Although some saw the 2004-06 success of dual-threat quarterback Troy Smith and the subsequent recruitment of first Antonio Henton and then Terrelle Pryor as signals that the Buckeye coaching staff would follow in the nationwide trend toward the spread offense, recent comments from both Jim and Dick Tressel indicate otherwise.
The Buckeyes will continue to strive for offensive balance, now and into the future.
Of course, Smith was no stranger to operating an offense with a fullback in the mix, either. Although he gained much attention for the damage he could do to teams with his feet in the first two years he started games at quarterback for head coach Jim in 2004 and '05, by the time Smith was a senior the Buckeyes were shifting back to a more traditional offense.
They kept some spread principles and were fond of lining him up in the shotgun with three or more wide receivers at the quarterback's disposal, but the I-formation got plenty of use as well, lots more than Smith's legs, in fact. Minus sacks, Smith carried 58 times during his 2006 Heisman Trophy campaign after toting the rock 122 times in as a junior.
The pendulum swung farther back to tradition last season after Smith's departure. He was replaced by a more statuesque quarterback model in the person of 6-4, 244-pound Todd Boeckman in 2007 and the fullback made many appearances in the I.
That probably had something to do with the fact that three capable seniors manned the fullback spot and even more to do with the presence of tailback Chris "Beanie" Wells, who as a sophomore was unquestionably the Buckeyes' best offensive skill player.
"I think probably we need to find a happy medium between '05 and '06 to be who we are," Jim Tressel said earlier this spring. "I think '07 was a little bit different in that the style of player we had… If I were a defensive coach, I would like to see Beanie Wells at a splitback, not running downhill at me. Every time he's not in the ‘I', I'd be happy. I don't want to make the defensive coaches happy. But I think we have to find that right amount of each thing."
But with those three seniors – Dionte Johnson, Tyler Whaley and Trever Robinson – all out of eligibility and perceived heir apparent Aram Olson out indefinitely – and possibly permanently – with a foot injury, there are no true fullbacks on the spring roster.
Several players are trying out at the position this spring, and the tailbacks are helping out in special sets, but with Boeckman set to graduate and likely be replaced by Henton or Pryor in 2009, could those players be merely keeping warm a spot that is about to be downsized?
No, not according to Dick Tressel, the OSU running backs coach.
"We're going to try to target fullbacks," he said. "There's just no such thing in high school football. You can't go to a recruiting list and say, ‘Let's go find the two best fullbacks.' The best athletes aren't playing there. So what happens is those prototype fullback types are playing somewhere else and you just have to identify which ones have ball skills and which ones have the toughness to go along with it. Sometimes they're a big tailback. Sometimes they're a linebacker. Sometimes they are the tight end types. It just makes it harder."
The staff's actions are consistent with their words.
They did, after all, sign Olson in 2005 while in the midst of the Smith era and the implementation of more spread sets, and they are looking forward to the summer 2008 arrival of Jermil Martin, a 6-0, 227-pounder from Cleveland Glenville whom they have pegged as a fullback.
Plus Coldwater, Ohio, athlete Adam Homan has committed to be a Buckeye in the class of 2009, but he could play on either side of the ball in college.
As for Martin, he can run the ball, too, and there are no other pure tailbacks in the class, so it stands to reason he could be used as a runner if that position gets light in numbers through injuries or NFL defections.
With a dearth of candidates on the roster or readily available anywhere else, with a pair of dual-threat quarterbacks already in the fold and a stable of fleet receivers for them to throw to, why keep the fullback as part of the offense?
Dick Tressel said keeping alive the great rushing tradition at Ohio State was important, as is maintaining a diversified attack.
"There's always going to be a place for physical football players and physical play," he said. "You're always going to see a fullback. It's going to ebb and flow how often and all those kind of things."
At times, game situations call for multiple wide receivers on the field to spread teams out and hit with short passes underneath, but there remain others when the most appropriate strategy is still sucking a team's defenders into a tight area, the better to run over or perhaps by them.
"You spread it out and then that becomes a nickel-dime situation all the time," the assistant coach said. "Sometimes you pack it in and those great wideouts and great quarterbacks hit some long and big plays because people were defending the run, so you've got to be able to do a little bit of everything."