Ohio State Buckeyes: Former walk-on bringing back the fullback

COLUMBUS -- Whatever the position, Mitch Rossi is happy to help Ohio State football win games.

The fifth-year senior from Franklin, Tenn., scored his first career touchdown Saturday on a 1-yard catch, the culmination of years of hard work that began as a walk-on.

“It was an awesome feeling, kind of a testament to all the people who helped me get there,” he said Tuesday. “It was really big for me and my parents. They’ve made so many sacrifices for me to get here.”

While former walk-ons scoring touchdowns is always notable, so too in this case was where Rossi lined up to begin the play.

The Buckeyes were in the I formation, something almost never seen in recent years, with Rossi at fullback. While C.J. Stroud faked a handoff to the tailback, Rossi snuck into the flat and caught a pass in the end zone, wide open on one of the most basic play-action pass plays of the predominant style of offense in football from the 1950s through the early 2000s.

Ohio State head coach Ryan Day noted they have put a tight end in the backfield occasionally — sometimes in an offset I, sometimes as part of a pistol formation — but acknowledged Rossi’s stature makes things look a little different.

“Mitch is a little bit shorter and a little lower to the ground, so he’s a little bit better at that kind of stuff,” Day said. “But we’ve run that play before. We do on the goal line at times bring bigger guys in the game if that gives us an advantage.”

The 6-1, 245-pound Rossi is listed as a tight end on the roster, but he has lined up in the backfield and on the wing (as well as the line of scrimmage) while becoming a bigger part of the offense this season than ever before.

“Every week it seems like it’s growing a little bit,” Rossi said with a smile. “Whatever fullback, tight end role I seem to fit in is awesome.”

Fullback was once a glamour position at Ohio State.

Bob White, Jim Otis, John Brockington and Troy High School legend Bob Ferguson all earned All-America status playing the position in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Having a great fullback was key in the ‘T’ offense of coach Woody Hayes, who was known to recruit as many standout high school fullbacks he could and find a position for them later.

Archie Griffin ushered in the era of the star tailback at Ohio State in the early ‘70s, pushing fullback to a supporting role in the I formation (though the ‘T’ remained in the playbook, and his fullback, Pete Johnson, ran for more than 2,000 yards and a school record 58 touchdowns).

There continued to be standouts at the position — including Xenia’s Vaughn Broadnax and Middletown’s Jeff Cothran — through the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s, but it further evolved (or devolved) over the years to essentially a glorified extra lineman by the end of the Jim Tressel era.

The last full-time starting fullback for Ohio State was Zach Boren, who moved to middle linebacker as a senior in the middle of the 2012 season, the year Urban Meyer took over the program and installed his version of the spread offense.

Meyer not only eliminated the fullback but also refused to put his quarterback under center and more often than not relied on a different type of old-school offense — the single-wing — in short yardage.

Day has diversified (or re-diversified) the offense since taking over the program in 2019 by including more two-tight end sets, running plays run from under center from time to time and even occasionally putting two men in the backfield along with the quarterback.

“Being a college football coach’s you have to figure out year in and year out what your personnel looks like,” Day said.

“We started going under center the last couple of years, and you saw the (QB) sneak a couple of times so we’re continually working through things. This game is cyclical.”

Ironically, the ability to utilize some of those old-school looks has become valuable as defenses have gotten lighter and faster to keep up with spread offenses.

Day cited Tulsa as an example. Ohio State’s third opponent of the season played a 3-3-5 defense that invited the Buckeyes to run the ball, and they did.

“They had three down linemen and eight defensive backs out there,” Day said. “That is designed to stop the spread. We have to continue to evolve and figure out how we can make it hard for teams to match up against us.”

Even if Rossi’s touchdown catch is not an indication fullback is back long term — that would probably require actually recruiting them again — at Ohio State, it was another example of Day’s willingness to do whatever it takes to maximize personnel.

“(Mitch) has a unique skill-set,” Day said. “He is a converted high school running back who made the move over to tight end so he can do some different things for us. He has good ball skills and a good football IQ. He understands how we’re trying to attack defenses. He does a good job in the pass game and in the run game. He has a lot of versatility. He is a mature guy and an older guy who is helping us.”

No matter the position.

“Y’all can call me whatever you want, man,” Rossi said. “It don’t matter to me.”


Maryland at Ohio State, Noon, Fox, 1410

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