Boren Takes Backseat To None As Lead Blocker

Ohio State's power looks struggled early in the season and came on late in the year, and one reason for that might have been the improved play of fullback Zach Boren. Playing a position that's tougher than it seems, Boren improved rapidly during the year for a Buckeye squad that finally found its identity late in the season.

Let's get this straight right away – playing fullback isn't as simple as see man, hit man.

Many football fans might think the role as a lead blocker is an easy one, but Ohio State's past few seasons have shown that to be a fallacy. A number of players have been moved to the thankless spot during that time only to find out it's harder than it looks.

"He has to understand where the tailback is going with the ball," said OSU running backs coach Dick "Doc" Tressel said of the fullback in the Buckeyes' offense. "He has to make the same cut sooner than the tailback does because that's where the guy he's going to block is going to be. They have to be athletic enough to make running back moves but physical enough when they get there to take on the team that they're playing's probably best player."

Sound a little tougher than maybe it seemed on first glance? After all, it's hard to both read the mind of the player one is blocking for and then run into a 250-pound linebacker in, as Tressel called it, "bad humor."

The stereotype of the fullback was born throughout many years of college football in which straight-ahead power offenses ruled the day. But as things have become more complicated in general when it comes to X's and O's, so too has the fullback position.

"There was maybe a point in time where the fullback just ran in there and crashed into the guy, but with all the defenses being zone blitz this and angle that, you always have to make a cut to get to the guy you have to block," Tressel said.

While some players Ohio State tried made the transition fairly well – Tyler Whaley comes to mind – some like Ryan Lukens and Brandon Smith in 2008 had troubles making the adjustment.

That makes what Zach Boren did in 2009 all the more impressive.

Boren won a preseason camp battle for the position with Adam Homan and James Georgiades – thanks in part to an excellent jersey scrimmage in which he caught the head coach's eye – but his opening few games left, perhaps, more questions than answers.

"I went back and watched some of the film against Navy and USC and I could definitely tell I was a young guy," said Boren, who had played tailback in high school at Pickerington (Ohio) Central. "I've definitely learned a lot this year."

Three games into his Ohio State tenure, Boren saw his playing time greatly reduced as the Buckeyes moved to a one-back spread offense. Though he caught a touchdown pass after the switch, snagging an 8-yarder on Oct. 3 at Indiana, his time as a lead blocker was curtailed.

Then came the Buckeyes much-publicized return to power football near the end of the regular season. Ohio State ran the ball extremely well over the last five games, topping 200 yards on the ground in each while controlling the clock on the way to a fifth straight Big Ten title.

Along the way, it was almost impossible not to notice the rapid improvement of Boren, who was back on the field in the fullback role providing holes for tailbacks Dan Herron and Brandon Saine.

"It's been so much fun being out there with the guys performing and winning games," Boren said before the Rose Bowl. "I'm happy with the way I'm playing, but you can always play better."

Boren's best game might have come as the Buckeyes went on the road and quieted a hostile crowd while beating Penn State, 24-7. Boren hounded Penn State All-American Sean Lee all game long and had two catches for 9 yards, including a critical fourth-quarter grab for a first down in which he knocked Lee to the ground.

"He's doing good," offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said afterward. "He's a very good, tough, skilled football. He's a tough guy. He has a lot of potential. He had some very good plays in that game."

In the Rose Bowl, Boren was part of OSU's two-back, shotgun look and also helped pave the way for a number of critical short-yardage conversions that kept alive the Buckeyes' drives. Still, the 6-1, 255-pounder who enrolled in spring is still getting used to the position.

Remember, it's harder than it looks.

"I'm young," he said. "I still have some stuff to learn technique-wise with Coach Doc Tressel. I think they're fairly happy with how I'm playing. I don't know, we're playing in a power-I a lot more and they're using the fullbacks a lot more, so hopefully that's a good thing."

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