Many Buckeye fans cringe at the name Ryan Malleck, after the tight end reeled in six catches, including a number of big ones on third downs, to help Virginia Tech pull off their upset of the Buckeyes one year ago in Columbus. But as 2014 progressed, it was the other Hokie tight end, Bucky Hodges, who emerged as one of the premiere young playmakers in the ACC.
A converted high school quarterback, the redshirt-sophomore casts an imposing shadow at 6'7" and 242 lbs, but looks more the part of wide receiver than imposing blocker once on the field. Hodges finished 2014 with 45 catches for 526 yards, and led the team with seven touchdown receptions.
As the Hokies look to find a replacement on the outside for departed senior wideout Willie Byrn, Hodges seems likely to be a focal point of the Hokie passing attack along with fellow sophomore, Isaiah Ford. Though Ford led the team in catches and receiving yards and is an electric athlete, he is likely to see the attention of the top cornerback of every opponent on the schedule, including Ohio State's Eli Apple.
Hodges could more often be found in the slot last fall, playing a role similar to that of the 'H' receiver in OSU's offense, attacking linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field. He was also regularly involved in the screen game, running bubble screens packaged with inside runs.
But where Hodges is most dangerous, especially against OSU's quarters coverage scheme, is when he's involved in the vertical passing game. Hodges made a habit of embarrassing safeties in coverage last year, showing excellent route-running skills to take advantage of uncomfortable defenders who have trouble estimating his true speed downfield.
Much in the same way Terrelle Pryor often made defenders take horrible angles, regularly out-running opponents with long legs that cover a deceiving amount of ground, Hodges is able to change speeds only moderately before accelerating past his defender. Though it now feels like ancient history, both OSU safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell struggled to stay with Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins on vertical routes downfield in the 2014 Orange Bowl, and Frank Beamer and offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler will certainly test the duo to see if they've improved since.
In fact, Loeffler already succeeded in beating the OSU secondary with Hodges on a vertical route when the big man scored a crucial touchdown off a corner route late in last year's matchup. With the Buckeyes playing what boiled down to man coverage near the goal line, the 'Smash' concept put Hodges in solo coverage against Bell, who surrenders 8 inches and 50 lbs in this confrontation.
As Ford runs a hitch route on the outside, sucking the corner, Apple, up near the line of scrimmage, Bell must now effectively cover a deep half of the field on his own as Hodges breaks toward the back pylon. Bell closes the distance on the receiver, but Hodges is able to use his size to effectively 'box out' the safety, much like a rebounder would on the basketball court.
Bell only tries to undercut the route at the last possible moment, and is unable to get in the way of a very accurate throw. It's hard to blame Bell too much, as the physical aspect of the competition is clearly not in his favor.
To help, linebacker Darron Lee must get more of a jam on Hodges near the line, throwing off the timing on the route and likely making him declare his route earlier. Instead, Lee barely touches the flexed out tight end, letting him run his route unimpeded.
While jamming Hodges will help slow him down at any point in a drive, doing so near the goal line must be a priority for anyone in his vicinity. Hodges scored the game-winning touchdown over rival Virginia last fall on a simple crossing route, as the safety in coverage doesn't touch him until he tries to make a tackle as the ball is crossing the goal line.
To get Hodges so wide open down there, the Hokies like to clear out the middle of the field with the 'Double China' route concept. Hodges lines up as the middle of three receivers to the wide side of the field, with Malleck as the inner-most.
Malleck runs a corner route, making the inside linebacker follow him up the seam and drawing help from the safety over the top. Meanwhile, quarterback Michael Brewer can make a very easy read as the real estate clears out for him to make a quick throw to the inside-breaking Hodges, who once again has boxed out the defender with his size.
For OSU, Lee would likely be the man lining up across from Hodges in this situation, much as he does in the 'Smash' example above. When the Hokies line up with three receivers to one side, Lee must recognize that the middle linebacker will likely be playing the inside receiver, and unable to help on a crossing route. Once again, Lee must jam the big tight end, especially on any inside route, cutting off such easy throws and instead forcing Brewer to look for the corner route, which is a much more difficult pass to complete.
Much in the same way the Buckeyes took apart Michigan State's quarters coverage last fall by attacking the safeties over the top with Devin Smith, the Hokies will try to attack the Silver Bullets with Hodges in one-on-one coverage against Bell and Powell. Since the duo isn't likely to grow six inches in the next week, it's crucial that Lee take an active role in slowing Hodges down and throwing off the timing of his routes.
The Hokies will undoubtedly try to establish a power running game, going against a Buckeye defensive line that will be breaking in three new starters with the suspension of Joey Bosa. If they have success getting the ground game going, the play-action pass becomes a serious threat, and Lee must stay disciplined and stay in the way of Hodges on vertical routes instead of biting on the fake handoff.
Luckily Lee showed great patience in similar situations against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, the same night he exploded on the national scene and was named the game's defensive MVP. While asking for an MVP performance from him may seem like a lot, it may be critical for the Buckeyes to come away victorious in Blacksburg.