COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The best weapons don’t even have to be used to be effective.
And if simply showing off the arsenal is enough to get an opponent to back down, right now that makes Dontre Wilson the ultimate deterrent for a defense.
Ohio State isn’t afraid to use the freshman hybrid as either a rusher or receiver, and there is already enough destruction on film to prove that he is far more than an idle threat when the spread offense trots Wilson out to line up with an attack that’s already dangerous without him. And while he has been explosive with the football in his hands, lately the No. 4 Buckeyes are finding even more success just by using him as a decoy, and at times they don’t even need to snap the ball to figure out how effective that approach can be.
“Dontre is an explosive kid, so they’re really trying to key in on him,” running back Carlos Hyde said. “Sometimes when we’re out there together, the defensive guys try to call out if it’s a run, ‘No. 1 is getting the ball, No. 1 is getting the ball.’
“And that’s not the case at all.”
Defenders aren’t having much luck guessing right after the play starts, either.
The Buckeyes have used him in the play-action passing game to open up acres of space for receivers down the field, sucking safeties up near the line of scrimmage as they bite on fake handoffs to Wilson.
They’ve sent him in motion out of the backfield, using the option of tossing a swing pass his way to distract defenders on the perimeter. Meanwhile, the offense works back the other direction in a package that includes two other proven game-changers in Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller, not to mention a group of wideouts led by Philly Brown and Devin Smith, who have combined for 13 touchdowns.
Of course, that deception wouldn’t be nearly as successful if Wilson didn’t get a few chances to handle the football himself. Lately he has barely needed them to keep defenses off balance, but three touches on offense were enough in last week’s blowout of Penn State to create a few more reasons for coordinators preparing for Ohio State to worry, since the speedy, elusive youngster turned them into 47 yards and a touchdown.
“He's learning to be a full‑time member, so he'll be more and more involved,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. “He's an energizer. I don't want to say we’ve mandated it, but he'll be more and more and more involved. He played very well, by the way. I mean, when I say very well, of course he carried the ball well and all that. But he did a lot of things well.
“He's pretty lethal with the ball in his hand. Wait until you see him next year.”
The Buckeyes have plenty more football ahead of them this season, though they’re already seeing the kind of physical and mental development now in Wilson that has them at least peeking at the future and his potential.
Wilson has added 15 pounds to his 5-foot-10 frame since arriving on campus, and after largely spending the first half of the season as a novelty with a small package of plays and responsibilities, his ability to quickly absorb the playbook and willingness to contribute in a variety of ways has sped up the learning curve to get him on the field more often.
And considering how valuable Wilson can be just by coming off the sideline and lining up anywhere in the formation, the more he can do that, the better an already dynamic offense can be.
“[Meyer] just wanted me to be a complete player,” Wilson said. “He wanted me to block right and just know all my assignments on every play, do the right thing when I’m in the game. I was a freshman, and I’m still a freshman. As it goes on, I get better and better every week.
“Penn State was keying on me a lot. Every time I went in the game they were watching me, and coaches were saying the same thing. But you know, I just have to make plays, and I made some plays.”
Perhaps even more important, simply sprinkling in the mere threat of Wilson making a play is opening up destructive opportunities for other Buckeyes and making life miserable for defenders.