Urban Meyer won two national titles at Florida by spreading the field and getting the ball into the hands of a quick, strong, game-breaker.
Now the most sought-after coach in college football has taken his act up to NCAA-sanctioned Ohio State and the Big Ten, a team without the jaw-dropping playmakers Meyer had with the Gators.
Don’t expect him to change a thing.
“Sure. I just hope someone steps up to take one of those positions that we need,” he said after a recent practice when asked if he can do with the Buckeyes what he did on offense at Florida. “The answer is yes.”
Meyer’s arrival at Ohio State would have been the sport’s biggest story line headed into this season if no one had ever heard the name Jerry Sandusky. Out of coaching for a year because of health problems and stress, Meyer was lured back to his home state after former coach Jim Tressel got deposed for hiding that players were trading Ohio State memorabilia for cash and tattoos with a suspected drug dealer.
The Buckeyes will sit out a bowl this season as a result of the scandal, but Meyer isn’t waiting to put his stamp on the program.
The secret is finding the new Percy Harvin, the former Gators and now Minnesota Vikings star. Meyer used him at Florida at tailback, in the slot, out wide, at tight end — even taking snaps at quarterback. Ohio State saw him at his best up close and personal in the 2007 BCS national championship game when Meyer’s offense befuddled the Buckeyes in a laughably lopsided 41-14 rout.
Ever since that painful but perhaps instructive loss in the Arizona desert, Ohio State has longed for a quick-strike offense like Meyer’s.
Now they have the man with the plan. The Buckeyes just need some players to run it.
Meyer spent all of spring practice trying to find a speedy player he could put in the open field who could make an opposing team pay for a missed tackle. The first few days of learning the new offense he said were a “clown show,” with linemen running into each other, backs going the wrong way, fumbles, interceptions and dropped passes.
Asked how far the offense has progressed since then, new coordinator Tom Herman all but bursts out laughing.
“Light years,” he said three times. “We actually can throw and catch a football. If we were at a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10 coming out of the spring in terms of throwing and catching, we’re up to a 4. We’re still not real good, but we’re still a lot better than we were at the end of the spring. That’s a testament to our guys and how much they worked in the offseason.”
Meyer thought he had a speedster to build the offense around in Jordan Hall, a small but fast tailback who was seldom utilized in Tressel’s system.
But a piece of glass delayed that grand experiment.
The university says Hall was walking around outside his apartment complex in his bare feet in late June when he stepped on some glass, severing a tendon in his right foot. He underwent surgery and is making progress, but likely won’t be available to play until late September.
Of course, quarterback Braxton Miller will initiate the offense. Even though he is a shifty runner, he is too valuable to the Buckeyes to take a whole lot of hits. Meyer’s attack has been at its best with a mobile quarterback — Alex Smith at Utah, Chris Leak and Tim Tebow at Florida — who can run when needed but who can get the ball in open space to his receivers.
So Meyer continues to seek someone who can be both a deep threat and dangerous on the bubble screen. Receivers Devin Smith, a Massillon graduate, and Evan Spencer have the speed but so far haven’t taken the next step.
Running back Carlos Hyde is quick — for a 235-pounder. He doesn’t fit the mold of the tall, lithe Harvin or Utah’s Paris Warren, versatile players who could sidestep a tackler or beat a defender off the snap. They were also stellar receivers, in addition to being fast. Hyde, used mostly as a battering ram out of the backfield, caught all of 10 passes a year ago.
There are other candidates out wide, including Corey Brown and Smith.
Although it’s difficult to compare preseasons, many observers say Meyer’s presence has added a tad more intensity this year. He has stressed one-on-one drills, playing beyond the whistle and lots and lots of competition — in almost everything the team does.
The fundamental play of the new attack is the quick pass.
“It’s more uptempo, kind of catching the defense off guard,” Brown said. “There’s more complex passes, more crossing routes, downfield routes. Coach Meyer and coach Herman are really trying to emphasize getting the best athletes in space.”
Now the goal is to determine who are the best athletes.
Meyer readily acknowledges that his old conference, the SEC, has faster players than the Big Ten, particular off the corner on defense but also at the skill positions. He also knows that at his previous stops on the coaching carousel there might have been more individual speed.
“You can adapt. That’s what we’re going to have to do,” he said. “I didn’t have exactly (the player to fit that mold in) Paris Warren at Utah — not to keep going backwards, I need to keep going forward. He was a 4.7-second guy in the 40 but he played so fast. I just want guys to play fast.”
Hyde may not be that guy, but he still loves the new play-a-second philosophy.
“I’m excited ’cause I’m going to be out in the open, just one-on-one,” he said. “I won’t have to worry about two or three guys chasing me, I can be one-on-one, make that guy miss, and it’ll be off to the races.”
Miller says nice things about everyone trying to fill the H-back role in the spread — then adds a qualifier.
“(Hall) is getting better day by day,” he said. “But I hope he comes back before the first game.”
The search continues. Meyer still has hope.
“I think there’s enough here that I hope to get wowed a little bit,” he said.
No matter what, the Buckeyes have no choice now but to embrace the new attack.
“We kind of look at this, this is a new chapter in our life,” Brown said of the receivers. “We’ve moved on now. Coach Meyer really emphasized that we press ‘restart.”’