Has Ohio State’s ‘H-back’ position disappeared?
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Are the Buckeyes recruiting anybody for the H-back position for the 2019 class? Who are they going after the hardest versus who do you think they have the best chance at landing?
— Jared Duncan (@buckeyefan686) March 28, 2018
The “H-back” position (keep your eye on those quotation marks, to be explained a little later) holds an interesting spot in the hearts of fans of Ohio State recruiting. When Urban Meyer arrived in Columbus, some of the Buckeyes’ top recruits and targets were tabbed as the next Percy Harvin — players who were equally deadly running or catching the football and who provided a dynamic threat all over the field.
Whether it was Curtis Samuel, Dontre Wilson, Jalin Marshall, Parris Campbell or someone else entirely, the Buckeyes always had the next superstar H-back waiting in the wings.
But here’s the thing — I’m not so sure the position exists in the same way it once did.
It may be pedantic, but the H-back has never technically existed. Ohio State uses an H receiver, which is just their designation for receiver playing in the slot. The slot receiver is the H, the outside receivers are X and Z and tight end is Y. While in the past, many believed H-back stood for hybrid back — a reference to their dual-threat run-and-catch ability — the position is now truly resembling its actual designation as a slot receiver.
In the 2012 season, Meyer’s first with the Buckeyes, Ohio State attempted 12 rushes with slot wide receivers. That number jumped to 35 in 2013, climbed to 50 in 2014 and 62 in 2015, peaked at 167 in 2016, and plummeted to 26 in 2017.
There could be several different explanations for this, both from a personnel and scheme perspective. If you want to look at personnel, the easy explanation is that Ohio State had a lot of talented players with backgrounds running the football and not all of them could be running backs.
From the 2013 through 2016 seasons, the Buckeyes featured players such as Ezekiel Elliott, Carlos Hyde, Samuel, Wilson, Braxton Miller, Marshall, Campbell and Demario McCall as offensive weapons. All of them either had a background at the college or high school level as a run-first quarterback (Miller and Marshall, the latter at the high school level) or as a straight running back.
Samuel, Wilson, Miller, Campbell, McCall and Marshall are some of Ohio State’s most prominent H receivers in recent years and you could make the argument that it was their unique skill-set as electric runners with a background running between the tackles that made it feasible for Ohio State to run the ball with receivers so frequently. When the number of wide receivers carries peaked in 2016, four of them shared the roster together.
During the 2017 season, Ohio State primarily featured Campbell and K.J. Hill as the H receivers, as McCall missed most of the season with an injury. Although Campbell did play some running back in high school, he’s been nothing but a receiver in college. He’s attempted only 14 rushes in his Buckeyes career and Hill has just 2 rushing attempts.
Even if McCall stays healthy, it feels unlikely that he supplants Campbell or Hill for many snaps during the upcoming season. Is it possible that Ohio State simply wants the H position to function as a true slot receiver with less focus on involvement in the running game? I think that the Buckeyes’ recruiting efforts would reflect that.
Ohio State did sign all-purpose back Jaelen Gill in 2018, an elite local recruit who’s expected to play the H spot when he arrives on campus in June. But Gill is an elite athlete with the rare skill-set to contribute on offense in essentially any capacity who just happened to grow up in the Buckeyes’ backyard.
He was a priority recruit for Ohio State not because of his ability to be a Samuel clone and split his efforts running and catching the ball, but because he’s so damn explosive and talented with the ball in his hands that the program just had to have him. Figuring out how he fits into an exact position is a secondary concern.
In the 2019 class, almost no prospect Ohio State has seriously recruited seems likely to fill the shoes of Samuel, McCall, or Wilson as players with a close-to-equal split between receptions and rushes.
Four-star Virginia running back Devyn Ford and 5-star Missouri athlete Isaiah Williams, both top 100 players nationally, are maybe the only players that qualify. However, Ford seems more likely to become a true running back and wants to play that position. Williams, an Illinois commit, is a high school quarterback who could play slot receiver or corner. He’s more of a wild-card, but still looks like more of a true receiver than a running back-turned-receiver.
Ford is a big-time Buckeyes priority — he’ll visit campus twice in April — but the overwhelming likelihood is that he’s a running back if he were to choose Ohio State. That’s his expectation and what he’s heard from the coaching staff, for the most part.
If the offensive transition in 2017 is indicative of a philosophical switch, we may not see Ohio State continue to pursue what are thought of as H-back recruits. The rare recruit gifted enough (read: Gill, Jaelen; McCall, Demario) to make a huge impact in both capacities could be offered the opportunity, but a clear divide between who is a running back and who is a receiver may help both position groups in the future.
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