“The first thing we ask is ‘who are we?’" - Ryan Day
As Ohio State's 40-year-old head coach enters his second offseason in charge of the program, he faces the difficult task of replacing the best defender in the nation, two starting offensive linemen, three veteran receivers, and three-quarters of his starting secondary. Of course, Justin Fields returns at the quarterback position, so luckily all hope is not lost inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
But despite all those departures, the most difficult player to replace may be running back J.K. Dobbins, the school's new single-season record holder for rushing yards in a season and the cornerstone of the Buckeyes' offensive identity in 2019. While Fields blossomed as a pocket passer, it was Dobbins who carried the team down the stretch, racking up 714 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in the team's final four contests, all of which came against opponents ranked in the top-20.
Of course, replacing talent like this is simply part of the job for coaches at every level but the professional one.
"This is not the NFL where we get to draft different guys," Day said last spring in his speech to hundreds of Ohio high school coaches. "Every year, whether it’s high school or college, we start from scratch, we have new bodies in there, you have new personnel. And the effectiveness of a high school and a college coach is the ability to adapt."
In his three seasons since first arriving in Columbus as co-offensive coordinator, Day has excelled at adapting, rebuilding the Buckeye offense in a new form each autumn to best suit the skills of the players at hand.
In 2017, that meant designing the unit around J.T. Barrett's ability to quickly distribute the ball, packaging countless options both on the ground and through the air into the same play. With Dwayne Haskins under center the following season, Ohio State resembled a pro-style downfield passing attack that took advantage of unprecedented depth at the receiver position.
Last August, many expected a fusion of the two, only to see Day emerge from the offseason with a completely different look once again. The Buckeyes regularly operated from under center and with multiple tight ends as they pounded opponents with a physical zone-based running game before looking to take deep shots off play-action.
The foundational play in every 2019 OSU game plan was the mid-zone run, in which the offensive line steps laterally at the snap, attempting to "reach" block the defender in front of him. The back's job is to "chase" his landmark of the B-gap between the guard and tackle by running laterally as well, keeping his shoulder perpendicular to the line of scrimmage.
Once a hole appears, the back plants his outside foot and explodes upfield through the gap.
The concept proved to be lethal with Dobbins in the backfield, as his patience, vision, and lateral quickness fit the needs of the scheme perfectly. Dobbins finished the year with 2,003 yards and 21 touchdowns in 14 games, as the Buckeyes rode this play-call all the way to the College Football Playoff.
But though Dobbins was named an All-American, he wasn't the only Buckeye back to show up on an All-Big Ten team. His backup, Master Teague III, tallied 789 rushing yards on just 135 carries, the seventh-highest total in the conference and enough to earn him third-team all-conference honors.
Many of Teague's yard came in the first two months of the season, spelling Dobbins for a series here and there but most often later in games with the outcome no longer in the balance. As a result, he often brought fresh legs to face a tired and dejected defense, allowing him to run through massive holes.
"It's hard with Master because he came into some of those games late in the games and really was a great change of pace. He was downhill. He got through it. And he got to the next level and rolled," Day said of his likely new feature back last week. "But what really didn't happen for Master this year is in big moments early in the game or -- he didn't get a ton of those carries. J.K. got the meat of those carries. So that's the next step for Master is now taking on that responsibility and knowing what he's doing and having some confidence in that because he does have the ability."
In the five final games of the season, Teague struggled, mustering just 90 yards rushing on 31 carries. While the level of competition was raised, one major reason for the dropoff was a general misalignment between him and the mid-zone scheme.
Unlike Dobbins, who proved adept at staying lateral down the line as he searched for a gap, Teague had a bad habit of quickly squaring his shoulders when he saw traffic, looking for a cutback lane far too quickly and often running right into the teeth of the defense instead of looking to reach the edge.
Just because Teague didn't fit perfectly with the mid-zone scheme doesn't mean he is the wrong man to be the Buckeyes' lead back in 2020. Rather, Day and his staff will likely look elsewhere in the playbook to find schemes that better suit his skill set, just as they have in the past.
One such run is the tight zone, the cornerstone concept throughout Urban Meyer's time in Columbus. The play utilizes zone-blocking but asks the back to keep his shoulders square at all times, sprinting through the mesh with the quarterback to get to the feet of the offensive linemen in front of him.
The play hits very quickly and allows Teague to get up to speed right away, running through arm tackles at the point of attack, even when they're accidentally left unblocked.
Another play that will allow him to use those talents is the basic Power-O. In this scheme, the tight end kicks out the defensive end while the backside guard pulls around to lead the runner through the predetermined gap.
Teague is clearly most comfortable when running north and south, though he still showed the vision to cut plays back. Once he sees a gap, however, the 220 lb Tennesseean still has the speed to outrun most defenders in the open field.
“It's clear to see once he gets a momentum going, he can run through contact,” Day said of Teague back in September. “That's what we're looking for.”
As Day spends the next two months trying to identify how his latest offensive iteration will take shape, it's likely that Teague will be heavily involved. However, how the sophomore running back is featured may look quite different than what we saw this past season.