Not too long ago, Ohio State had three viable options at the quarterback position. The incumbent starter Braxton Miller was primed to start the 2014 before injuring his shoulder. With the injury sidelining Miller, redshirt freshman JT Barrett was forced to step into the starting role, which he had not yet done before at the college level. Near the tail end of the season, Barrett too suffered an injury, but Ohio State was still safe. Cardale Jones, the third quarterback on the roster and complete afterthought at the time, assumed the starting quarterback role and finished out Ohio State’s run at a national championship.
The common denominator for the collective success was offensive coordinator and quarterback’s coach Tom Herman, who is now the head coach at the University of Houston. His accomplishments at Ohio State stretch even earlier than the 2014-2015 season, though. In 2013, Miller was the starting quarterback but found himself injured for a few games here and there, particularly early in the season. In Miller’s absence, Kenny Guiton (who is now a GA under Herman at the University of Houston) stepped in at quarterback and Ohio State did not lose a step. Guiton showed a profound understanding of and confidence in Herman’s offense that allowed the team to stay on track despite being without their star quarterback.
Between Miller’s progression as a passer and Guiton’s surprising functionality under Herman, there were early signs that the Buckeyes had someone special coordinating their offense. Fast forward to the 2014 season and it becomes clear that Herman is a brilliant mind. He did not make drastic adjustments based on the quarterback behind center, per say, but he did adjust very well to opponents throughout the year.
For example, read-option looks are a staple for Ohio State and certainly were under Herman. Herman adapted the concept to his opponents, though. In Ohio State’s first game of the 2014 season, vs Virginia Tech, Herman molded the concept to both fit then starting quarterback JT Barrett and counter the defense. Herman installed a sort of counter-option in which one of the skill players in the backfield pulls in front of Barrett to block for him.
This tweaked concept plays on two factors. First, Barrett is more of an agile runner than a powerful runner, making options in which he can take an outside path even more fitting for his skill set. On top of that, Virginia Tech plays a very aggressive style of defense and Herman intended to expose that with by drawing in the defense to one side of the formation and pulling a running back (#7) to give a numbers advantage on the true play side. This is only a minor adjustment to an already sound concept, but the Buckeyes quarterbacks struggled mightily against Virginia Tech’s run defense in 2015 without Herman.
Herman’s influence stretches well into the passing game, too, of course. His most admirable trait as an offensive mind is that he adjusts well to defenses and understands their play styles. Herman’s gameplans blend the staples of his offense with tweaks and variations that expose specific defenses. Ohio State’s championship run a couple years back exemplifies this most.
In the first round of the college football playoff, Ohio State had to face Alabama. The game was only Cardale Jones’s second start and Alabama had one of the most menacing defenses in the country, as they always do. Alabama’s defense is generally aggressive, though, both in their scheme and in their mentality. Between Ezekiel Elliott’s elite rushing talent and Jones’s ability to push the ball down the field, Herman saw an opportunity to expose Alabama’s aggression and use it against them.
Herman rolled out a lot of empty sets and play action calls, both giving Alabama fits for one reason or another. The empty sets spread out an Alabama defense that was not particularly known for their speed. These calls were a counter to Alabama’s pass rushing pressure because they allowed Jones to get the ball out fast. Likewise, the play action calls caught Alabama’s defenders cheating from time to time, opening up throwing lanes for Jones. With as talented a runner as Elliott was, any suspicion of him running the ball was terrifying for the defense, making play action that much more effective. Herman saw Alabama’s aggressive nature and fought fire with fire; a bold strategy to use against Nick Saban.
Their next matchup was entirely different. As opposed to Alabama’s fiery and aggressive style, Ohio State was faced with playing Oregon in the National Championship. Oregon tends to rush only three or four players at a time, leaving plenty of players in coverage. They played a very conservative style of defense at the time. It was rare to see more than four rushers and most coverage were soft zone shells that were worried about the big play much more than anything else. Herman made one major change to combat this style of defense.
Herman made great use of short perimeter throws to force the Oregon defense to be honest. In essence, these plays acted as the rushing plays that would normally set up deeper shots down the field. After a few perimeter strikes, Herman would follow up with a verticals concept that squeezed the running back out of the backfield on a “flare” route, as if Jones was going to throw to the perimeter again. With the defense hesitating on the shorter routes, Jones was able to find a few big plays over the top.
Deep route combos had been in the cards for Ohio State all year, though. Barrett, the original starter, did not have the same competency that Jones did down the field, thus Herman used more zone-read concepts with Barrett instead of the play-action deep passing that Jones saw more of. Herman knew who he had at quarterback and adapted his play calling to them, just as he adapted his game plan to the defenses Ohio State faced.
Prior to the championship season, Herman’s offenses had two great years at Ohio State. To no surprise, Herman’s three successful years being topped off by a national championship garnered him legitimate head coach attention. Following the national championship, Herman left the Buckeyes for the University of Houston. The 2015 season was Herman’s first in Houston, but he made the absolute most of it.
Houston put up a respectable 8-5 record the year before Herman took over as head ball coach. Though, for someone who just won the national championship, 8-5 was not going to be good enough.. With Herman as their head coach, Houston lost just one game (a 20-17 loss to UConn). They won their conference championship, topping Memphis, who also had exceedingly impressive season. Houston also rolled Florida State in the Peach Bowl, taking home the trophy with a comfortable 38-24 win. While Houston’s success was certainly an all around effort, a lot of the credit can be given to Herman’s starting quarterback and fringe Heisman candidate: Greg Ward Jr..
Ward struggles in a lot of areas as a passer, but he played better last year than would have been expected. His incredible athleticism also allows him to get away with things no other quarterback can and that helps mask some of his deficiencies. Ward has a weak arm and questionable urgency as a passer, but his ability to pick up yards on his own helps him avoid having to throw into traffic or throw at all. Herman concocted an offense suited just for Ward, though it had a familiar feel to it.
With both Miller and Barrett at Ohio State, Herman emphasized certain concepts more than he did with Guiton and Jones. For one, Herman funneled more of the deep passing to the seam instead of the sideline. This does a few things for his weaker armed passers. For one, throws down the middle of the field generally make it easier for the passer to comfortably set himself up for the throw. There really is no angle that they are having to throw; it is a straight shot down the field that requires the passer to be better with anticipation and arc. This style of deep passing was more fit for Ward, who struggles both with velocity and looking comfortable as a thrower.
Herman also added more perimeter based zone-read concepts and quick flare routes with Ward, Barrett and Miller than he did with his stronger armed passers. Not only does this take off some pressure from the quarterback, but it reduces the amount of times the quarterback has to push the ball through a window that their arm may not be ample enough to complete. Using more of these concepts minimizes risk while still getting the ball into an athlete’s hands quickly. Sometimes football needs to be that simple and Herman understands that.
Under Herman, Ward was able to boost his production immensely. He improved in nearly every statistical category as a passer, most notably improving his 7.6 yards per attempt to 8.2 yards per attempt. Though, it was the freedom and power Herman granted to Ward as an athlete that truly made Ward’s year special. In 2014, Ward ran for 573 yards and only six touchdowns. With Herman controlling the offense, Ward doubled his yardage to 1,114 yards and racked up a whopping 21 rushing touchdowns. A lot of what Ward was able to accomplish on the ground helped open up the passing game for him- a common trend for quarterbacks under Herman.
No matter the player, Herman has one underlying trait that he is able to instill in all of his quarterbacks: confidence. Herman breeds a culture that makes players feel comfortable in their abilities as a player. There is a noticeable difference when comparing and contrasting quarterbacks who have played both with and without Herman. Just last year, Ohio State’s offense was not nearly up to par with the offenses Herman constructed at Ohio State. There was a major quarterback battle that was not decided until the huddle before the Buckeyes’s first drive of the season. Though Jones was given the keys to the offense originally, he and Barrett went back and forth for the remainder of the season, killing the confidence of both quarterbacks. Both of them played with a sense of fear that they might lose their job, as opposed to playing to fight and create big plays.
Tom Herman has had undeniable success in recent years. His success is no gimmick, either. He has shown he can make an offense run at a high level with plenty of different quarterbacks of different archetypes. Herman knows how to mold offenses to the quarterback and make them feel confident in both the system and their own abilities. He has proven he can adjust to new quarterbacks on the fly, as well as adapt to different defenses to further help out his quarterback. Herman has proven to be a rare mind that knows how to adapt quickly to anything and maximize his key players. Truly, he is one of college football’s offensive minded gems.