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H-back role evolving as Ohio State keeps enhancing passing attack

Garrett Wilson-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football
Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson might be the new model at H-back for the Buckeyes. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Question Of The Day

H-back role evolving as Ohio State keeps enhancing passing attack

The speculation, debate and conversations about Ohio State never end, and Lettermen Row is always ready to dive into the discussions. All week long, senior writer Austin Ward will field topics about the Buckeyes submitted by readers and break down anything that’s on the minds of the Best Damn Fans in the Land. Have a question that needs to be tackled, like the one today about Ohio State and the H-back position? Send it in right here — and check back daily for the answers.

Start with the obvious: Ohio State is always going to play to the strengths of its personnel.

Both Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson have proven repeatedly over the years that they aren’t locked into just one system. Part of what has made those coaches and the Buckeyes so successful is their willingness to be flexible and find the best way to utilize every player on the roster. And while that generally puts the spotlight on the quarterback, the way the H-back role continues to evolve might really be the best glimpse at their creativity.

Certainly the Buckeyes could reverse course at some point if a player like committed tailback Evan Pryor emerges down the road as a multipurpose threat who needs both extensive playing time and receptions and rushing attempts. But the odds are that Ohio State is moving away from using converted running backs like Curtis Samuel in the Pivot to give them a relatively even split of catches and carries the way that Urban Meyer favored. That trend was already apparent when Parris Campbell was barely used as a threat on the ground, and it has only ramped up with K.J. Hill playing in the slot last year and Garrett Wilson sliding to that position at the start of spring practice.

Throw in the multiple-tight end sets that have become staples in the playbook, the dynamic stable of running backs in the fold for the foreseeable future and the caliber of passers Ohio State is attracting and it all points to favoring true wide receivers at H-back moving forward. Obviously the Buckeyes have had success transitioning versatile guys like Samuel or Campbell or even Braxton Miller into that spot, but it seems clear that it prefers to have more natural receivers playing there if possible.

Parris Campbell-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

By the end of his Ohio State career, Parris Campbell was barely used as a rusher. (Gary A. Vasquez/Imagn)

Mookie Cooper does have a background as a rusher, but he’s always been envisioned in that slot spot for Ohio State. Jaxon Smith-Njigba would appear to be an option inside along with Wilson, and the return of C.J. Saunders would also give the Buckeyes another experienced weapon to replace Hill. Putting the quarterback under center more opened up the option to add more jet sweeps to the arsenal, but Ohio State barely used them or pop-passes from the shotgun with Justin Fields at quarterback last season. If it wanted or needed to build another rushing threat from that position, it easily could have done so with versatile athletes like Demario McCall or Jaelen Gill before his transfer — but that obviously wasn’t necessary.

“I think you’re looking for best available, and then it’s your job as a coach to figure out what they do best,” Day said last season. “I think K.J. Hill is a very different player than Parris Campbell, and Parris is different than Curtis Samuel, and they’re all different than the last guy. You try to look for somebody who has a real high-end skill set, whatever that is, working in short areas, and then you kind of go from there. And one of the things going into the season for us was that we felt like our [two-tight end] package was stronger this year, and so that H position has been supplemented a little bit with a second tight end, and I think that’s been good for us.

“You try to recruit the best available, the best players possible, and then you try to go adapt the offense based on that.”

The Buckeyes are certainly willing to adapt, so it wouldn’t be fair to suggest a Samuel-like season will never happen again.

But at least for now, the signs are easy to read about what Ohio State wants offensively and from the H-back position. And there appears to be a clear line between rushers and receivers.

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Austin Ward

Austin Ward is Lettermen Row's senior writer covering Ohio State football and basketball. The award-winning journalist has covered the Buckeyes since 2012, spending five of those seasons working for ESPN after previous stints at the Casper Star-Tribune and Knoxville News Sentinel.