The day Urban Meyer signed a contract as Ohio State’s head coach is also the same day the H-back became a focal point for the Buckeye offense.
Known as “The Percy Harvin Role” for Meyer’s first few years, the hybrid slot receiver/running back featured many different names, most of whom were never actually a hybrid of anything.
The position was finally mastered in 2016 by Curtis Samuel, who rushed for 771 yards and caught 74 passes for 865 yards. And then he turned pro.
Parris Campbell and KJ Hill split the role in 2017 and 2018. Both were productive — Hill is now the school’s all-time leader in receptions, and Campbell’s 90 catches in 2018 is also a school record. Neither player, however, provided the inside running that Samuel specialized in.
The position has evolved, especially under Meyer’s replacement Ryan Day. Now, the H-back is a slot receiver who may never actually take a hand-off. In fact, to use the word “-back” for the position is essentially a falsehood. Anymore, it’s just another receiver, like X or Z. It’s just H. But it remains a focal point of the passing game.
And now with KJ Hill off to the NFL, the Buckeyes went into the spring expecting to find his replacements.
Even with the departure of Jaelen Gill to the transfer portal, there are a number of contenders. The biggest news of the three spring practices was that sophomore Garrett Wilson had moved from X to H and was now the Buckeyes’ top slot receiver.
There are also freshmen Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Mookie Cooper, fifth-year senior Demario McCall, as well as possibly sixth-year senior CJ Saunders.
“It was a good day honestly for the first day just seeing those guys playing the slot was pretty natural. So I thought today was a good start. We’ll see how we get going through the rest of spring,” Day said after the first spring practice. “Some guys you put them in there and you’re not sure. Today looked pretty natural for those guys, though.”
The idea of Garrett Wilson in the slot, knowing the role it has had in this offense in the past, sure provides some intriguing thoughts.
Wilson caught 30 passes for 432 yards and five touchdowns last season, which was the best true freshman season for an Ohio State receiver since David Boston had 33 receptions for 450 yards and seven touchdowns in 1996.
Wilson looked every bit like a future star last season, making amazing catches almost on a weekly basis. Now on the inside, he’s going to be targeted way more than he was on the outside. And he also has the ability after the catch to make even more things happen.
All of which has Ryan Day very excited about the possibilities.
“I think when you look at his background, his basketball background, his spatial awareness is off the charts,” Day said back in the spring. “His range is really good. He can operate in short areas. And the other thing for him is he can time up down the field. He’s got a unique skill set.
“But I think his ability to catch the ball, put it away, run after the catch so quickly is something you want out of a slot receiver. And running option routes, setting up defenders and understanding space and everything like that, it happens a lot faster in there. But I think his skill set fits that. The same with Jaxon, I think they fit that way. So that’s why we made that move.”