Lots of returning weapons

Sophomore O’Shaan Allison led Ohio with 869 rushing yards in 2019. Allison is one of seven players returning for OU in 2020 who amassed at least 250 yards rushing or receiving in 2019.

When you look at the offensive numbers created the last three seasons by Ohio University, you’re left with one dilemma.

Is the stretch — the best period of extended offense in program history — attributed to the singular talents of quarterback Nathan Rourke, or 15 years of refinement and talent acquisition of the offensive system?

Or is it a perfect marriage of both?

A more definite answer to the question could come next fall. Ohio (7-6 in 2019) will try to make it four straight seasons of dominating offense in 2020, but it will be the first in this run without Rourke — the Canadian play-making quarterback.

The Bobcats leaned heavily on Rourke, a three-year starter, in 2019.

“He was everything for us,” said Ohio head coach Frank Solich about Rourke, leading up and after the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

“I’ve never been around a guy who has done it all, everything you ask a quarterback to do, better than he has,” said Ohio QB coach Scott Isphording.

“They followed his lead,” said Ohio Offensive Coordinator Tim Albin. “He’s a worker. They’ll all do work without Nate, but there’s a standard to hold and Nate’s held them to it.”

Rourke became Ohio’s first First Team All-MAC QB in handful of generations this season after completing 61 percent of his throws for 2,820 yards, 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He rushed for 867 yards and 13 touchdowns while averaging 5.6 yards per carry. With unproven skill position players across the offense, Rourke was the driving force, the model of consistency and the leader Ohio needed.

And Rourke will depart with his name etched across the offensive record book. He’ll leave as one of the most decorated players in program history, and if you tried to detail each and every notable offensive record or top 10 list that Rourke is a part of, you’d need pages — not column inches — to do it justice.

But here’s a brief primer on everything Rourke did over the last three years. He’ll leave with the highest career passing rating in program history (146.5) and no player in Ohio history has had more yards of total offense (10,091), touchdowns accounted for (111) or total touchdowns scored (51). Rourke’s career average of 8.3 yards per pass attempt is the best in program history, and his career 7.7 yards per play is also an Ohio record — and ranks third in MAC history.

And with Rourke at the controls, Ohio’s offense reached unparalleled heights. In 2019, Ohio finished second in the MAC in scoring offense (34.8 ppg) and third in total offense. OU led the MAC in yards per rushing attempt, yards per passing attempt, yards per play and third down conversion percentage.

In Ohio history, only 2018 (40.1 ppg) and 2017 (39.1 ppg) — both seasons with Rourke also as the primary starting QB — graded out better in those major metrics. Ohio was expected to slip a bit offensively in 2019, with the turnover at virtually every position, but it was merely a stumble and not a fall.

“The numbers, when you consider who we lost, are pretty impressive. But the most impressive thing to me is we don’t have 1,000-yard rusher, we don’t have a 1,000-yard receiver,” Albin said. “We were replacing two of those and a 1,000-yard receiver.”

Rourke’s experience helped, so did the job Allen Rudolph did as a first-year assistant on a reworked offensive line. And Ohio was able to cash in some game appearances, in 2018, for that young corps of skill position players that emerged in 2019.

“Having an experienced quarterback helped us get through some of the growing pains of the youth early in the season,” Albin said. “So having Nate was a huge help.

“The second thing…is those four games. (WR) Shane (Hooks) played in four games (in 2018), (RB) O’Shaan (Allison) played in a couple. (OG Kurt)) Danneker played in three games. That contributed.

“They were young but they got some experience.”

And Ohio won’t be starting from scratch in 2020. Rourke will be gone, and so will starting offensive tackles Austen Pleasants and Marques Grimes, and starting center Steven Hayes. But among OU’s starting 11 players for the bowl game, eight are projected to return. Of the 22 on the two-deep, 19 are projected to return.

“We got to find a quarterback,” Albin said. “And we need to continue to develop guys.

“If we do that, we can be good again.”

Here’s a look at each of the position groups, with some thoughts about what’s returning and what was lost.

QUARTERBACK

This spot will be the highlight item of the offseason for Ohio. Rourke is moving on, to either the NFL or the CFL, and there is no clear heir apparent, or much depth, at this point.

Redshirt freshman Kurtis Rourke, Nathan’s younger brother, figures to battle early-enrollee freshman C.J. Harris for top honors this spring.

Beyond the two young guys, there’s little to ponder at this point. Fourth-year junior Drew Keszei played wideout all season, before switching back to QB for the bowl game. Will he stay at quarterback throughout spring camp?

Walk-on Naylan Yates is still on board, and redshirt junior K.J. Minter — another wide receiver — took quarterback reps in bowl practices. Neither is seen a long-term answer.

OU is expected to add at least one more quarterback at some point during the off-season, either a D-I transfer or a junior college transfer.

Whoever wins the job will be learning on the fly. Ohio returns just one passing attempt (Keszei) from the 2019 season.

RUNNING BACK

There’s lots of reason to excited here for Ohio, but how will the Bobcats’ one-back offense be impacted without Nathan Rourke in the mix?

With Rourke, OU’s bevy of backs all had chances to make an impact. Sophomore O’Shaan Allison was the team’s leading rusher (869 yards, 6.3 average, 6 TDs) and proved the most adept at getting the most out of every carry.

But senior De’Montre Tuggle (644 yards, 6.4 average, 11 TDs) was electrifying in spots and had the best ‘big’ run ratio. Rourke led OU with 41 ‘chunk’ runs (10+ yards), and Allison had 18 on 138 carries. Tuggle had 15 on just 101 total carries.

Junior Julian Ross (284, 3.7 average) wasn’t quite the same after an early-season shoulder injury, but ran better in the bowl game. Senior Ja’Vahri Portis (168, 6.0 average, 4 TDs) was terrific in short stints.

Ohio never got to use redshirt freshman Walter Wilbon II in 2019. And with a new QB, there may be more work in the offense for the group — which ran the ball 59 percent of the time in ’19.

WIDE RECEIVER

Ohio, despite a constantly rotating cast of characters, showed off the young talent here all season long.

Sophomore Shane Hooks (26 catches, 515 yards, 5 TDs) had 15 ‘chunk’ (15+ yards) plays and averaged a whopping 19.8 yards per catch. He wasn’t always a factor in the passing game, but no other player showed as much potential this season.

Junior Isiah Cox (39-663, 17.0, 2 TDs) blossomed and led Ohio with 70 targets this season. He became a legitimate No. 1 receiver and paced OU with 19 ‘chunk’ receptions.

Sophomore slot receivers Jerome Buckner and Ty Walton effective combined for 36 catches, more than 500 yards, three touchdowns and 12 ‘chunk’ plays in 2019. Buckner had some injury issues, but with 64 targets between them, the duo proved effective in always giving OU a tough-to-guard small, quick weapon in the slot.

All four should get better with a full off-season to develop as well.

Senior Cameron Odom (19-207) had a disappointing season as he tried to play all year with a nagging foot injury. Senior Tyler Tupa was big in a couple of different games (9-119, 2 TDs) but a myriad of injuries wiped out most of his season. Junior K.J. Minter has a chance to break through this season as he got his first meaningful reps this season.

All told, Ohio will return 196 of the 203 receptions hauled in by the TE/WR group, and 64 of 70 chunk plays the group provided.

TIGHT ENDS

Ohio returns each of its top three tight ends, three promising freshmen who all earned redshirts, and finally returning to utilizing the group more in the passing game.

Fifth-year senior Ryan Luehrman, behind Tuggle and Hooks, was one of several breakthrough talents for OU in 2019. He was targeted 44 times, finished second on the roster with 28 catches, and was effective down the field with five touchdowns, a 12.9 average and 10 ‘chunk’ plays.

Twin-brother Adam Luehrman was used less in the passing game (3 catches, 42 yards) but logged big reps. Sophomore Alec Burton (one catch, 10 yards) got some meaningful reps and should be a good backup if needed next season.

The redshirts — Casey Clanton, Tyler Foster and Luke Ewald — leave OU with as much quality depth here as the Solich-era has seen.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Ohio loses three starters, but returns four players with starting or substantial playing experience.

Senior Hagen Meservy should be penciled in as a third-year starter at RG next season. Senior Brett Kitrell started at LG until a late-season injury, but should return next year as a three-year starter at either G or C. Senior Nick Sink filled in across the interior all season, and was the team’s starting center down the stretch. Sophomore Kurt Danneker repped in as a redshirt freshman last season, and made his first start and fared well at LG in the bowl game.

So across the middle, Ohio should be in good shape. But, much like at quarterback, the offseason will focus in on finding a new pair of starting tackles. Pleasants and Grimes barely missed a rep in 2019, which left primary back Samson Jackson (redshirt junior) without a ton of meaningful game experience.

Jackson played on the left side. On the right side, Ohio used three different players as the backup with senior Gary Hoover fulfilling the role early, and then freshmen Thomas Aronokhale and Jay Amburgey appearing to earn the spot late in the year. How those four sort out, or if new pieces emerge, will go a long way to determining the face of the offensive front.

Email at jarkley@athensmessenger.com; follow on Twitter @JasonAmessenger

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