which is kind of the essence of what spread football is. That really didn’t exist for us.
“We even did some single-wing, which means a direct snap to the quarterback, and one of our best plays was the quarterback counter because he’s our best player. You’ll see a different style of offense this year.”
Consider it a warning shot to the rest of the Big Ten.
A year ago, quarterback Braxton Miller launched to the brink of the Heisman Trophy race, and OSU averaged a league-high 37.2 points — even as a big chunk of the playbook gathered dust. Miller gave the offense a “C” grade.
Now Meyer plans to turn back the clock, not to the game’s single-wing roots but to the supercharged spread that defined his offenses at Bowling Green State University, Utah, and Florida.
Why does he hope this year is different?
For one, the Buckeyes return nine of 11 starters, including a quarterback in Miller who says, “Dang, I know what I’m actually doing.” But they also have options to fill the critical run-catch hybrid role — “a whole part of the offense that didn’t exist,” Meyer said — and welcome blue-chip, home-run threats like Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall from a freshman class built on speed.
“We’re a faster team,” Meyer said. “What is the spread? ... You force the defense to defend 53 1/3 yards [the width of the field]. The Ohio State Buckeyes did not do that a year ago. You didn’t have to defend that. That’s all speed and creating space. I’m seeing more of that.”
Running backs coach Stan Drayton said the idea is to “finally get this thing clicking on all cylinders.”
“We’ve got speed, we’ve got some depth at some critical skill positions, and we’ve got a quarterback who’s very knowledgeable of what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We're trying to get things full-steam ahead, using all of our arsenal that we have from a personnel standpoint and all of our arsenal we have in our playbook. We’re trying to put it out all out there on display this year.”
Start with the evolution of Miller.
As a sophomore last season, he was one of five FBS players to crack 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing. Yet that was more a result of his innate physical gifts than his grip on the offense. Miller, for instance, piled up all but 57 of his 1,271 rushing yards on designed run plays and often struggled in the pocket in obvious passing situations.
According to ESPN Stats and Info., Miller’s 48.7 completion percentage on third down was the lowest among Big Ten quarterbacks with at least 60 attempts, while his 24 passing first downs on third down marked the third-fewest among FBS quarterbacks with at least 75 attempts.
Beyond his developing leadership, Miller said he a far more complete quarterback this season. His mechanics have improved, and coaches say he owns an advanced understanding of the playbook, which should translate to more comfort in the pocket.
“The kid won Big Ten player of the year, and it’s well documented he wasn’t even close to playing at his potential, and he's still not,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “He’s closer, but he’s got so much room for improvement, and every day we see growth after growth after growth.
“We completed more balls in a third-down scrimmage scenario in a 10-minute, 16-play deal than maybe we did all of last year. And a lot of that had to do with [Miller]. He’s better, he’s more comfortable, he understands things, he’s more patient.”
Not to mention he has more options.
Meyer believes senior Jordan Hall can capably fill the H-back role popularized by Percy Harvin at Florida, and he has praised the improvement of his veteran receivers. Senior Corey Brown (60 catches for 669 yards last year) and junior Devin Smith (30 catches for 618 yards) have evolved from starring roles in the Meyer-labeled “clown show” of last preseason to two of the league’s top returning wideouts while junior Evan Spencer has stood out in camp.
Freshmen running back Ezekiel Elliott, receivers James Clark and Marshall, and the whirlwind Wilson — another candidate for the H-back position — will only add to the depth and speed.
“This year, just with new guys coming in, we can make more plays,” Miller said. “It’s going to be fun.”