Four Strategy Questions for Spring Practice

By Ross Fulton on March 29, 2012 at 9:00a
Ready to get to work.

Ohio State's spring football practices, which started yesterday, will give Buckeye fans their first look at Urban Meyer's Ohio State football team. Though there will rightly be position battles to focus upon -- Meyer has said he wants his two-deep set by spring -- it will also be our first glimpse as to how Meyer's coaching staff will strategically deploy the squad.

With that in mind, lets take a look at four pressing x's and o's questions.

1. How will Urban Meyer and Tom Herman mesh their philosophies?

As I often point out, though spread-to-run offenses share some basic philosophical tenets, spread coaches have different emphases. The same holds true with Urban Meyer and Tom Herman. As I've discussed Meyer is less spread than some counterparts, using Tight Ends and H-Backs to create the leverage and numbers to run downhill one-back plays such as power and counter-trey.

Herman's background, by contrast, has been more true spread, with four-wide receivers, packaged primarily off the inside zone, and attacking the outside horizontally with wide receiver screens.   


Spring practice will give us the first glimpse of how these coaches meld their backgrounds together. We can also include offensive line coach Ed Warriner in this mix, who, at his last two coaching stops at Kansas and Notre Dame, was part of a pass-first spread orientation (compare Meyer and Mullen's base pass offense here). One question has already been answered -- Herman made clear that OSU will often feature no-huddle.

Meyer has always demonstrated at his previous stops, however, that the buck stops with him when it comes to his offense, and I imagine that the offensive base tenets will reflect what Meyer wants. Consider Herman's recent quotes in comparison with Meyer's initial press conference. Here is Herman:

We're going to be a [shot]gun, spread, run-oriented football team that has tremendous balance through the play-action pass . . . And we will huddle at times, too. I think that's important to deliver a mentality that we are a power, physical tough-running football team," Herman said. "From the gun, under center, it doesn't matter where are, that will be what our personality is going to be.

And here is Meyer:

There's different elements of spread offenses. You can say Texas Tech and all these different spread offenses. The one thing that our offense that we always tried to take great pride in is Big Ten I formation power football. We just do it from a unique formation, sometimes do it with a 240-pound quarterback. But the same -- if you look at our plays, it's the same plays that I was brought up on, split zone and off-tackle power. That's a staple here at Ohio State. Sometimes motion and fake a jet sweep, but we're still running hard, aggressive downhill football at you. We've added elements to it. But if you really cut it down and watch film and study, it's still I formation football.

Herman therefore appears to be singing from Meyer's hymnal. Spring football will be fascinating to watch, however, to see how the offensive coaches intend to build their spread offense.

2. What will the Buckeye Pass Offense Look Like?

The above-captioned quotes demonstrate that Ohio State's base offense will be using the shotgun spread to gain an arithmetic advantage to run the football. The secondary question, though, is what type of passing offense the Buckeyes feature, and how often they throw the football.

Without getting into the weeds of what run/pass balance means, it will nonetheless be fascinating to see how the Buckeye coaching staff approaches the passing game. As noted, Herman's Iowa State teams often attacked horizontally, while Warriner recent stops have based their offense upon "vertical stems" (meaning that the receivers always push vertically to prevent "pattern reading". Meyer's Florida offense fell somewhere in-between, drawing its basics from the original one-back offense, with a heavy emphasis on option cuts.

Meyer's base pass game may have gotten stale by the end of his Florida tenure, so look for Herman and Warriner to bring their backgrounds to bare upon the Buckeye pass offense. Play-action passing is generally more difficult from the shotgun. Given Herman's comment regarding play-action, look for OSU to employ, at least in part, many of the horizontal pass game concepts off of run action, such as flash screens.

3. How will Ohio State employ Tight Ends and/or Fullbacks?

The above strategic decisions will of course be tempered by the available personnel. Any good coach is going to adapt to make sure his best eleven players are on the field and in a position to thrive. For Ohio State, two of those players are TE Jake Stoneburner and FB Zach Boren. As noted, Meyer has ample experience employing a tight-end/ H-Back to create leverage and angles in the run game with someone who is a vertical threat. Stoneburner will fit well within Meyer's offense in a 'Aaron Hernandez' role.

Boren is the more interesting case. Though he is adapt at leaking out of the backfield in play-action, Boren's strength is as a lead blocker. The Buckeyes can rotate Stoneburner and Boren based upon situation, but such a move provides keys to the defense. In addition, if Boren and Stoneburner are two of your best players, you would like to get both on the field. But if you are in "21" personnel, you are no longer truly spread.

Meyer has previously shown the ability to utilize a fullback when he had a true lead blocker. Look for Meyer & Co. to utilize Stoneburner and Boren together in a variety of ways. OSU will surely use some of the H-back, Gun split backs seen in the Percy Harvin counter-trey clips above, as well as the offset pistol formations OSU occasionally showed last year. OSU will likely also flex Stoneburner out wide, moving Boren around in the backfield as a lead blocker.

Finally, as Herman stated, OSU will likely still feature some under center, I formation football. Boren is too well suited to completely ignore it. Meyer displayed some I formation at Utah, utilizing motion and reverse action to constrain the backside end. In this way, he can still utilize a downhill run game while honoring the spread's core concern of constraining a defense's unblocked defenders.. 

4. How will Ohio State mesh defensive philosophies?

Much of the focus (mine included) has been upon Meyer bringing his spread offense to Columbus. But it will also be interesting to examine the defensive's base outlook.

Meyer, Everett Withers, and Luke Fickell all come from the 4-3 under tradition. Yet, like the offensive staff, there have been differences in approach. The Ohio State defense Fickell was a part of with Jim Heacock excelled at forcing an offense go the length of the field. They did so through a conservative approach, basing out of a cover 3 shell and being chary in their blitz strategy. The defensive line was taught to control their gap, with only one true pass rusher in the form of the the weak end, termed the "LEO".

Meyer's defensive coaches, by contrast, have generally employed a more aggressive approach. Specifically, they often showed a two-high shell but then 'screwed' the safety down to create an 8-man look. Florida also played cover-3, from this 8 man look using 'pattern matching' techniques underneath..

Both teams did, however, often use third down zone blitzing. As with the offense, this meshing of backgrounds and philosophies will be interesting to watch for this spring, providing a clearer picture of the Ohio State base offense and defense for the Urban Meyer led Buckeyes.


Comments Show All Comments

nickma71's picture

 But if you really cut it down and watch film and study, it's still I formation football.

Because that gives you the numbers advantage when it is 11 on 11. Run and pass from one formation. Then trying to guess the call based on formation and down is out the window.



Doc's picture

Another great article Ross.  Do you think Meyer will let Fickell develop the D, or do you think he has already told Luke "We are going to be an agressive down hill type defense."?  Fred Pagac was a lot more agressive and Vrabel seems to embody that.  What is your gut feeling on this?

CJDPHoS Member

The Official DDS of 11W

Baroclinicity's picture

Every time I read a Ross Fulton article, by the time I get to the end, I find myself grateful that I'm not going to be tested on this stuff.  And it's not like I'm a *complete* idiot... I have a physics background!

Seriously, another good read.  Thanks!

When you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

TheHostileDwarf's picture

I agree. They're great reads, but I can't pretend to understand everything - at least not yet! It'll definitely be weird to see OSU running a no-huddle, spread offense after seeing the more "traditional" offense that we're all used to. I can't wait for the fall!

BuckeyeAsylum's picture

Everytime I get done reading one of these articles, it makes me starting itching for the next one. Absolutely my favorite read currently on this site. And as for understanding it all, I will get there someday I hope. Until then, I'll just read it as something this complicated means we're going to need smart players, great coaches, and will make things THAT much harder for our competition. I like all of that! :D

builderofcoalitions's picture

It seems that the biggest difference between a Herman spread and a Meyer spread is personnel. There are completely different kinds of athletes at ISU than Florida. It's possible to run a power spread at a school like Florida and OSU while ISU has to spread the field and play in space because they're not going to push anyone around.

Because we couldn't go for three.

Buckeyebrowny919's picture

can i just state how much i appreciate this addition to 11w? Well done once again, Ross

To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift - Steve Prefontaine

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Another excellent post, Ross.

Sounds like Meyer and the offensive staff are trying to create a new type of hybrid offense, in the most efficient ways possible (e.g., without overcomplicating things). That hybrid approach is party in response to the existing personnel, partly because the staff brings a wealth and diversity of ideas, backgrounds, strengths. They're smart guys who are not beholden to rigid systems, who appreciate the importance of balance - not just pass/run balance, but also power/spread and utilizing personnel in balanced ways, etc.

An example of an offense that maximized its talent while attacking whatever weakeness the defenses gave them is 1999 Illinois, which proved that you don't necessarily need NFL players at every skill position and/or a wide-open offensive system to dismantle very good defenses.

I anticipate that the Buckeyes offensive staff will more than compensate for the possible lack of dynamic playmakers at WR, by efficiently utilizing the strengths in other position groups, etc. The 2012 offense won't be a Cadillac yet, but it can be an updated, hybrid spread/power, hybrid huddle/no huddle version of something like the 1999 Illinois offense was (although ILL uses a more traditional base offense). Meanwhile, the Buckeyes will have a much better defense than 1999 ILL.

omahabeef1337's picture

I love the Skull Sessions, the Twitter lists and the Buckshots, but Ross's posts are my favorite part of this site.

Keep it coming.

miggitymack's picture

I'm glad Meyer has chosen to bring in coaches who all have philosophies that differ slightly from his.  I think it provides an opportunity to complicate our offensive and defensive shcemes, epsecially, as stated, when things get "stale."

Sorry, that's the best you get :/

pcon258's picture

this stuff is brilliant. alot of my friends have a background in hs football, so when they start talking x's and o's i get lost but ross, you are helping me keep my cred. because of these articles, im debating attending a game sober so that i can wrap my head around everything thats happening

Riggins's picture

Great article, Ross.  And thanks to 11W for bringing his talent here for us to enjoy.

I don't think Herman will be averse to incorporating some of the power running that Urban likes.  Herman has never had the opportunity to be coaching from a physical advantage in terms of athletes (i.e. Iowa State's O-line vs. the Texas D-line).  When you're outmatched physically, it's very difficult to get a strong running game going.  That's why many schools who can't compete athletically man-on-man in the trenches incorporate the spread as their offensive philosophy and utilize space.  More often than not, Ohio State has the advantage up front in terms of athletes and I think we will still be running in between the tackles under Meyer.

In terms of defense, I'm proud of the units we have fielded the last decade.  It was annually very tough and never gave up many big plays.  However, I'd be lying if I didn't ever want a more disruptive atmosphere on defense.  I'm looking forward to being more aggressive, putting the opposing offenses in tough down & distance scenarios and thereby forcing more turnovers.

DJ Byrnes's picture

TIL: The word "chary". 

Californian by birth, Marionaire by the Grace of President Warren G. Harding.

Peter Pete Peterson's picture

Great article!  Always like to read the x's and o's.  It appears that UM is going to play to our strengths and the opponents weaknesses week to week.  The hybrid is in the game plan for each game.  But the bottom line is going to be good old power-football!  "This is gonna be GREAT!"

Peter "Pete" Peterson

"Recruiting is like shaving, if you don't do it everyday, you look like a bum!"  -Jim Tressel


rdubs's picture

One way to get Boren into the game in shotgun is to use one of my favorite formations from last year, I'll call it the power pistol.  Boren lined up next to Braxton with the RB behind Braxton.  Then you can put Stoneburner in and line him up next to the line or split him out in the slot next to one of the two recievers you have out wide.

You could run a power option with Boren leading the way, or pass or just do a power lead.  Any idea if we'll see this formation this year?

buckeye76BHop's picture

I'd assume it's fair to say you're going to see ALL kinds of different types of formations.  Most of all I'm excited to see OSU using an uptempo style with no huddle bc not too many teams utilize it in B1G.  Also should be interesting to see how well B.Miller can do with that bc at times last year he seemed to struggle in 2 min offense (except against Wisky).  This year should be interesting to see what formations they will use.  I would think RDUBS that you'll see some version of pistol and shotgun with two backs sets with Boren in there.  I doubt Urban wants a human ANVIL sitting the pine for an entire game;-)   

"There's nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you."

"I love football. I think it is most wonderful game in world and I despise to lose."

Woody Hayes 1913 - 1987 

MediBuck's picture

I for one, think that both Meyer, Herman, and Warriner's diverse backgrounds will be excellent for our transition year. Due to the fact that our WRs are young and unproven, we'll be leaning heavily on the run game to keep us in motion. As such, having a true spread formation will make life a lot easier for the O, as it creates the numbers advantage in the box. It also doesn't hurt that two of our most dynamic players are a TE and FB, which Meyer will make the most of in this regard.

As for the pass game, Herman's short screen game will work wonders, as it takes pressure off the recieving corps from having to run good routes, get separation, and make good catches (which we were surprisingly bad at last year). For the deep to intermediate passes, the Cincinatti stem routes will also offset our poor route running, since it won't tip off opposing defenses to the nature of our schemes.

All in all, I can't understate how excited I am about Spring ball. Now, just to wait...

"There is a force that makes us all brothers, no one goes his way alone." --Woody Hayes