The flanks. The perimeter. The edges.
Whatever you call them, they are areas the Ohio State football offense seldom explored consistently the first two seasons under coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman.
With all the hoopla associated with Meyer bringing his spread offense to the Buckeyes, those first two versions — despite school-record-setting team and individual production — only hinted at the performance that could come with more octane in the talent tank. Instead, it was more of a diesel truck game powered by running back Carlos Hyde and an offensive line that the coaches thought might have been the best in college football last year.
“The way we gained yardage last year a lot of times was five guys and the tight end blocking, hand it off to the big boy (Hyde) and let him go,” line coach Ed Warinner said. “Now, we have more speed and more options on the perimeter, so distribution of the ball in different ways, hitting different areas of the field, can be a way to gain yards.”
Meyer and Herman have said much the same thing. So has quarterback Braxton Miller, who seems eager to pilot what he thinks could be a high-flying, multi-threat attack in his senior season.
When Miller was asked to name a few players he thinks could be breakout stars on offense this year, his list grew long quickly.
“Zeke, Corey Smith, Michael Thomas, guys on the outside,” Miller said. “Johnnie Dixon, Dontre (Wilson) — those are some guys who are going to make people say, ‘Wow, where have these guys been?’ It’s going to be fun.”
By Zeke, Miller referred to sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott, poised to take the starting spot vacated by Hyde, who’s now in the NFL. Elliott, however, suffered a left wrist injury in practice on Friday that led to surgery yesterday. But he was back with the team by midday, and a team spokesman said Elliott could return to practice action late this week.
“He is doing great,” his father, Stacy Elliott, said in a text message.
Corey Smith is a junior-college transfer receiver who redshirted last year. Thomas is a receiver who has been just off the play list for a couple of years. Dixon is a blue-chip receiver from West Palm Beach, Fla., who enrolled this past spring semester to gain a head start on college.
And Wilson is the speedy sophomore from DeSoto, Texas, whom many thought was the newcomer destined to take the Buckeyes offense out to the flanks last year. A running back in high school, it has taken Wilson a year to be more the perimeter player Meyer and Herman envisioned, but this summer he was catching the ball more like a receiver, which means the metamorphosis is well underway.
“Dontre Wilson, I am hoping he develops to be that guy,” Meyer said. “He needs to touch the ball ‘X’ amount of times. The good thing in our offense is he can — it’s very easy to get him the touches.”
Meyer’s vision long has been to hit the defense where there are fewer defenders. Fray the edges, but always retain the ability to attack the A and B gaps — the lanes between the center and guards and between the guards and tackles — with power.
“I’ve always been a perimeter (advocate) my whole career, wanting to get great players the ball in their hands in space,” Meyer said. “And that used to be hard to do. (In the) I formation, the only way to get it to a receiver was to throw it to him. In spread sets, you can run screens, hand it to him” on reverses, jet sweeps and such.
Meyer didn’t have the personnel to do that on a consistent basis in his first two seasons. Most fireworks were provided by the derring-do of Miller, the reigning and two-time MVP of the Big Ten.
Now, there appears to be a queue of potential playmakers, along with returning big-play receiver Devin Smith and Evan Spencer. Tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett have proved capable of stretching the defense, and there is slot back Jalin Marshall bouncing back from injury last year, as is receiver James Clark.
After Elliott, the running back name that keeps popping up is freshman Curtis Samuel, an early enrollee who emerged in spring drills.
“Ezekiel and Curtis Samuel are explosive and can make plays,” Warinner said. “Out on the perimeter, Devin Smith has had a couple of good days, Corey Smith has had a good camp so far, Dontre is doing well, (and) we’re hoping that Johnnie Dixon can come along.”
By midseason, Herman could have play-calling options of which he could only dream about a year ago, and he alluded as much to the Big Ten Network last week.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever abandon our A gap and B gap presence in the running game,” Herman said, “but we certainly have some athletes now. We’ve recruited well over the years, where we can get the ball on the perimeter.”