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How Ohio State’s offense will go more pro-style with Ryan Day and without J.T. Barrett

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New coordinator Ryan Day — also currently interim head coach — means a different Ohio State offense.

Ohio State v Michigan
Dwayne Haskins is among the quarterbacks vying for Ohio State’s starting job.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Note: This article was originally published in May, three months before Ohio State announced Ryan Day will be interim head coach for its first three games of the year due to Urban Meyer’s suspension.

What follows is a look at Day’s career to this point and on-field philosophies.

When Ohio State hired ex-Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson to run its offense before last season, it was a huge deal in the college football landscape.

Urban Meyer took a spread offense to Florida that resulted in two national titles and a Tim Tebow Heisman Trophy, while Wilson was the architect of Oklahoma’s record-breaking 2008 offense and Sam Bradford’s Heisman season.

But Wilson’s hiring as offensive coordinator wasn’t the only important offensive change. The other was the addition of Ryan Day as quarterbacks coach. He’d spent the last two years in the same role with the Eagles and 49ers, following around Chip Kelly after a stint in the college game.

When Day and Wilson got to Columbus, they had a challenge. Wilson’s spread offenses at OU and Indiana had QBs attack the edges of the field with comeback and switch routes, while the run game went up the middle. But Buckeye quarterback J.T. Barrett wasn’t much good at throwing outside the hashmarks, so what were the Buckeyes to do?

They evolved. In the process, they offered hints at what they’ll look like in 2018, now that Day has joined Wilson as a second offensive coordinator and the primary play-caller.

In 2017, the Buckeyes added the Chip Kelly passing game.

While Wilson’s offense is geared to create easy reads for the QB to attack the full field off the threat of the run game, the Kelly concept that Day brought to Columbus helped the Buckeyes double down on what they already did well: Attack the middle.

They did this with shallow crossing route, often in the Kelly mesh concept that included a wheel route and a sit route in the middle of the field:

The progression for the QB goes wheel route, shallow cross, sit route, and then finally to the other crossing route that primarily served as a “rub” for the first crosser:

The main threat of the play is that shallow cross, which is typically run by an explosive wideout like Parris Campbell or K.J. Hill and aided by a rub that comes from the tight end. Between the wheel route and the first crosser, the linebackers are often pulled apart to create a passing window to the outside receiver who runs a sort of curl route in the middle of the field, where he can settle behind the first level of the defense.

Once teams are worried about the crossing routes and stacking the middle of the field, it becomes easier to get receivers open for the QB on quick routes outside:

Barrett wasn’t a great vertical passer at Ohio State, but he was more explosive in his senior year under Day and Wilson, when his yards per throw jumped from 6.7 to 8.2.

Meanwhile, the mesh concept and accompanying plays helped Ohio State’s run game by commanding numbers and attention outside the defensive box.

Now that Barrett’s gone, Ohio State’s offense will look more pro-style.

Replacing Barrett may actually be the easiest part of Day’s job, despite the considerable success No. 16 had Columbus. The Buckeyes have three former blue-chip QBs battling for Barrett’s old spot: redshirt junior Joe Burrow, redshirt sophomore Dwayne Haskins, and redshirt freshman Tate Martell. Haskins, who replaced Barrett during a win at Michigan last year, might be the man. No matter how it winds up, OSU should have a touted QB.

The big shift seems to be toward a more modern and pro-style approach, featuring QBs who excel as pocket passers more than runners. Kelly made a similar transition in the NFL.

Philadelphia’s Super Bowl-winning offense bested a similarly spread-influenced Patriots team with big Nick Foles behind center, hitting receivers over the middle on mesh and also throwing the ball deep and outside. If you’re Ohio State, with a line full of blue-chip maulers, a TE room full with big, versatile punishers, and then RBs like J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, you stand to gain a lot more from having a QB who can fling the ball downfield to star wideouts than from having one who can be another option in the run game.

Barrett’s running was helpful in short yardage, but Buckeyes can afford to trade that and more fully involve their receiving corps. Burrow and Haskins are both less effective runners than Barrett but bring more arm strength and accuracy throwing outside. Here’s Burrow:

Stopping the run game on third-and-1 might be easier for defenses, but preventing a touchdown on second-and-1 is going to be more complicated.

Meanwhile, in 2017 the Buckeyes’ first signing class with Day on staff included pocket passer Matthew Baldwin from Lake Travis (Texas), the same school that produced Baker Mayfield and a bunch of other Division I and pro quarterbacks. Ohio State’s been pursuing another Texas pocket passer in 2019, suggesting the Buckeyes are moving in that direction.

For years, Ohio State has gained an advantage by recruiting dual-threat QBs and using them to make the spread run game nearly unstoppable.

Now its partnership with a Kelly disciple has the Buckeyes embracing the more pro-style spread and recruiting pocket QBs who can make the offense more explosive.