The Evolution of Urban Meyer's Most Important Position

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterSeptember 16, 2015

Sep 12, 2015; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Braxton Miller (1) runs the ball in the second half of the game against the Hawaii Warriors at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State beat Hawaii 38-0. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Despite the sluggishness that accompanied its 38-0 outing against Hawaii, at least one action from the Ohio State offense consistently drew oohs and aahs on Saturday.

And they often came before the ball was even snapped.

On eight different occasions during the Buckeyes' victory over the Rainbow Warriors, Braxton Miller lined up next to the Ohio State quarterback, only to have the signal-caller motion away and split out wide. In result, Miller was the lone member of the Buckeyes backfield, leaving little doubt—and plenty of excitement—as to who would be taking the ensuing snap.

After all, this was the same formation that led to Miller's epic 53-yard spin move-highlighted touchdown run against Virginia Tech just five days prior.

Officially, Miller is listed as a "Quarterback/H-back" on Ohio State's roster, but for all intents and purposes, his position title might as well be "offensive weapon." It's a role that Meyer has highlighted in his offense ever since he became the head coach at Bowling Green in 2001, a spot reserved for players with speed who can use diverse skill sets to get the ball put in their hands in numerous ways.

"We put the APB out every year for the multidimensional athlete on offense," Meyer said last November. "Over the years, that position has evolved."

It's also a role that may not have been a part of Urban Meyer's playbook if not for a painful conversation that took place 15 years ago.

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Miller is the latest incarnation of the position, a quarterback-turned-wideout who has already totaled 18 touches—five receptions, 13 carries—in the first two games of the 2015 season. But the first version of Meyer's hybrid role came in his final season as the wide receivers coach at Notre Dame in 2000, after the Fighting Irish suffered an early-season overtime defeat to No. 1-ranked Nebraska.

It was there in the Notre Dame locker room that Meyer found an upset David Givens, the then-junior visibly frustrated by a stat line that consisted of just one reception for nine yards on the day.

At the time, Meyer assumed that the Fighting Irish wideout was just drained by the circumstances that surrounded his team's close defeat at the hands of the nation's top-ranked team. But the conversation that followed turned out to have a much longer-lasting effect on Meyer's coaching career than he ever anticipated it would.

"He was really emotional," Meyer said of Givens. "I said, 'It's going to be OK, man. We'll bounce back.' He said, 'You don't understand, Coach. I didn't touch the ball.' He wasn't saying it like some kids, like, 'I need the damn ball,' not like that. Just, he didn't feel he helped the team win.

"I remember walking in the locker room, and I was very upset with myself that we did not get him the ball."

David Givens during his playing days at Notre Dame
David Givens during his playing days at Notre DameTom Pidgeon/Getty Images

But at a position where so much of a player's availability is dependent on what else is happening on the field—namely with the quarterback and the coverage—that's sometimes difficult to do.

"It's hard to get receivers the ball," Meyer said. "If they roll up on you or double you, you can't get them the ball."

That, however, wouldn't stop Meyer from trying, especially considering that in his words, Givens was Notre Dame's "best player." The result was a strategy that didn't rely on Givens to just catch passes but to get the ball in his hands by any means necessary, whether it be by reception, reverse or even direct snap.

By the end of the year, the 6'3", 212-pounder led the Notre Dame wide receivers in playing time, compiling 411 yards of total offense and four touchdowns on 25 receptions and 24 rushing attempts in Bob Davie's option offense.

When Meyer accepted the head coaching job at Bowling Green at the end of the year, he took his new philosophy with him. And at the end of Meyer's first 13 seasons as a head coach, a player with a stat line as unique as Givens' can often be found.

At Bowling Green it was Cole Magner, a wideout and part-time backup quarterback who caught 13 passes and attempted 22 rushes for a combined 244 yards and two touchdowns and also attempted eight passes, one of which resulted in a touchdown for the Falcons in 2001. The following year, Magner tallied 455 yards and four touchdowns on 26 receptions and 11 carries, adding three more touchdowns on five pass attempts.

Setting sail for Salt Lake City in 2003, Meyer found himself with new multipurpose weapons to play with at Utah in the forms of wide receiver Paris Warren (933 yards, five touchdowns on 76 receptions and 20 carries in 2003) and tight end/running back Ben Moa (517 yards, nine touchdowns on 31 carries and 26 receptions in 2003).

Urban Meyer with multipurpose player Paris Warren at Utah.
Urban Meyer with multipurpose player Paris Warren at Utah.ROY DABNER/Associated Press

In 2004, Warren's performance (1,233 yards, 14 touchdowns on 80 receptions and 28 carries) was complemented by the play of wide receiver Steve Savoy, who compiled 1,268 yards and 17 touchdowns on 67 receptions and 22 rushes as the Utes put together a perfect 12-0 season.

It wasn't until his time at Florida, however, that Meyer's new hybrid position truly came to prominence. It was there that Meyer recruited a 5-star wide receiver named Percy Harvin, who took no shortage of snaps from the backfield during the Gators' run to the national title in 2006.

Tallying 3,781 yards of total offense and 32 touchdowns on 133 receptions and 194 rushes in the three seasons that made up his college career, Harvin epitomized the multi-skill athlete on whom Meyer had come to place such a premium.

Chris Rainey (3,259, 19 touchdowns on 396 rushes and 69 receptions from 2007-11) and Jeff Demps (2,951 yards, 24 touchdowns on 367 carries and 57 receptions from 2008-11) each played roles similar to Harvin's in Meyer's Florida offense, but neither were able to do so with the same impact as the eventual first-round pick.

"I don't think I've ever been around a more dynamic athlete," Meyer said of Harvin this past July.

Arriving at Ohio State in 2012, Meyer inherited a roster that outside of Miller—then the team's starting quarterback—was short on offensive playmakers. Meyer tried high school running back-turned-wide receiver Corey "Philly" Brown in what fans had begun to call the "Percy Harvin position," but his 765 yards and four touchdowns on 60 receptions and 11 carries was hardly reminiscent of the former Gator star's production.

In 2013, Meyer's roster in Columbus began to reflect his recruiting, with 4-star running back Dontre Wilson being hailed by some as Meyer's next Harvin before he ever arrived on campus. With 460 yards and three touchdowns on 31 carries and 22 receptions, the DeSoto, Texas, native just scratched the surface of his potential at his new position.

The following year, Wilson tallied 400 yards and three touchdowns on 21 receptions and 18 carries before a fractured foot in early November cut his season short. In his absence, Jalin Marshall emerged as Meyer's most versatile player since his days in Gainesville, with the high school quarterback-turned-wideout compiling 644 yards of total offense and seven touchdowns on 38 receptions and 22 carries.

"You like moving those checkers around when you can have guys that can take direct snaps," Meyer said. "If he's a great player, he's going to touch the football."

This season, both Wilson and Marshall return to the Ohio State roster, joined in their H-back stable by sophomore Curtis Samuel (478 yards, six touchdowns on 58 carries and 11 receptions in 2014). But if the first two games of the Buckeyes' 2015 campaign have been any indication, it will Miller who will be most relied upon to alleviate pressure from star running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterbacks Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett.

Already proven as a runner and having shown early polish as a receiver, Miller could very well be the next evolution of the position that has set Meyer's spread offenses apart from all the others.

With his history as a quarterback—Miller insists he can still throw following the torn labrum that cost him his 2014 season and career as a signal-caller—it's only a matter of time before Meyer calls on the 6'2", 215-pounder to unleash a new dynamic in what's already become one of college football's most versatile positions.

"The next part of that is: How do you create space for them?," Meyer said. "That's a little more complicated when people know you're not going to throw.

"The good thing is Braxton can throw—and will."

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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