Remember that play in the fourth quarter against Michigan in 2018 when Dwayne Haskins dropped back, looked left to deceive the safety, and then went back to the right for a 78-yard touchdown pass deep down the seam to Parris Campbell?
Of course you don’t, because it didn’t happen.
Oh, there was definitely a 78-yard touchdown pass from Haskins to Campbell, but don’t let the box score fool you — it was just a speed sweep with a toss forward to Campbell as he raced past Haskins. Campbell then followed his run blocks and beat Michigan’s defense to the edge and outran anybody who wanted to get in the picture.
That play was a staple of the Buckeyes’ offense that season and continued the practice of involving the H-backs in the Ohio State running game. Past examples of such also included Braxton Miller and Curtis Samuel.
In other words, if there’s an H-back who can excel in this role, then plans will be made.
The Buckeyes didn’t have that last year following Campbell’s departure. KJ Hill has always been more of a receiver than a hybrid, as evidenced by the fact that he is now Ohio State’s all-time leader in receptions.
Replacing Hill will be a tall order, but the players left behind to pick up the pieces also appear as though they’ll be able to pick up a few carries along the way as well.
Redshirt sophomore Jaelen Gill carried the ball plenty in high school, so he is accustomed to the closer quarters that the H-back can sometimes require.
True freshman Mookie Cooper is also another player in that slot role who was as much a ball carrier as a pass catcher in high school and is looking forward to getting involved in the running game once again.
“Getting sweeps and quick stuff to get the ball in my hands, kinda like Rondale Moore-type stuff. I love it,” Cooper said. “That’s what I’ve been doing since high school, so I feel like I’m just stepping into the same thing, just on a bigger platform.”
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day saw that skill set in Cooper, which is why he wanted him in this offense.
“He’s very versatile, an inside receiver who can operate in short areas, has that good burst,” Day said. “And really good with the ball in his hands. Hoping he can do some returning for us and those type of things. But, yeah, there has to be a toughness inside.”
Generally, the need for “toughness inside” refers to catching the ball between the hashes where the linebackers are patrolling, but when the Buckeyes have an H-back who can run the ball, sometimes that can also lead to some stuff between the tackles.
Be it between the tackles or in front of the linebackers, the H-back has to be tough, which is something that has been passed down by Hill, Campbell, and those who came before them.
“We look at the best slot receivers, there’s an edge and toughness in there,” Day said. “They have to catch the ball in the middle. Most of their work is inside the hashes dealing with safeties and linebackers. And you’ll take hits in there. You have to be tough.
“If he’s going to motion in the backfield, do some of those things we have with Parris and those guys, we toss it to them on speed sweeps or hand it to them on different things, he’s going to have to be a little bit like a running back as well.”
For the people who thought Day was getting away from an H-back that would also carry the ball, Cooper — and possibly classmate Cameron Martinez — is proof that there will always be a role for an H-back who can present different problems for a defense.
Day went out and recruited players to do this. They weren’t just handed down by recruiting classes that he inherited.
There will still be H-backs whose primary role will be as a receiver, such as with true freshman Jaxon Smith-Njigba and sixth-year senior CJ Saunders, but clearly it’s time to get back to some variety.
If you missed the H-back carrying the ball in Ohio State’s offense, it sure sounds like it could be making a return in 2020. And given the different abilities shared by the likes of Jaelen Gill and Mookie Cooper, it should be a pretty entertaining reunion.