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Ohio State offense young, but has veterans where it matters most

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State knows two guys who are going to touch the football on every offensive snap. For now, that’s good enough for the Buckeyes.

There is still plenty of time to figure out who else might get involved once center Pat Elflein and quarterback J.T. Barrett have started the play for Ohio State’s typically potent attack. And thanks in large part to the presence of those proven veterans, Urban Meyer can keep his focus on looking for new starters at all other positions as he revamps the lineup to keep the Buckeyes at that explosive level they’ve grown accustomed to during his four seasons in charge.

“Trying to break in a new quarterback and a new center, you probably have no shot,” Meyer said after practice on Tuesday morning. “It’s probably unfair to say we have no shot, but if you’re replacing that position and center, it’s fair to say no shot -- at least for the first four or five games.

“The fact that we have those two guys back, we have a shot. I think we have a decent shot to be good on offense. It’s really mostly to do with those two guys coming back.”

Almost since the moment last season ended with a win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, the Buckeyes have made it clear how valuable that battery is not just offensively, but for the team as a whole with Meyer breaking from tradition to name them captains before spring practice even opened.

Elflein hasn’t even played center on a full-time basis yet for the Buckeyes, but his track record as a first-team all-Big Ten blocker and previous game experience and practice reps at the position have given the program confidence he could blossom into the top snapper in the nation. And with Barrett bouncing back both mentally and physically late last season after reclaiming the starting job from Cardale Jones, Ohio State will have no uncertainly to deal with this year at the most important spot on the field.

What will happen once the ball gets out of their hands, though, remains something of a mystery with running back Ezekiel Elliott off to the NFL along with Ohio State’s three most productive wide receivers and tight end Nick Vannett. The way the Buckeyes have stockpiled recruits over the last few years has helped ease concerns about filling all those vacant jobs, but through three practices, it’s been the knowledge that two crucial ones have returners in place that has provided the biggest comfort.

“The two things that really help you sleep good at night is when Pat Elflein is your center and J.T. Barrett is your quarterback,” offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. “It’s like spring training now, and I’m a baseball guy. If you’ve got a pitcher and a catcher who are pretty elite, life is pretty good. If you’re good up the middle, you’re usually pretty good. We’re pretty good up the middle the way I see it.

“A really good center who can be a Rimington [Trophy] finalist and a really good quarterback who could be a finalist for Big Ten player of the year if they play up to their level of ability. Everybody else just kind of falls into place. Knowing they jog out there and they both touch the ball every play, life is really good with that starting point.”

The Buckeyes have no shortage of options for where the football might finish, and the competition to touch it is going to be heated. It could even drag into August when a few more touted recruits enter the mix and a handful of projected contributors return from injuries limiting them this spring.

Ohio State has its eyes on Bri’onte Dunn and Mike Weber in the backfield to replace Elliott. Torrance Gibson, Terry McLaurin, Parris Campbell and Austin Mack are among the receivers vying for work on the perimeter to help boost the passing attack, and tight end Marcus Baugh is set to emerge as a reliable starter after a couple years coming off the bench.

For the most part, those are all unknown quantities for the Buckeyes. But based on what Meyer already has seen from Barrett and Elflein, that’s enough for him to expect there won’t be any drop off by the time the season rolls around.

“Our job is to make [spring camp] very stressful, find out who can [play] because there are a lot of great athletes who don’t respond to stress very well, don’t respond to difficult situations,” Meyer said. “Then there are others, maybe they’re a little bit lesser athlete -- J.T. Barrett is a perfect example. He’s an inch too short, this or that, but in double overtime at Penn State, we saw what we saw. We try to create that here more than worry about expectations and figure out who is going to play.”

The Buckeyes already have an answer at the two most important positions on offense. And that’s all the head start they really need as the rest of the pieces fall in place around the guys in the middle of every play.