With the loss of senior quarterback Braxton Miller, the Ohio State Buckeyes didn't just lose a Heisman Trophy candidate, but the centerpiece around which the offense was built. While Miller's 82 career touchdowns leave massive shoes to fill, the Buckeyes will move forward with a new man taking snaps in 2014.
Since his freshman season of 2011, Miller has consistently been the most dangerous player with the ball in his hands for Ohio State. Head coach Urban Meyer and his staff made it a point to find ways for the Buckeye offense to get Miller the ball in open space, using his straight-ahead speed and change-of-direction to make the lives of opposing tacklers miserable.
In addition to the read-option plays Meyer is known for, he and offensive coordinator Tom Herman often called runs specifically designed for Miller to be the ball-carrier, like the outside zone sweep and the counter-trey seen in this example.
In his place, the Buckeyes appear to be handing the reins of the offense over to redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, who has yet to see any game action since arriving in Columbus. Although he's still waiting to take a live snap, we can still get a good idea of what his presence will mean for the OSU offensive scheme.
After Miller suffered a knee injury in the second game of the 2013 season, the Buckeyes found themselves in a similar situation when backup Kenny Guiton was called into action for the next three weeks, which saw the Buckeyes score 170 points in that span (albeit against weak opponents).
Although Guiton was a 5th year senior, he had only 24 career passing attempts under his belt at that point, and was only in his second year in Meyer's offense. Additionally, even though Guiton still made plays with both his arm and his legs, he didn't possess quite the same level of athleticism as Miller.
Much like Guiton, Barrett is himself a good athlete capable of making plays with his legs, as he showed in this year's Spring Game, his first action of any kind in Ohio Stadium.
The Buckeyes called this play, known as '13 Bash,' quite often for Barrett that day. The concept is typically a constraint play in Meyer's offense, often only called when the defense is keying on the quarterback too much. The play takes the traditional roles of a read-option and flips them, giving the quarterback an option to first hand off to the running back on a sweep or keep the ball and run the Tight Zone inside.
If the defensive end chases the running back, Barrett simply kept the ball and looked for a hole between the tackles.
With Miller's injury history and threat in the open field, the Buckeyes rarely called the play with him at QB. But with Barrett taking the snap, asking him to make one simple read and get upfield in a hurry still creates enough of a threat to keep defenses from over-playing the sweep to the running back.
But the true task at hand for Barrett will be acting as the point guard and distributor of the offense, something Mark Pantoni, OSU's director of player personnel, called out specifically yesterday:
I'm excited to see Joe Thomas lead this team. We have his back and are confident he's going to do big things with this offense! #Distributor— Mark Pantoni (@markpantoni) August 19, 2014
With the Buckeye quarterback no longer the most dangerous person with the ball in space, there are a number of candidates to take the title, and it's Barrett's job to get them the ball. In a role very similar to a basketball point guard, the quarterback's main role is to set up and find the playmakers around him, giving them the best chance to succeed instead of just looking to score himself.
Although the Buckeyes are also looking to replace Carlos Hyde in the backfield, there is a stable of backs waiting for their chance to be a featured player in the OSU offense. The leading candidate has been sophomore Ezekiel Elliott for quite some time, who showed the ability to run between the tackles last season. Buckeye running backs are called on primarily to move the ball with the Tight Zone inside running play, which Elliott and backups Rod Smith and Brionte Dunn seem more than capable of handling.
To replace Miller's explosiveness on the outside though, the Buckeyes will look to Dontre Wilson, the likely starter at the 'H' (slot) receiver spot. The Buckeyes like to move Wilson all over the field with motions and formation tweaks, looking to get him the ball quickly with designed sweeps, option pitches, and quick passes.
When lined up or motioned into the backfield, Wilson is often matched up with a linebacker or defensive linemen, a matchup that immediately favors OSU.
Wilson will also be a threat in the wide receiver screen game, something we saw called more by the Buckeyes in 2013, and featured prominently in the Spring Game with Barrett under center.
As noted in the past, the Buckeyes often like to call these screen passes packaged in the same play as the Tight Zone, giving the quarterback the option to hand off or pass by reading a slot defender or outside linebacker. As we see below, #43 for Penn State crashes down on the potential handoff to Hyde inside, giving Miller an easy throw to Even Spencer who already has a lead blocker.
In addition to Wilson, the Buckeyes return senior wideouts Devin Smith and Evan Spencer, as well as host of young receivers like Mike Thomas, Jalin Marshall, and Johnnie Dixon, all of whom can contribute in the screen game. In this sense, Barrett will once again act as the distributor, called on to make a quick decision and get the ball to the most dangerous Buckeye player on the field, simply based on what the defense shows.
Barrett won't just be called on to hand off and throw screens though. As he showed last April, the young QB has received great coaching thus far in his career, displaying excellent footwork and throwing mechanics. These skills allow Meyer and his staff to expand the playbook in the passing game more than we've seen in recent years, as they look to get the ball outside quicker and lessening the burden on an otherwise young offensive line.
Barrett looked extremely comfortable in this role, here hitting Thomas perfectly in stride as the outside receiver in a double-slant concept.
By showing he's able to get the ball to the edge of the formation quickly and effectively, Barrett will keep defenses from compressing near the ball in an effort to contain the inside running game, an issue the Buckeyes often had to combat in 2013.
While the short, horizontal passing game wasn't always there, the deep play-action pass was certainly something both Buckeye quarterbacks executed well in 2013, leaving a high bar for Barrett to reach. Miller's NFL-level arm strength allowed him complete balls to speedsters like Smith and Philly Brown by throwing deep balls over the top and allowing his receivers to out-run their defender.
While Barrett showed the ability to throw strikes in the short passing game, he failed to complete any deep balls in the Spring Game. Many of his deep throws ended up as jump ball, like this one intended for Dixon.
The question still remains as to whether Barrett possesses the arm strength needed to overthrow the deep defender, or if the Spring Game performance was due to a lack of timing with his receivers. Hopefully it's the latter, as that issue can be addressed on the practice field. Either way, we'll probably find out in the Buckeyes' first game against Navy. If Barrett shows he's able to throw over the heads of the Midshipmen safeties, the OSU passing game should develop just fine as the season goes on and #16 develops better timing with his wideouts.
In all, by no means is the 2014 season a wash with new
point guard quarterback J.T. Barrett taking snaps. Meyer's staff has assembled an arsenal of weapons around him, and while the entire group is mostly young and untested, there's enough talent there to put the Buckeyes in contention for the Big Ten title and possibly more. Veteran defensive coordinators like Virginia Tech's Bud Foster and Michigan State's Pat Narduzzi will certainly do everything they can to confuse and disrupt the young signal caller, but if Barrett doesn't try to do to much and stays focused on getting the ball to the playmakers around him, this Buckeye offense is set up quite well for success in 2014.