Searching For A Red Zone Threat

Though three games is a small sample size, it is enough to look at the trends Ohio State has exhibited in the red zone this season. With 36 plays inside the 20 this year, who is beginning to emerge as the Buckeyes No. 1 threat?

It’s hard to take much away from defeating a bottom-tier MAC school 66-0, but for the first time this season Ohio State sustained drives and consistently found the end zone in it’s route of Kent State. The game against the Golden Flashes was also the first time the Buckeyes ran double digit plays in the red zone this season, registering 23 such plays after snapping the ball a combined 13 times inside their opponents 20 yard-line against Navy and Virginia Tech.

With 36 total plays, the sample size remains small, but it is large enough to isolate trends and look at who this Buckeyes team will rely on to score points when the field gets smaller.

Last season there was no question who that player was. The Buckeyes were ruthlessly efficient in the red zone in 2013 (53 touchdowns in 63 trips) and Carlos Hyde led the way with 15 red zone scores. Braxton Miller and Jordan Hall were next with six each while Chris Fields and Philly Brown both had five. None of those players are seeing the field for Ohio State this season.

The leading returning red zone threat from last year in terms of touchdowns was Ezekiel Elliott. The 2014 starting running back had three red zone scores in 2013, though two of those came in a 76-0 destruction of Florida A&M. Starting receivers Evan Spencer and Devin Smith each had two touchdowns in the red zone last season while Jeff Heuerman, Dontre Wilson, Rod Smith, Nick Vannett and Cardale Jones had one apiece.

Unsurprisingly, no clear red zone target has emerged for the Buckeyes through three games this season. Ohio State has scored 11 touchdowns and two field goals in 16 trips to the red zone this young season (statistics propped up by hitting on eight touchdowns in nine trips against Kent State). It appears the running backs may once again be where Ohio State leans inside the 20 as Curtis Samuel leads all OSU players in total touches and targets in the red zone, while the freshman and Elliott each have two red zone touchdowns. While they may be the frontrunners, let’s look at all the candidates for the No. 1 2014 red zone threat.

Ezekiel Elliott

  • Red Zone touches/targets (touchdowns): 3 (2)
  • Total touches/targets (TDs): 31 (2)

Though Samuel has more touches this season, Elliott is this team’s No. 1 back. Running backs coach Stan Drayton made it clear that the sophomore is the most complete option out of the backfield leading up to the Kent State game and coach Urban Meyer confirmed as much after the decimation of the Flashes. Elliott had a red zone score in each of the Buckeyes first two games, perhaps a better indicator of things to come than the romp on Sept. 13, but Meyer indicated that the team is unlikely to employ the workhorse approach that was successful with Hyde last season.

“You know, you have mixed emotions about having that one guy that's going to be a 1,000-yard rusher,” Meyer said after beating Kent State. “In the past, I think Carlos, people told me, was our first 1,000 yard rusher. We've always been kind of a top ten in America rushing, but we've usually spread it around a little bit, so I got the mixed emotions.”

Curtis Samuel

  • Red Zone touches/targets (touchdowns): 10 (2)
  • Total touches/targets (TDs): 33 (2)

If the Buckeyes are spreading around the carries, Samuel seems to be the one eating into Elliott’s workload. Listed as a co-starter for each of the three games, Samuel leads the team in total touches and red zone touches thanks in large part to his heavy dose of carries against Kent. He showed some athleticism and explosiveness in finding the end zone twice against the Flashes and was one of a few players to come to mind for Meyer following the game when asked about his young skill players.

“I think I'm really excited about our young skill, and I was hoping to try to get Buckeye Nation and the stadium to see some of those guys out in open space, and Curtis Samuel and Dontre (Wilson) and Jalin (Marshall) are just off the top of my head guys I'm excited to get out in open space,” he said.

Space is limited in the red zone, however, and Samuel’s ability to run inside successfully may determine how much of a factor he is inside the 20 going forward.

Michael Thomas

  • Red Zone touches/targets (touchdowns): 3 (2)
  • Total touches/targets (TDs): 13 (4)

Through three games Thomas has been the Buckeyes most reliable receiver, leading the team in catches with 11, touchdowns with four and yards with 214. His touchdowns of 53 and 63 yards have garnered most of the attention, but he has also been successful in the red zone with scores of 9 and 14 yards. Both of his long scores, in fact, came on short or intermediate routes that the sophomore broke for big plays. Freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett has targeted Thomas a team-high 13 times and after the Kent State game the receiver said the two have good chemistry.

“J.T.’s a real mature guy,” Thomas said. “We just hold each other accountable and I just trust in him and always tell him I got his back out there and he trusts in me.”

If the Buckeyes look to pass in the red zone going forward, and 20 of their 36 plays inside the 20 have been passes, Thomas may become the go-to threat.

Other Skill Positions

  • Red Zone touches/targets (touchdowns): 17 (5)
  • Total touches/targets (TDs): 61 (8)

While Elliott, Samuel and Thomas are the early leaders in the red zone, it would be extremely premature to rule out another skill player filling that role. The two most likely position groups to do that would appear to be the tight ends and the “H” receiver position. Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall have shared time at the later, and have combined for one touchdown (Marshall against Kent) in 5 touches and targets combined. The competition between those two explosive players may prevent one from standing out.

“It’s a hard competition, me and Dontre competing for reps,” Marshall said. “We go out there and make each other better every day. Whoever is in the game we go out there and make plays.”

The tight ends, meanwhile, were practically non-existent until the Kent State game, but some of that could be attributed to the ongoing foot problems for starter Jeff Heuerman. The captain has one target all season while backups Nick Vannett and Marcus Baugh have combined for 6 targets and one score.

There is also the very real possibility that no clear red-zone threat emerges this season. Barrett has been labeled “The Distributor” for a reason, and he may continue to be judicious with his targets inside the 20.

“You know there are strengths J.T. has that you have to play to and some of those are he reads coverages well, he throws an accurate ball,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said.

Those strengths may mean that there isn’t a go-to guy this season, but it is certainly worth monitoring as the schedule unfolds.


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