Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett has two completed passes this season that have exceeded 31 yards.
Neither were thrown beyond 10 yards down the field.
Despite the deep ball being a point of emphasis for both the offense and head coach Urban Meyer heading into this season, Ohio State has yet to mold the deep aerial attack into its gameplan. But as long as short passes are picking up yards in bulk, the offense will take what it can get.
And members of the offense believe bubble screen passes and short crossing routes can be the key to success against any team.
“I think those plays can work against anybody, and I say that because I think we’re one of the best perimeter blocking receiver groups out there. That’s all it is,” wide receiver Johnnie Dixon said.
But what is the key to making those short passes work?
“You block good out there and it pops,” Dixon said. “A guy like [H-back Parris Campbell] touches the ball and you see what he can do. He’s quick. Give him the ball in space and lights out.”
The longest pass of the season came on a short crossing route to Campbell two yards in front of the line of scrimmage that he took 74 yards for a touchdown in the season opener against Indiana. The second-longest came on a pass two yards behind the line of scrimmage to Campbell that the speedy wideout took 69 yards to the house in last Saturday’s game against UNLV.
Beyond the receiver, the constant in both plays were blocks on the perimeters by wideouts that freed up a lane on the sideline for Campbell to explode. The first by redshirt junior Terry McLaurin and the second by sophomore Austin Mack.
Blocking is not an easy mindset for receivers to get into, particularly those who are younger, Dixon said. But once those involved in the passing game are given a sense of the value placed on blocking in the offense, it becomes less of a chore and more of a glorified responsibility.
“I mean I guess when you first come in, like you really don’t know the system as well, I guess. But you see a guy like [former Ohio State wideout] Evan Spencer out there, pouring it out every block. You realize like that’s a big part of what we do,” Dixon said. “Definitely gains you a lot of respect.”
Sometimes, however, blocking can lead to penalties. If executed poorly, a receiver can be called for holding.
This happened twice in Ohio State’s game against Army. Early in the game, Mack caught a pass for 17 yards that was brought back 10 yards by a holding call on McLaurin. Two drives later, Campbell took a handoff out of the backfield and carried it for a long touchdown, but it was brought back on a holding penalty on Mack.
“I think the reason we had those holds against Army, it wasn’t a technique issue, it was more of an effort issue,” Campbell said. “When we block, we try to finish guys. You know, so we just take a lot of pride in that. So I think that’s where a lot of those holding issues come from. But, yeah so it’s not a technique issue, I think it’s an effort issue . . . You don’t need to put a guy on his back every single time.”
The ability to block has become a crucial part of the offense, and Meyer said he expects it out of all his wide receivers.
“We take great pride, whether we are or not is of opinion, but we expect to be the best blocking wide receivers in America, and there’s a group right there that go really hard downfield for each other and for other skill guys with the ball,” Meyer said in his press conference Monday.
However, that blocking skill is not something that comes easily. To effectively block, a player needs more than just the skill and the mindset to block. That player also needs the size and strength to hold off the defender.
Even after sophomore walk-on H-back C.J. Saunders caught six passes for 102 yards and a touchdown on Saturday against UNLV, he was far from securing playing time because of that size and inability to block. Standing at only 5-foot-11, 176 pounds, Saunders has a long way to go before he is ready to see regular playing time.
“C.J., you can’t be a hood ornament. That means you’ve got to be able to block and be able to do all the things. We’ve had trouble before with the smaller guys. They can’t play,” Meyer said after the game Saturday. “And so his issue is can he get strong enough to play at this level because he’s got the shake. He’s got the hands. He’s got the courage. He’s got the go-to, will-to. But gotta get stronger.”
For Ohio State, the ability to block and open up lanes for the receivers could be one of the most important keys to success for the offense moving forward. And even though the offense would like to connect on more deep passes, the players believe if they block well, the deep ball will eventually emerge as a weapon.
“I think it makes people aware more like you’ve got to come up and attack that bubble hard because it’s like I said, once Parris touches it, it’s over, even K.J.,” Dixon said. “I think it would be big once we get to hitting [deep passes].”