Gameday+ | Curtis Samuel's high school coach saw he was born to be a hybrid back
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Before Curtis Samuel knew at what position his future lay in football, Danny Landberg already had the vision.
A devotee of Urban Meyer, his spread offense and especially his novel use of hybrid back Percy Harvin while Meyer was at Florida in the late 2000s, Landberg - coach at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, New York - saw Samuel filling that role well before Samuel even knew what it meant.
"Going into high school I really didn't know what to expect," Samuel said. "I thought I was coming into high school to play running back. But he just told me he knew what to do with me, he'd put me in the right position to succeed, and it went well for me.
"He put me at the H back position, and from there I learned so many things, just playing a little bit of receiver in high school and a lot of running back, so when I finally came here it was a much easier transition for me than just going from running back straight to receiver. I thank coach Landberg a lot."
By "here" he meant Ohio State, for whom Samuel is the key playmaker on Meyer's offense headed into tonight's College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson at the University of Phoenix Stadium. Samuel is the only major college player with more than 700 yards in both rushing (702) and receiving (822). He leads the Buckeyes in the latter category.
He's also one of the few players in the country playing hybrid back, lining up at a slot receiver position one play, perhaps at running back the next. Not many coaches have the foresight or the confidence to lean on one player so heavily, but Meyer proved what could be done with such versatility when Harvin helped power Florida's national championship teams in 2006 and 2008.
Landberg, a rising star in the coaching ranks at the time in the New York area, paid attention. He took notes. Then when he saw a Harvin-type come his way in the fall of 2011, he told Samuel, then a sophomore, of his plan.
"We were just more or less a match made in heaven, because he was just a running back, and I had it in my head - I envisioned my style of football through Urban Meyer," Danny said. "So we always knew that he'd go play for him. I always knew that he was more than just a running back. I knew the whole point of putting him in space, and that's what they're doing with him today."
Putting him in space meant getting the ball to Samuel out on the edges in the passing game, or on counters, quick wide tosses and such out of the backfield where he possibly would have to make just one defender miss and he could be off to the races. What made Samuel even more dangerous then, and it endures, is he can run real running back plays, also.
Like up between the tackles or like on his 15-yard run into Ohio State lore for the winning touchdown in double overtime against Michigan, on a lead play where he can be counted on not simply to run to the sideline but to cut it up when a crack is revealed.
"The way he looks right now is exactly the way he looked as a senior in high school for us," Landberg said. "He's playing against children right now."
Or at least he's making it appear that way. In this, his junior season, Samuel has become much better not only at catching passes but running pass routes. He was the Buckeyes' leading pass catcher by more than double (62) in the regular season. His confidence as a receiver also has soared.
"I definitely feel like my hands are as good as anybody's on the team," Samuel said.
A year ago, he was almost an afterthought in an offense in which former quarterback Braxton Miller was the primary hybrid back, but now Samuel is the primary thought more often than not.
"Just because I'm getting the ball more this year doesn't mean it wasn't fun for me last year; it was definitely fun for me last year," Samuel said. "But this year is definitely fun, just because of the guys I'm playing with. I love those guys, everybody on the team, especially my unit room, Zone6 (the wide receivers' enclave). I love those guys, and everything I do, I do for them."
So he's a running back who thinks like a receiver, or maybe it's vice versa. For sure he will have Clemson wondering the same from play to play tonight.
"That's someone obviously we'll focus on," said Clemson's Carlos Watkins, and he's a defensive tackle. "We've got to find out where he's at, because he's a threat (on any play). He can line up wide, he can get in the backfield and break - you've got to know where he's at all times."
As the season progressed, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said it was obvious from video study that opponents adjusted things based on the whereabouts of Samuel.
"Michigan attempted to do that, and there were sometimes where, OK, that's good," Venables said. "But some other times, when you're trying to be (so) perfectly matched up that it screws everything else up and they gave up some plays - everybody is trying to adjust off one guy, and that's a lot harder to do than you think, because they move him everywhere."
Landberg is among those who is pulling for this season to be only the precursor for the grand finale of Samuel's college career. Samuel has the option of applying for the NFL draft.
"If he decides to come back for his senior year, which I hope he does, we're talking he could be one of the greats in Ohio State history," Landberg said. "That's what I'm hoping for."
Ohio State vs. Clemson
Kickoff:7 p.m., University of Phoenix Stadium (63,400), Glendale, Arizona
Favorite:Ohio State by 3
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