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.