Curtis Samuel, a 5-foot-11, 196-pound freshman, gained 45 yards on seven carries against Navy. Jim Davidson/O-Zone
COLUMBUS — Danny Landberg coaches high school football at the New York City alma mater of Bobby Fischer, and professes a love for the “chess match” of the sport.
In 2003, Landberg became so enamored with Utah’s shovel option play — a triple option with an inside shovel pass as the first choice — that he had to meet the man behind it. He packed his notebook when then-Utes coach Urban Meyer appeared at a coaches clinic at the Tropicana Resort in Atlantic City, N.J.
“I spent all day listening to him talk and installing his stuff right after that,” said Landberg, the coach at Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn. “I've followed him ever since.”
Landberg continued to pattern his offense after Meyer’s, and when he came upon the fortune to coach one of the most dynamic players in the nation, he had an idea where the prospect might fit.
Today, Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel could be evolving into one of Meyer’s most dynamic chess pieces. The 5-foot-11, 196-pound freshman packs a combination of speed — Samuel was a state runner-up in the 55-yard dash — and toughness that have shoved him into an unexpectedly prominent role on the eighth-ranked Buckeyes.
For all of Meyer’s annual vows to further involve his heralded freshmen, Samuel was the only newcomer to play either offense or defense in the Buckeyes’ 34-17 opening win over Navy. He finished with 45 yards on seven carries, leading a still-unsettled rotation of backs vying to replace the departed Carlos Hyde.
“He has a bright future,” Meyer said afterward.
When a reporter then asked if he was the best running back on the team, the coach appeared surprised.
"Is he the best on the team? I don't ... ," he said. "We have four pretty good ones."
Only one of them, though, has spent his football life as if preparing to play in Ohio State’s spread-option offense.
When Samuel came to Erasmus Hall High School, Landberg knew just how he would use him. That’s because he had studied the runs and sweeps and passes Meyer had used to get his bullet H-back, Percy Harvin, the ball in open space at Florida. He borrowed the same plays, telling his student, “Curtis, that’s exactly how we're going to utilize you here.”
And so they did, riding him to unprecedented success. Take the 2012 Public School Athletic League Championship game at Yankee Stadium. Though Samuel was injury-prone earlier that year and often used as a decoy, Landberg knew what needed to happen for Erasmus Hall to claim its first city title.
“I told our coaches, ‘I don't ever like to say things like this, but I'm going to guarantee this city championship right now if we give Curtis the ball 20 times,’ ” Landberg said.
Samuel ran for 117 yards on exactly 20 carries, caught three passes for 41 yards, and churned up the middle for the game-winning two-point conversion in a 15-14 win.
Rated the No. 8 receiver prospect by Rivals.com, Samuel came to Ohio State to be a hybrid run-catch threat. But after enrolling early and packing on 15 pounds, Samuel switched full-time to running back. It was a position of greater need and he vowed he could withstand the hits, saying, “I feel like I’m physical enough to run inside.”
Samuel is listed as one of three possible starters along with sophomore Ezekiel Elliott and senior Rod Smith, though it appears a two-man battle between Samuel and Elliott.
“I love that kid,” Meyer said of Samuel before the season, “and man, oh, man, does he go hard.”
From the Big Apple to one of college football’s biggest stages, Samuel embraces the opportunity — wherever that may be. Many expect Samuel to evolve into more of a hybrid role — the H-back slot shared by Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall.
If given the chance to run free, Samuel’s former coach believes he can be Meyer’s next do-it-all standout. Heck, maybe even a Harvin, the former track star who helped lead Florida to the 2008 national title.
“Listen, I don't want to sound cocky about it,” Landberg said, ”but I think he can be better. He can be better.”