Known-Unknowns: 6 Things I Will Be Looking for Saturday

By Ross Fulton on August 28, 2012 at 6:00p

It's football season, which means welcome all to my 'Breakdown Sessions.' Every Tuesday and Thursday I will be bringing you my analysis of Ohio State's offensive and defensive strategic performances that past week, as well as what it portends for upcoming games.

Today, of course, we do not have a game to review, so I want to provide you the six things I will be watching for when the Buckeyes take the field this Saturday. Call it my checklist.  By following these, we will have a much better perspective upon the Buckeyes' strategic direction by next week.  

1/2. What, exactly, is Stoneburner's Role? What About Zach Boren?

I put these two points together because they are interrelated. OSU released depth chart on Monday is not particularly illuminating because it lists 12 players. Last I checked the offense can only play 11. So let's discuss how this will function in practice. The depth chart lists three positions that are slight variations of each other: 1) fullback,  2) tight end, and 3) third wide receiver.

In other words, Ohio State has three starters listed—Boren, Jeff Heuerman/Nick Vannett, and Stoneburner—for two positions.  To consider how this fits together, it helps to examine Ohio State's base formation below:

Ohio State functions from a 3-WR, 1 TE/H-Back, 1 RB base personnel. The H-Back splits the tackle's outside leg behind the line of scrimmage, and functions as a mix between a tight end, blocking back, and receiver.  

Enter Stoneburner and Boren. This spring I wrote that both are 'pivot players' of the type desired by Meyer. Stoneburner can move between being flexed out wide or in that H-Back position as a receiving threat.  Conversely, Boren is a mirror image, able to move between H-Back and the backfield as a blocker and run threat. The upshot is to expect these three listed positions to move between these two spots depending on the situation. Meyer has long made clear that his philosophy is to identify his best players and get them the football.

As such, I expect to primarily see Stoneburner as the third wide receiver with Boren at H-Back. But I also believe there will be certain passing situations where Stoneburner will move to H-Back, and other times where you will see the listed tight ends at H-Back, perhaps when Boren is at running back, or when the offense is looking for a fourth vertical pass threat. So expect Stoneburner and Boren to be on the field more often than not, but I will be watching for how the coaches break down playing time by situation.       

3. Who Plays 'Star'? And How Often?  

Ohio State's defenses in recent years under Jim Heacock have actually been two defenses. One is the 4-3 under base defense that is essentially a 4-3/3-4 hybrid look, with the Sam linebacker playing on the line of scrimmage.  

The second defense is a nickel 4-2-5 over look.  

Just as it sounds, the 'over' flips the front.  Now, the defensive line shifts one gap to the strong side, while the linebackers correspondingly move weak.  Instead of the SAM linebacker, the defense inserts a nickel back, or as OSU has referred to him, the 'Star.' This is a hybrid defender—half linebacker, half defensive back. The defensive backfield plays to the 'field' (the wide side), and generally lines up between the slot and tackle. He must be able to cover receivers, make tackles in space, and step up against the run. In recent years, Ohio State has played more and more of this defense, as offenses increasingly become 'spread' and as one of OSU's best defenders in recent years (Jermale Hines, Tyler Moeller) has excelled at this position.    

Ohio State will continue to feature these two basic looks. So the question becomes who plays this Star position for Ohio State and can they make enough plays for OSU's defense to succeed?  It does not appear that OSU themselves have made this determination. Look for Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown to get the first opportunity, and he has performed well this offseason. But it also would not be surprising to see Christian Bryant move down from safety to fill this spot, with Orhian Johnson then coming in at safety. Identifying and receiving solid play for this position will go a long way to determining the defense's success.

4. What are Ohio State's 'Base' Offensive Plays?

We have a good sense of Urban Meyer's offensive philosophy and what plays he has featured in his power-spread-option offense. However, until the bullets start flying, you never know what the coaching staff believes is this team's bread-and-butter that they can rely upon. I will therefore be closely watching for the plays that Urban Meyer wants his offense to hang its hat upon.

Expect OSU's offense to be predicated upon counter trey/power, inside zone, and speed option, both because this fits Meyer's philosophy and OSU's personnel and talent. This team's early strength is a tough inside running game with Braxton Miller then free to make plays on the edge. From there, look for the option game, wide receiver screens, and play-action bootleg passes to be built from these base plays.  

We will not know for sure, however, until we see the Ohio State offense live.

5. What will OHIO State's Run-Pass Breakdown Look Like?

Relatedly, I will also be looking for the Buckeyes' run-pass breakdown. While run-pass balance is often misunderstood, in this case I am simply interested in how much OSU will feature the dropback pass game and what route concepts they look to exploit. My impression this spring was that the other aspects of the offense were ahead of the pass game and that timing and cohesion were still issues. Countless hours have been invested since then, however, including multiple scrimmages where the offensive staff was purposefully pass-heavy to gain repetitions.

As such, I still expect this to be a run-first offense, but I do believe that the passing game will be far improved and a complementary aspect, much as it was for Meyer at Florida. In particular, I look for the offense to feature a lot of over-the-middle, underneath option and stick routes, and as well as shallow-cross combinations. (Video courtesy of Barry Hoover.)   

6. How Up-Tempo is the No-Huddle? how does it Impact the Defense?

Probably the biggest philosophical change for Meyer from Florida is his embrace of the no-huddle offense.  The no-huddle does not have to mean 'ludicrous speed' as it does with Chip Kelly or Gus Malzahn. Instead, it can also be used to vary tempo, evidenced by teams like Oklahoma. I therefore want to see how Meyer and Tom Herman pace the no-huddle in real time. Indications from fall are that they want an up-tempo pace, so I will be watching for execution.

If that is the case, relatedly I want to examine its impact upon the Ohio State defense.  Offenses playing at an extremely fast pace can also wear down its defense by repeatedly bringing the defense back upon the field. Meyer on Monday reiterated that his philosophy is to focus upon defense and special teams and not put his defense in bad positions.  It will be interesting to see how this philosophy meshes with the no-huddle. Will the defense be able to handle the rapid-fire pace? Will the no-huddle tempo slow down as OSU grabs a lead? It remains to be seen how the offense not only executes the no-huddle, but also how it functions within the overall team framework.  

The beauty is that we will have a much better idea for all these questions one week from now after some live football.  



Comments Show All Comments

Maestro's picture

Boren and Vannett/Heuerman hopefully doesn't become too predictable as a run play, but Stoney leaves something to be desired as a blocker from my observations.  Not that Vannett/Heuerman can't be decent receiving options, but I am a little worried that the personnel will be tipping the offenses' hand a lot.

vacuuming sucks

Ross Fulton's picture

Yea, I do not think it will be only based on down and distance. I think it will also be based on slight variations in the formations presented. Some are more 'spread,' while slight variations will make the h-back more fullback or te, etc

Maestro's picture

It will be very interesting to watch the exchange of Boren, Stoney, TE's.  Boren at RB with the TE's at H-back and Stoney in the slot would be an interesting "jumbo" package.  I imagine the opposing safeties and LB's would have their eyes in the backfield and could get burned deep by one of the outside receivers in that set.

vacuuming sucks

William's picture

Clever title Ross. Great read.

SilverBulletNYC's picture

"There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don't know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know, we don't know."

The South will NOT rise again!

William's picture

In my US Foreign Policy class last quarter we debated the legitimacy of Rumsfeld's claims, and while they're quite easy to mock, the dude was pretty spot on. I'm not trying to incite political debate, but everyone should read Pollock's work on Iraq, especially The Threatening Storm.

SilverBulletNYC's picture


The South will NOT rise again!

William's picture

? Kenneth Pollack is kind of accepted as the expert of experts on Iraq, but ok. Anyway once again clever play on words Ross. 

SilverBulletNYC's picture

By who? Your political science teacher? Haha...He's a neocon hack who has advocated for imperialist wars....Don't want to start a political debate on 11W but I can't let that go without speaking the truth.
Pollack= Hack.

The South will NOT rise again!

William's picture

A neocon hack that somehow then works for the Brookings Institution (the one that has been named Liberal or Centrist leaning by nearly every publication in America)? Makes sense... 

William's picture

You really don't consider any of that drivel to be credible, do you? Anyway we shouldn't further discuss this on 11W. Shoot me a message as I'm more than willing to further debate this.

SilverBulletNYC's picture

Sorry...wrote that before reading your last post...Agreed- lets touch base outside this thread.
Go Bucks.

The South will NOT rise again!

SilverBulletNYC's picture

You are touting a guy who advocated for invading you not realize how stupid that sounds? Have you found those WMDs yet?

The South will NOT rise again!

buckeye76BHop's picture

Great stuff...really like the breakdown of formations for both offense and defense.  You've done your homework Ross.  Should be interesting to see them going full speed on Saturday;-)

"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 

741's picture

Woody is actually looking a little Rumsfieldesque in the photo above. (Or vice versa.)

Buckeye_in_SEC_country's picture

If OSU does put up a lead I hope Urban runs it up a little more and doesn't let off of the gas.  We watched Tresselball allow too many teams to keep it close over the past 10 years.  I want to see OSU beat teams by 35...  That's one of the things I was most excited about when Meyer was hired.  I'm sick of beating people by 7 or 10 points.  I want to beat teams by 30+. 

Maestro's picture

Just some OOC scores during Tressel era
Sure, Tress was conservative but let's not act like there weren't plenty of laughers in the recent past.

vacuuming sucks

Run_Fido_Run's picture

I, too, am excited to see the offensive aggression and killer instinct under Urbz. However, let me stick up for JT as well.
JT's teams did not beat teams like Miami OH by 7-10 points. They usually beat them by 30+ points.
Meanwhile, some of those games the Buckeyes won by 7-10 points against decent/good teams under JT, they might have lost if they had been overly concerned about blowing away opponents.
JT was very good at playing the percentages. Certainly there were drawbacks to JT's approach, but there can be drawbacks to a super aggressive approach, too.
For example, the passing play Ross outlines above includes multiple crossing routes over the middle and, in general, Ross notes that Urbz likes to "feature a lot of over-the-middle, underneath" stuff, which can be kinda high risk, high reward. Some old school coaches like JT and Nick Saban are hesitant to run a bunch of those types of routes.
IMO, Urbz overall approaches will pay off overall, and they will be more fun to watch than JT's approaches, but JT won a bunch of games with those supposedly predictable, boring game plans and in-game strategies. 

headina's picture

Amen. Foot on the back of the neck of opponents for 60 minutes


causeicouldntgo43's picture

Great to see a picture of Woody at the chalkboard, and as mentioned above, he does look a little like the guy who was famous for using the phrase "known unknowns" - Rumsfeld. Even with a power spread, and not "basketball on grass", this will still truly be the start of a new era in the famed Shoe, offensive wise. She may never have seen an offense this balanced and dynamic, although 2006 was pretty good..... 

Rapping Bum's picture

Does anyone else want to see the pace of the offense hit Chip Kelly/Gus Malzahn levels?  I would like to see this happen, especially early on in the OOC schedule.  Not so much in the B1G schedule, especially against the Nebraska/Wisky types.

Help is on the way.

yrro's picture

I'd love to see it at the beginning of the game, but I really don't want us to commit to it the same way that Kelly does. You have to have the ability to slow the game down if you're leading and give yourself fewer chances to screw up.

Crimson's picture

I don't think you have anything to be worried about.  From what I've read, they can use the no huddle to go fast, but that it isn't the main point (unless it's playing catchup, heaven forbid).  I think the main positive they want to utilize is controlling substitutions.  They can repeatedly substitute until the defense makes a mistake, and then run to the line every play to keep the advantage.  They can switch their offensive formations with flex players like Boren, the TEs, and Stoney to create additional mismatches.
This can be very flexible, because they can run to the line, wait for the playclock to hit one, and snap it to run down the clock.  They can see, also, how the other team lines up, quick snap if they mess up, and have plenty of time to shift to another formation if they don't like the defensive look.

BuckeyeSki's picture

Would be very suprised if Pittsburgh got the call at the STAR instead of moving Bryant and O. Johnson. Bryant missed alot of open field tackles last year going for the monster hit and whiffing, but he has shown he is not afraid to stick his nose in the run game. Once the B1G schedule starts, the team is going to need that out of the STAR position.

Banned from BlackShoeDiaries since 2008. Crime: Slander/Defamation of Character Judgement: Guilty

Northbrook's picture

I'll be watching the linebackers to the extent the TV coverage allows. That is the one area I'm really worried about. I'm not sure our starters are that good and most all the backups are frosh. We'll see.