Focus on the HOW, not the WHAT.
When the 2017 Ohio State offense takes the field this fall, much will be expected of J.T. Barrett and company. Not only will the Buckeyes likely hold a lofty preseason ranking, bolstered by four returning starters on the offensive line to lead the way for Barrett and Mike Weber, the unit will be led on the sidelines by one of the most respected minds in the college game.
But although many anticipate record-breaking performances from Kevin Wilson's new squad in Columbus, his offense likely won't look all that different from the ones seen in Ohio Stadium over the past five years. Indeed, Wilson ran many of the same concepts called by Urban Meyer, Tom Herman, and Ed Warinner during his time at Northwestern, Oklahoma, and Indiana.
However, though we often highlight specific plays and techniques in this very space, good play-callers recognize the way those calls are sequenced together matters just as much as the calls themselves. In this manner, Wilson's status is elevated amongst many of his peers.
Take the way Wilson calls the tight (inside) zone run, the foundational concept in Meyer's offense:
The Buckeyes have found success in the past from running the same concept multiple times and going uptempo before any adjustments could be made from the previous play, but Wilson takes it to a new level by changing the quarterback's option from a traditional zone-read run to a simple pass.
Though Wilson's quarterbacks often posed the threat of a run, in reality, they were far more dangerous when throwing the ball, so this change in the option game was built out of necessity. Now, with a quarterback like Barret that can both run and make quick decisions in the option game, this wrinkle becomes more difficult to stop, as the defense now faces three potential outcomes when reading the tight zone blocking scheme (handoff, QB run, or pass).
While many 'spread' gurus like Chip Kelly and Rich Rodriguez found great success in the running game by optioning different defensive linemen from play-to-play in the past, Wilson's hallmark is making the lives of inside linebackers more difficult. By blocking the entire defensive front, but leaving the middle linebacker unblocked and simply reading his movement, Wilson and his quarterback can effectively remove the most important member of the defense from a play whenever they so desire.
Luckily, reading linebackers like this won't be new for Barrett, as Ohio State's 'Power Read' concept has long called for the QB to make decisions based on that defender's movement. Such a read of Jabrill Peppers led to the first touchdown in overtime against Michigan.
Truly, the Buckeyes' new offensive coordinator does not seem to call a game with the intent of simply finding the plays that work best against a specific defense, but rather, to confuse and bait defenders into poor decisions as the game goes on. When Wilson's Hoosiers came to the Horseshoe last October, he did an excellent job of toying with Ohio State's safeties from a 2x2 formation, recognizing that the defense would always check to 'quarters' coverage against that look.
Not only does Wilson identify a mismatch between a shifty slot receiver against Damon Webb in man-to-man coverage downfield, he also finds a way to bait the most talented member of the Buckeye defense, Malik Hooker, into the wrong read on the fake tunnel screen near the end zone. Each of these plays looks identical to the defense before the snap, yet they each create a different way for players to spring open.
Such an approach will be a welcome addition to an offense that often felt out of sync over the past two seasons. Plays seemed to always be called with the mindset of who needs the ball? more than what is the defense doing?
This grab-bag approach worked well enough to produce the school's fifth-most successful offense ever in terms of yardage in 2016. However, as Barrett pointed out yesterday, the explosion seen in previous seasons seemed to be missing from his unit.
With Wilson now at the helm, it's reasonable to expect the Buckeyes to regain that spark on offense. Just don't expect them to do so with an entirely new playbook, as the changes made by this new regime will be far more subtle than you think.