The Ever-Evolving Offense

It comes along with every fall camp. Once everyone reports, the coaches can finally begin sorting out who is going to play where and how to best use that talent. As camp has progressed, a few hints have surfaced as to what kind of offense the Buckeyes might utilize this season.

When the first edition of the 2007 depth chart was released, the fact that it listed only two starting wide receivers seemed to be a harbinger of what the team's offensive attack could become this season.

But as the team has evolved through fall camp, Ohio State wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell said not to read too far into that fact. In fact, he said not to read into that "at all."

While the Buckeyes have been running sets with three wideouts, a few recent injuries have given a clearer indication as to what kind of offensive attack might be developing. Namely, injuries to Ray Small and Devon Lyons – both pegged as the team's slot, or No. 3, wideout – have depleted the position to the point that true freshman Dane Sanzenbacher has been running with the first-team offense.

However, OSU head coach Jim Tressel said that does not mean Sanzenbacher has seen tons of time on the playing field, however.

"Rory (Nicol) and Jake (Ballard) have both played a little bit more than any third receiver," he said following the team's jersey scrimmage August 18.

Nicol and Ballard are both tight ends. With two tight ends seeing more playing time than the team's No. 3 wide receiver, fans could see a more close-to-the-vest approach on offense this season. Of course, with a new quarterback taking the reins, that should not come as a major surprise.

Last season, Nicol and Ballard combined for 15 catches for 156 yards and 4 touchdowns as the team's primary two tight ends. Senior Stan White Jr. occasionally lined up as a tight end and nabbed 8 catches for 57 yards, but he was classified as an H-back.

With the talent assembled at the tight end position, Tressel said it reminds him of a few previous years at OSU.

"I think our tight end position is going to be a lot more veteran," he said. "It's going to be more like it was in '02 and '03 where (Ben) Hartsock and those guys were veterans and even in '01 when (Darnell) Sanders was a veteran."

During the 2003 season, Hartsock and Ryan Hamby combined for 51 catches for 480 yards and 5 touchdowns as the Buckeyes frequently used two-tight end sets.

Nicol said the tight ends did not mind not catching many passes last season because the Buckeyes were winning, adding that there was no reason to stop going to the other playmakers that were producing.

It's the kind of attitude the coaching staff preaches.

"We can say what we think a quarterback's going to do or what we think a new tight end's going to do or a new wideout, but then you know (when the season starts)," OSU offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said. "That's going to be part of us growing up. The first thing about us being any good on offense is being unified, being a team and not worrying about who gets the ball."

Keeping that sort of mindset is especially important as the team goes through fall camp. While the coaching staff enters camp with at least an idea as to what sort of offense might evolve, the key is to keep an open mind and see what develops as the players work through practice.

That applies to where players wind up on the depth chart as well as what kinds of plays are called.

"I think we'll do some things to allow them to evolve in a different way, but we've got guys right now," Hazell said early in camp. "We've got to evolve as the players do and see what we have once the first game comes around.

As that evolution takes into account the performance of OSU's tight ends, coupled with the fact that the Buckeyes are breaking in a new quarterback and have been hit with injuries at the wideout position – not to mention the talent that is sophomore tailback Chris Wells – it seems we are slowly starting to get a picture as to how the offense will look this season.

"I think you always coach to where you thing guys are individually and collectively and we're so deeply into it – we've been doing this now since the middle of January based on ‘here's where we are, here's where we need to go, here's what we're going to evaluate" – it's really no different because every year's different," he said. "This will just be the 2007 progression."

Early signs seem to say that the 2007 progression might not feature a lot of three- and four-receiver sets, then.

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