At some point during his coaching career, Urban Meyer became synonymous with running quarterbacks.
Braxton Miller and Tim Tebow redefined what a modern quarterback could do running the ball in Meyer’s systems, but quarterbacks like Alex Smith and Josh Harris from the coach’s earlier stops at Utah and Bowling Green were adept ball carriers in their own right.
The quarterback run, usually via the zone-read or sometimes on direct runs, was so heavily featured during Meyer’s career that in 13 seasons as a head coach entering the 2015 campaign the quarterback was Meyer’s leading rusher five times.
Those team-leading performances done include a prolific rushing season from Braxton Miller in 2013 when he was Ohio State’s second leading rusher, but outpaced the team’s third best ball carrier by more than 500 yards. Last season J.T. Barrett was second among Buckeye ball carriers with 938 yards rushing, 640 yard ahead of the team’s third-leading rusher Cardale Jones.
Prior to Ohio State’s game against Maryland the quarterback run game all but disappeared from the Buckeye offense.
“When you hear spread option, it cracks me up when I hear that,” Meyer said on his radio show Sept. 17. “We don’t run really an option very much at all and it’s more of a pro-style from a spread set. So it’s a much different offense than what it was years ago.
“The read option is not a big part of our offense anymore.”
Except now it is again. J.T. Barrett was used as a red zone threat against the Terrapins because of his ability to carry the ball generally and to run the read option specifically. He's proven he can execute that role and Barrett is a "nifty" runner according to Meyer, but he is not the coaches pick to start the game.
With Jones taking the majority of the snaps running the quarterback has largely been eliminated, Ohio State has designed runs for the quarterback far less this season. Jones has run 46 times, gaining 150 yards and scoring once, though he’s accrued many of those carries while scrambling away from pressure.
Against Maryland Jones ran by design just five times, gaining 23 yards. He’s on pace for 92 rushes and 300 yards, numbers that would be the least productive rushing season from a Meyer quarterback since Chris Leak rushed for 81 yards for Florida in 2005. After an increased role against the Terrapins, Barrett is on pace for 36 rushes for 252 yards this season.
“The quarterback run game obviously depends on who that quarterback is,” Meyer said.
“We haven't really done much at all this year. Obviously Cardale is not that type of player. He's a very good runner, but he's more of a scrambler than he is quarterback counter, quarterback power, those types of things. So we're not where we need to be, but we're not heavy on that right now.”
Prior to being thrust into the starting role against Wisconsin last season, however, Jones was known more for his running than anything else.
Jones was essentially used as a power runner late in games last season. With the score well in hand and Barrett getting a rest, Jones ran 26 times for 206 yards in games he did not start in 2015. The quarterback attempted just 19 passes in those contests.
Once Jones was asked to do more than just run out the clock, however, the run began to fade. In his three 2014 starts he rushed 46 times but gained just 90 yards.
In 13 full seasons as a head coach Meyer has had a quarterback rush for 500 or more yards nine times and eight times had a signal-caller average more than 50 yards per game. Even when his quarterbacks were slightly less effective, Meyer still ran the quarterback often as a quarterback has averaged 10 or more carries a game 10 times under Meyer.
While the coach has forgone the quarterback run this season, at least while Jones is in the game, Meyer still acknowledged its value.
“So you'd like to have that,” he said of the quarterback run game. “The threat of that cleans up defenses for you. That's the extra component that you have in an offense.”
While it does not appear that Jones will join previous Meyer quarterbacks in any prolific rushing categories, he does bring other skills to the table. As the head coach said, Jones is an able scrambler on broken plays either to buy time or find a lane to lower his shoulder against would-be tacklers and his arm strength brings another dimension to the offense.
Still, it appears that the Meyer offense that features plenty of quarterback runs is gone, at least while Jones is at the helm this season. The coach clearly knew that when selecting Jones the starting quarterback over Barrett, who rushed for 938 yards in 12 games last season.
“Do you just take the guy for scheme,” Meyer asked himself in his Oct. 6 press conference, “Or do you take the best guy and build around what he can do?”
Meyer took the player he thought was the best guy in Jones and while his athletic abilities are immense, they don’t translate as well to the running game as some quarterbacks the coach has had in the past. At Ohio State the quarterback run game was gone, until it wasn't. Now that Barrett's role has increased it appears Meyer is balking at his comments that the read option offense was a thing of the past.