Options Abound at H-Back

By Kyle Rowland on June 30, 2014 at 8:30a

There are dozens of articles written every year about Ohio State and the tight end position. Fear not, this is not another story proclaiming 2014 to be the season the Buckeyes finally utilize the tight end as a pass-catching phenom. Instead, under Urban Meyer, it’s the H-back position that will be debated with the passage of each season.

The name “Percy Harvin” has already appeared in countless stories since Meyer took over at Ohio State. Until the Buckeyes stumble upon a similar game-breaker, coaches will be on a feverish search – and fans will wonder why there is no dynamic scoring threat.

Ohio State is 24-2 in Meyer’s two season at the helm, but it hasn’t included a legitimate H-back. Year 1 featured a committee with the members failing to turn heads. Philly Brown stepped into the H-back role in 2013 with mixed results. While Brown had a team-high 63 receptions and averaged 10 yards per carry, his production and playmaking ability never fully resonated.

Brown also never became fully integrated or acclimated with the position. It wasn’t heavy on runs and he rarely got the ball near the line of scrimmage. 2014 brings a sense of renewal to Ohio State, with new offensive formations and tweaks in philosophy. Meyer and Tom Herman are eager to turn the H-back into what was envisioned more than two years ago. That picture includes Dontre Wilson.

Before he even played a game, Wilson had outsized expectations that were nearly impossible to live up to. He finished with 250 rushing yards and 210 receiving yards, good numbers that seemed modest because of the superlatives heard in the leadup to his freshman campaign.

Once again, there’s excitement related to Wilson’s game. This time, though, the brakes have been pumped and the accompanying expectations are realistic.

“I feel way better,” Wilson said this spring. “It’s more tiring, but it feels ways better. Now I’m starting at the H, which is the most prolific position in our offense besides running back and quarterback. I’m getting a lot more touches and more involved in the game.”

Herman, whose opinion goes in lockstep with Meyer, came away from spring practice with approval of Wilson’s offseason work and encouraged about other players who can fill in at H-back. Wilson’s place isn’t the only development. The Buckeyes have depth because of a surge in playmakers.

As Wilson plays the position more frequently, the mistakes will lessen. It’s a minor detail right now. More importantly, he’s beefed up his diminutive frame, nearing the 190 mark after playing last season close to 175.

“He’s progressing,” Herman said. “He’s gotten stronger and bigger and learned technique, so the ability and his usability continues to rise with every step he takes.”

The compliments also rolled in from Meyer and wide receivers coach Zach Smith. Wilson displayed his full skill set in the spring, ripping off long runs and the ability to catch the football. He even outperformed Devin Smith, Michael Thomas and others at wide receiver. There was a consistency not seen in everyone else, leading Zach Smith to laud the sophomore.

“I don't think Philly was incapable of doing a lot of those things,” he said. “We did some of them with him. But I think as the offense grows and my group gets better and we develop, that will be more of a versatile position. We're excited about Dontre in that position and Jalin Marshall.”

Marshall became one of the forgotten freshmen last season, lost in a shuffle of redshirts. He was injured in fall camp and never recovered enough to become familiarized with the offense. Marshall too entered the year with heightened potential. After turning heads in the offseason – almost a remember me type performance – he suffered a knee injury that sidelined him for spring practice.

But his assortment of run-catch skills is already back. Devin Smith spoke to Marshall’s maturity and improved playmaking on the field, as did Zach Smith. The offense has not only slowed down, but Marshall’s cohesion and unity with quarterback Braxton Miller is more on target with where it’s desired.

Whereas Wilson outruns and eludes the defense, Marshall can break tackles and bounce off the contact, thanks to a muscular, 205-pound body. Curtis Samuel, Parris Campbell and Noah Brown – all true freshmen – are also names coaches have circled for the H position.

Meyer said he was surprised how well Samuel fit at running back. At 5-foot-10, 180 pounds – similar size to Wilson – Samuel isn’t built for the grueling Big Ten schedule. But until he shows an inability to play running back, Meyer will have him in the backfield – or somewhere else. It could reach a point where he fills in at several different positions.

“The guy that’s in the rotation already is Curtis Samuel,” Meyer said during spring drills. “Unless there’s something up, he’ll play.”

His opinion didn’t change once the calendar flipped to mid-April and spring practice concluded.

“The guy that really, really excites me is No. 4, Curtis Samuel,” Meyer said. “We just have to figure out if he’s got enough size and strength to take the pounding running back’s take. We have some depth there, but right now 15 (Elliott) and 4 (Samuel) are the two.”

Good luck keeping the freshman off the field. Unlike last season, when Meyer famously said, “Cool it with the Dontre,” there was adoration surrounding Samuel’s first go-round.

Samuel’s goal is to become versatile enough that he’s called on to fill multiple roles. The spring acted as an accelerated learning session. Wilson’s freshman stats would be welcomed by any first-year player, but Samuel is quick to be hesitant, hoping to not fall into an unrealistic situation.   

“I just want to keep progressing,” he said.

The unknown surrounds Campbell and Brown after they opted to enroll during the summer. Zach Smith hinted at Campbell being a wide receiver come fall. Brown’s position is to be determined. He has size to play receiver or running back and be a matchup problem at both.

“You never really know what you have until they get here,” Smith said. “We’re really excited about him. He is a big, good-looking talented dude.”

Question marks dot the offensive depth chart, but the amount of moving pieces lends itself to enthusiasm. Coaches wouldn’t describe the first two years – and those 24 wins – as lacking enthusiasm, but the current amount of talent at a position that garners extreme importance has the powers that be eager for the summer months to end.

The record-setting offense of 2013 could be a thing of the past come December.

 “That hybrid position is really a key guy,” Meyer said. 

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