COLUMBUS (AP) — The story is one Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has told before, and it is the reason Braxton Miller could not be in better hands.
As an assistant coach at Notre Dame in 2000, the Fighting Irish lost to Nebraska. Meyer found receiver David Givens, the team’s most talented offensive player, practically in tears in the locker room.
“I said, ‘It’s going to be OK, man. We’ll bounce back.’ He said, ‘You don’t understand, Coach. I didn’t touch the ball.’ He wasn’t saying it like some kids, like I need the damn ball, not like that. Just he didn’t feel he helped the team win,” Meyer said this week.
Meyer vowed to never let something like that happen again.
So he constructed an offense in which some receivers are not just receivers. The position is called H-back — as in hybrid — and it has been a great way to get a speedy player more touches than a receiver and less pounding than a tailback. Other spread-offense teams use hybrid players to attack the edges and create matchup problems, but none have been as successful as Meyer’s teams.
“Because of so many things that you ask them to do they have to understand the game. The spacing of the game,” said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, who was an assistant for Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida. “They need a natural ability to run the football. Because you’re going to ask them to kind of play all over. You’re going to ask them to be an H-back. You’re going to ask them to be a wide receiver. You’re going to ask them to be a running back.”
Miller switched from quarterback after two shoulder surgeries and a year of recovery, and H-back has been the perfect fit.
“It’s fun,” Miller said. “It feels like when I was growing up and playing a bunch of different positions.”
Many of the H-backs who have thrived for Meyer did not fit perfectly into a traditional position.
“The biggest things is, when you’re a spread team it allows you to recruit that quote-unquote slot receiver that maybe 20 years ago would have been relegated to either being just a corner(back) or a punt returner because he was too small to play tailback full time, too small to play outside receiver and certainly there just wasn’t a place for him on offense, for that body type,” said Houston coach Tom Herman, Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Ohio State for three years.
When Meyer was at Florida, Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps fit that description. They were undersized speedsters who could get swallowed up in traffic but were hard to tackle in the open field and near impossible to run down from behind. At Utah, Paris Warren was a more prototypical outside receiver, like Givens, at about 6-feet tall and more than 200 pounds. But Meyer could not afford to let defenses take Warren out of the game.
“When you’re playing wide receiver, there’s a lot of things a defense can do to prevent you from getting the ball. They can double you. They can triple you. They can roll the coverage a certain way,” Herman said. “When you’re in the backfield, whether it be taking direct snaps and/or standing next to the quarterback, you can at least for the most part guarantee who’s going to carry the football.”
The ultimate H-back for Meyer was Percy Harvin. In three seasons at Florida, Harvin averaged more than 9.5 yards per rush, 14.5 yards per catch and scored 32 touchdowns.
At 5-foot-11 and about 180 pounds, Harvin could line up wide and beat a cornerback, take a snap from center and run the wildcat or go in motion and take a pitch or shovel pass.
Miller has some of Harvin’s ability in a bigger package.
“God made this human being that’s 6-2, 215 pounds and he’s the fastest guy on Ohio State’s team, and not only is he the fastest guy on Ohio State’s team, he’s also the quickest in terms of lateral change of direction,” Herman said. “The guys I’ve seen that are as fast and quick as Braxton have been 5-7, 5-8, 5-9. I’ve never seen a human being do the things he can do at 6-2, 215 pounds.”
In two games, Miller is averaging 9.1 yards per rush and 19.0 yards per catch, and his spin move on the way to a long touchdown run against Virginia Tech is an early front-runner for play of the year. He will try to add to those numbers Saturday when Ohio State plays Northern Illinois at home.
Jalin Marshall, Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson give the Buckeyes plenty of other talented options at H-back to go along with Miller.
“Kind of exactly what you dream of when you put together this style of offense,” Meyer said.