With much of the focus this spring has been on battles for the open spots atop the depth chart at quarterback, left tackle, and linebacker, little has been said about who will replace departing senior Marcus Baugh at the 'Y' receiver position, known to most as the tight end in Ohio State's offense.
Baugh came to Columbus as the nation's 4th-best prospect in his class at the position and did an admirable job in two years as a starter, catching eight career touchdowns (including the most famous of J.T. Barrett's 104 scoring throws). As the California native moves on to the next level, many fans eagerly anticipate the succession to a player that would seem to be his exact opposite.
Rashod Berry came to Ohio State as an unheralded, 3-star athlete destined to play for Larry Johnson as a defensive end. After two quiet seasons in Columbus, the Lorain native was known more for his exploits on the basketball court than on the field, surprising many when he earned the second spot on a suddenly shallow depth chart last fall after only playing tight end for a few weeks in training camp.
After seeing limited playing time in the first three games of the season, Berry exploded onto the scene with three catches for 57 yards and a memorable touchdown rumble in which he ran over, through, and around nearly the entire UNLV defense.
After turning that hitch route into a 38-yard jaunt to the end zone against the Rebels, Berry began seeing increased playing time at the position, distancing himself from Luke Farrell as Baugh's primary backup. As the Buckeyes went on a dominant stretch in late September and early October, scoring 50 points in four straight contests, Berry began seeing more reps with Barrett and the first-team offense, tallying six receptions for 100 yards through the first seven games.
|Year||Player||Catches||Rec. Yards||Rec. TDs|
But although he saw a season-high 36 snaps in the home finale against Illinois, Berry's playing time diminished down the stretch as the Buckeyes took on Michigan, Wisconsin, and USC to cap the season.
Now, as Ohio State closes out spring practice in 2018, most assume Berry will simply pick up where Baugh left off, filling a role that is oft forgotten by fans. But while most believe his freakish athleticism will make the transition an easy one, Berry showed he still has much to learn at a quietly difficult position.
Though it's rarely highlighted within game plans, the tight end must be a good route-runner to separate against the abundance of defensive backs put on the field to defend the Buckeyes' base, three-receiver sets. In a limited sample size, Berry showed there's still room for improvement in this regard, as he rounded off his corner route and was left wide open thanks to a breakdown in coverage.
As seen in the clip above, Berry's route is a far cry from the one run by Oklahoma's Dimitri Flowers, who terrorized the Buckeyes in week two with seven catches for 98 yards. Flowers does an excellent job selling an inside route before breaking outside, creating space between him and the defenders expecting a crossing route.
But playing the Y in Urban Meyer's offense requires far more than catching passes, as the position is a key piece in the Ohio State running game. Since the Buckeyes remain in 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end) almost exclusively, the Y becomes the queen on the chess board that can be moved around to create different looks that stress a defense.
Instead of lining up next to a tackle and simply extending the line of blockers to one side, the Y is a true hybrid between a traditional tight end and a fullback, spending the majority of their time behind the line of scrimmage in a 'Y-off' alignment. Many defensive coaches call this look a 'sniffer' as the Y can be used as a traditional fullback to lead the runner inside between the tackles or seal the end of the line with only a subtle adjustment in alignment.
When a formation is called, there are specific tags that alert the Y to his specific alignment:
- Up: The Y is "up" off the line in a 1x1 position from the tackle on the side away from the back
- Down: 1x1 from the tackle to the same side as the back
- In: The Y is "In" the B-gap away from the back
- Out: In the B-gap to the same side as the back
One of the most common ways the Buckeyes move the Y is with the split-zone concept, which asks him to sprint across the formation from his Up alignment at the snap and kick-out a defensive end. The concept is effective against penetrating defensive lines as each blocker uses their lateral leverage to move their defender, leaving the back with a cutback lane through the backside C-gap.
Split-zone must run with the Y lined up away from the back, as the gap created by the Y's block of the opposite end needs time to develop. Thus, many defenses expect it when they see the Up alignment.
To keep defenses from cheating, the Buckeyes began running another variation of their tight-zone play, this time with the Y leading the back through the A-gap like an old-school Isolation play from the I-formation. Unlike split-zone, Insert, as it's called, can be run with the Y and the runner either to the same side or away from one another, allowing the QB to easily audible in and out of the call at the line.
This role as a lead blocker didn't appear to come naturally to Berry, though, as he struggled early on to identify his assignment. Though he didn't get as many chances to prove it late in the season, it was clear that he improved as the season wore on, however.
But, even though they often line up in a multitude of four-wide formations, the Buckeyes rarely get out of 11 personnel, meaning the Y must be comfortable lining up out wide. But starting out near the numbers doesn't mean Berry just gets to run routes.
Last fall, the Buckeyes heavily incorporated wide receiver bubble screens into the game plan each week, tasking the Y with taking out an opposing defensive back with a stalk block. However, Berry quickly learned that blocking defensive backs in space was far different than taking on an opposing lineman.
Not only did Berry show improvement in this area, he flashed a nasty edge that could make the difference between good and great, given his natural athletic ability. Since Meyer arrived in Columbus six years ago, no tight end has shown the same combination of raw power and speed as the 6'4", 240-pounder, prompting his teammate, Baugh to tell dispatch.com, "He’s an athletic freak. He can play whatever he wants.”
This Saturday's spring game will be the first chance for those of us outside the WHAC to see if Berry's progress will allow him to cement his claim on the top spot on the depth chart before fall camp. Farrell is an excellent athlete himself and has drawn praise from Meyer this spring in his efforts to earn playing time. Redshirt sophomore Jake Hausmann and incoming freshman Jeremy Ruckert will push to make the two-deep as well.
But if Berry continues to show the kind of development we saw in the second half of 2017, the sky is the limit for what's to come. With Barrett no longer around to act as the counter-punch on the ground, the Buckeyes will have to get more creative in the design of their running game, which is where a talented Y becomes that much more valuable.
While everyone else on the field can do the same thing from snap-to-snap, simply changing what's asked of the Y and the ball-carrier can change a play entirely. The Y can arc-block the end and take on a second-level defender, he can take out a nose tackle, he can release downfield on play-action, or he can even be used as a false flag to send the linebackers away from the play.
Yes, the coaching staff must be willing to incorporate such wrinkles into the game plan. But first, Berry must show he's capable of taking on even more responsibility.