Notebook: OSU Offense Feeling Physical

Some questioned the ability of Ohio State to move to a spread offense and maintain a physical identity, but the proof is in the pudding so far this season. We take a look at that and much more in this week's premium notebook for subscribers.

Opposing coaches started recruiting against Urban Meyer's decision to install a spread offense at Ohio State nearly as soon as he took over in Columbus. Despite the head coach's insistence the Buckeyes would remain a physical team regardless of their formations, some fans also questioned whether or not the Buckeyes would move too far from their "three yards and a cloud of dust" heritage.

Now seeing is believing for college football fans in the Buckeye State and beyond as Ohio State is second in the Big Ten and eighth in the country at 263.6 rushing yards per game.

Meyer remarked a couple of weeks ago that his unit had evolved into more of a "pound it" offense than he could remember being part of, but at least one of his assistants is not surprised at all.

Stan Drayton envisioned all along the Scarlet and Gray would continue being able to turn defenses black and blue.

"You could see it coming," Drayton said this week. "The beauty of this offense is it fits the skill of our players. It can always be adjusted to the skill of our personnel."

Drayton had one of the more unique points of view before the season as the OSU running backs coach not only was well-versed in Meyer's spread offense but also familiar with a variety of other ways to do business.

The 41-year-old native of Cleveland had two different stints on Meyer's staff at Florida and worked within power offenses at previous stops such as Tennessee and Mississippi State and in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers, so he knew the true ins and outs of Meyer's attack.

"We've always been a power, inside zone outfit no matter where we've been," Drayton said, referring to the Buckeyes' two base running plays. "Just down in Florida, we were doing it with guys who weighed 185 or 195 pounds. Now you're doing it with a 235-pound back, and when they hit it, they break a tackle or two.

"It's new for Urban because we've never had that type of physicality at that position. Now that we have it with these guys here, it's really fun to watch the offense develop the way it has in that regard."

That said, Drayton seems to believe the offense has only scratched the surface of what it can do as quarterback Braxton Miller gets more comfortable with all aspects of the attack.

That was exhibited last week against Indiana as the Buckeyes gashed the Hoosiers on consecutive plays with the triple option. First, the OSU quarterback picked up 15 yards on a keeper. A play later, an Indiana defender forced him to pitch the ball to Corey "Philly" Brown, who took it the rest of the way for a 12-yard touchdown run.

While Miller and the running backs have been productive all season despite a spate of injuries, the addition of a wide receiver such as Brown to the running game could complete the picture of what the offense is supposed to be.

"That's really what the run game is predicated off of," Drayton said. "Being able to be physical inside the tackles – create some conflict – and the next thing the defense is going to do is try to load the box. When they load the box, we want to attack the perimeter with not just one guy but potentially two. That's the essence of spread football in the run game."

That did not end the questions about the offense going forward, though. One could argue power backs such as Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith are merely a part of the offense because they were already on the roster. It makes sense to use what is available, but will Ohio State continue to pursue such players or replace them with guys built more for speed? The answer would seem to be the former.

"Again, as long as we have a player – not necessarily a running back or receiver – who can provide some dynamics out on the perimeter, we're good to go," Drayton said. "We have always been an offense who is going to run A-gap power and tight zone with an attitude. We had some issues developing who that perimeter guy was going to be. My backs are capable of doing that but they are better suited to run some of the power-type plays, so the mentality for us as coaches really hasn't changed philosophically."

Player Improvement Opens Up Options

The coaching staff did not sound concerned about some mistakes made recently by a pair of Smiths. Meyer sounded more happy to see how far the sophomores have come since the early part of this year.

Devin Smith, a sophomore wide receiver, caught touchdown passes of 60 and 46 yards against Indiana, but those ended up being his only two catches of the day. He could have had far more if not for multiple dropped passes.

Meyer chose to look to the positive, which interestingly enough seems to mean he feels like he and receivers coach Zach Smith can be tougher on the youngster now that he has had some success.

?"Now you have kids that have just a touch of confidence in that room," Meyer said, referring to the receivers. "You can't go in and be coaching when you have lack of confidence because then you destroy them."

He credited former Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz for teaching him that.

"First of all, you've got to get confidence, and then you coach them as hard as you can," Meyer said. "You finally walk into the wide receiver room here at Ohio State, and it's probably been a while. We have not had one day since (I was hired) that you could walk in the receiver room and coach them hard, because they would believe you if you told them they were not good.

"Now you can start coaching a kid like Devin Smith really hard, and I can't wait. He's a great kid, and he's really worked hard. He bounced back and made the play of the day on that square-in. That was the play of the day. That was excellent. That showed you his excellence. He has something good going with him. Drop a ball, usually the head drops. In spring practice, there would have been tears and he would have been off the field. Now he came right back."

Similarly, Meyer seemed OK with a fumble by Rod Smith because the running back's errors were of aggression. He also picked up a penalty for an illegal block early in the game.

"He's going as hard as he can and we can coach through that," Meyer said. "It's the ones that don't go hard – I don't know what to say to you. We don't say go harder. You should have learned that by now, but Rod Smith – get your wrist above the elbow, da, da, da. He was too fast on his course, too. We had to slow him down a little bit."

Defensive End Emerging, Too

Another young player who appears to be coming into his own is Noah Spence.

Early in the season, Spence showed both why he was the nation's top-rated defensive end recruit last winter and that he is a true freshman. He flashed great quickness and athleticism in getting around the corner to rush the quarterback, but stopping the run was another matter entirely.

He notched five tackles against Indiana while playing extensively in the absence of senior Nathan Williams, and that gives the coaching staff confidence in using Spence more in the future.

That is in spite of the impending return of Williams from a concussion, and it could result in a new role for the elder player.

"The thing you have to ask yourself is, ‘Okay, Noah Spence and Nate Williams play the same position, so let's have a conversation about that,' and we are," Meyer said. "How do you get them both on the field at the same time is the conversation."

For this week, that likely means more of Spence at defensive end with Williams playing linebacker in the team's "dime" defense on passing downs. It is something Williams did earlier this season and takes advantage of his athleticism and knowledge of the scheme by expanding on his normal duties as the drop-end in the Buckeyes' regular defense.

In the future, it could mean Williams moves to linebacker in the team's base 4-3 as well, but the staff has not addressed that yet. If that happens, it would not be entirely new as Williams was moved to strong-side linebacker at the start of last season. He started there in the opener against Akron but was lost for the year with a knee injury and the experiment had to be scrapped.

As a result, the staff never found a fitting replacement and ended up playing its nickel defense for most of the season. This year the search for a strong-side (Sam) linebacker in the base defense ended with the improved play of senior Etienne Sabino, but he is on the shelf for the time being while he recovers from a broken leg. With experience in the middle as well as the outside, Sabino could move back inside if the staff opted to try Williams again at its Sam position.

The return of Michael Bennett, a defensive end who missed the first four games of the season with a groin injury, also gives the staff more options.

"We're just identifying who the best 11 players are and putting that puzzle together," Meyer said.

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