CHICAGO — When Urban Meyer was hired, his first order of business was recruiting. It was late November, and February was looming. One of the essential ingredients in the effectiveness of Meyer’s up-tempo offense is a skill player whose speed is just as worthy as their elusiveness.
Meyer wasn’t able to identify a game-changer in Year 1. But he may have found that special someone this past February.
When Chip Kelly bolted Oregon for the Philadelphia Eagles, DeSoto, Texas, native Dontre Wilson, already swaying on his commitment to the Ducks, became less enchanted with the Pacific Northwest. Tom Herman, the Buckeyes’ offensive guru and Texas recruiting whiz, never lost contact with the all-purpose back. Days before National Signing Day, Wilson chose Ohio State over Oregon and Texas.
At Big Ten media days, when off-the-field issues and immense expectations weren’t being discussed, Wilson was. Quarterback Braxton Miller is already the President and CEO of the Dontre Wilson Fan Club.
“I feel like he better be starting this year,” Miller said. “He can play multiple spots – H (slot) and Z (wide receiver), he can run any route and he can also come in the backfield and take handoffs. I feel like he can help us in every aspect.”
In January, when Wilson took his visit to Ohio State, Miller was eager to see the YouTube legend that was already a message board phenom. Miller remembers thinking Wilson must be fast since he was committed to Oregon. So he decided to watch a highlight film.
“I was like ‘OK, he’s got something, huh?’” Miller said. “Then I made sure we got a commitment from him because I knew he could help us out big time.”
It’s not hyperbole, but a realization that Meyer favors playing impact freshman from the outset of their careers. At Florida, first-year players Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin – you may have heard of them – became integral pieces on the Gators’ 2006 national championship team. They were part of three touchdowns in Florida’s 41-14 win over Ohio State.
On Wednesday, Meyer was asked about his philosophy regarding playing time for freshmen and said simply, “Get them on the field.” It’s less challenging for skill position players and cornerbacks to get on the field early compared to quarterbacks and offensive linemen. It also helps offensive skill players when they develop a rapport with the quarterback.
“I could see how mature he was when he first got here,” Miller said about Wilson. “Throwing to him is a different kind of feel. He says, ‘Throw the ball anywhere and I’ll go get it.’ And I’m like, ‘What? A receiver is telling me throw it wherever I want? Alright.’ So I threw it behind him and that boy landed on his back and caught it. I’m like, ‘Wow, boy, you’ve got something special.’ It’s nice knowing I’ve got somebody special on the team that’s a playmaker. It feels good.”
Miller said he works with Wilson every day, including Sundays. But even though Wilson’s position is one of need and plaudits are ringing from all corners, Meyer put a clamp on all the early praise.
“It’s nice knowing I’ve got somebody special on the team that’s a playmaker. It feels good.”
“We’ve got to slow down on Dontre,” he said, with a grin stretched across his face. “We’ve got to slow down.” No, he wasn’t referring to team speed.
From a small rural college town in Ohio, to the melting pot of Salt Lake City, and onward to a speed factory in Gainesville, Meyer’s squad’s have been celebrated as difference-makers when it comes to creating separation from the opponent’s defense.
The newest book had its first chapter authored a year ago with much to be desired. Big plays were virtually non-existent, even for a 12-0 team. Wide receivers rarely broke tackles and an adequate slotback never broke through after Jordan Hall went down with a season-ending injury.
In talking to Miller, though, a burst of speed will be sprinkled around to all the positions in 2013.
“Brad Roby is the fastest guy on the team – he runs a 4.32 (40-yard dash),” Miller said. “I’m the second-fastest. I ran a 4.36 last time we were tested.”
Asked where the new freshman speedster checks in, Miller was left speechless.
“Man, I don’t know. That’s a good question, because when that boy catches the ball, he bolts like a little fish running from a shark or something,” Miller said. “He’s fast, man. I’m glad to have him on my team.”
Aug. 6 is judgment day for the freshmen. They report two days prior, but shoulder pads and contact drills begins on Tuesday.
“When those go on and helmets go on and instead of running this way, there’s a big guy not letting you run that way and trying to hammer you, those guys disappear for a while," Meyer said.
After Wilson’s first performance, Meyer said he’ll be able to make a much better determination on what kind of attributes he brings to the 2013 Buckeyes. Wilson is listed as a running back on Ohio State’s official roster, but he’ll be a rover at several different positions. Fellow incoming freshmen Jalin Marshall and Ezekiel Elliott also fit the mold Meyer covets.
The potential for multiple gamebreakers makes an offense that set numerous school records a year ago among the best in the country.
“We were not a big-play team last year at all,” Meyer said. “Our fast guy was our quarterback. You need speed. To be truly a great offense, you have to have gamebreakers. You either develop them or go recruit them, and I'm hoping we did both.”
Lost in all the Dontre talk are the returnees who can catch the football and create space from the defense. All three starting wide receivers return. One year after 12 catches represented the team-high, Miller’s completions soared into the triple digits. Philly Brown caught 12 passes alone against Michigan State.
Still, the need for improvement is evident. Route running, breakaway skills and an overall dynamism were lacking.
“Man, they got so much better since last year,” Miller said. “They’ve got so much confidence now and they’ll tell me what they want to run. They give me the route. That’s how I like it. They tell me what they want and I just plant my feet and throw it to them and they catch it and get like a 10-yard burst after they catch it and then come back for more.”
Miller rattled off the names of Evan Spencer, Devin Smith and, with emphasis, Philly Brown as the receivers who’ve made the biggest strides in the offseason.
“Those guys are going to be impact players this year,” Miller said. “All those guys have made major jumps.”
But perhaps none can match the acclaim of the freshman from DeSoto.