Big Ten: Jacoby Boren

Blocking for the nation’s best group of running backs, Big Ten offensive lines fared well last season. Will 2015 serve as a reality check around the league?

As spring practice opens in Ann Arbor and Evanston this week, we’re comparing position groups around the Big Ten. Offensive line is next on the list. For others in the series, click here:

Best of the best: Michigan State

The linchpins are back in rising junior left tackle Jack Conklin and senior center Jack Allen, both of whom will land on preseason All-America teams. The pair of Jacks spearheaded the line last year as the Spartans allowed a Big Ten-low 11 sacks, converted 49.7 percent on third down (second to Ohio State) and operated more efficiently in the red zone and in goal-to-go situations than any other Big Ten team. Donavon Clark also returns at tackle. The Spartans lose left guard Travis Jackson, a second-team all-conference pick, and versatile mainstay Connor Kruse. Brian Allen, Kodi Kieler and Miguel Machado appear ready to compete. And these guys will look even better with Connor Cook in command of the offense.

Next up: Ohio State and Wisconsin

A temptation exists to rank every OSU unit as the Big Ten’s best, and the Buckeyes aren’t far off on the offensive line. They lose only right tackle Darryl Baldwin from a group that turned dominant late last season en route to clearing a path to the national title for Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones. Left tackle Taylor Decker, the lone returning starter last year, ranks among the nation’s best at his position, and right guard Pat Elflein earned all-conference honors. Center Jacoby Boren and left guard Billy Price are also back as starters.

At Wisconsin, the cupboard is considerably more empty with the departure of right guard Kyle Costigan, right tackle Rob Havenstein, both All-Big Ten picks, and left guard Dallas Lewallen. Alongside the brilliance of Melvin Gordon, this was the league’s best unit last year. Center Dan Voltz and left tackle Tyler Marz return to anchor the line in 2015. Michael Deiter is ready to go as a redshirt freshman, and the Badgers will find two more starters among a promising group of youngsters.

Sleeper: Michigan

The Wolverines weren’t bad on the line last year. Seriously. OK, at least, it was an improvement over 2013, and all five starters are back to go with, presumably, a much more well designed offensive system. With left tackle Mason Cole, who played as a true freshman, guards Graham Glasgow and Kyle Kalis, center Jack Miller and right tackle Ben Braden, Michigan looks the part. New offensive coordinator and O-line coach Tim Drevno has plenty of tools with which to work. Reserves Erik Magnuson, Logan Tuley-Tillman, Blake Bars and Patrick Kugler give Michigan a chance to develop solid depth this spring. The Wolverines should be better at running back with the addition of Ty Isaac. A breakthrough season across the front isn’t out of the question.

Problem for a contender: Penn State

It was flat-out ugly last year as the Nittany Lions allowed 44 sacks, last in the Big Ten and 121st nationally, and averaged 2.94 yards per rush – 122nd nationally. PSU lost left tackle Donovan Smith early to the NFL and left guard Miles Dieffenbach. Center Angelo Mangiro and tackle Andrew Nelson lead the group of returnees, and Penn added a pair of potential difference-makers in January in freshman Sterling Jenkins and juco transfer Paris Palmer. Four freshmen redshirted last year. Really, there’s nowhere to go but up, but Penn State needs fast improvement from its line to allow QB Christian Hackenberg time to operate. If growth here is slow, so will be Penn State’s offensive progress.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Taylor Decker heard the doubters after Ohio State's offensive line couldn't block Virginia Tech in a Week 2 loss.

"A lot of people were against us after that loss," the junior left tackle said. "A lot of people said we couldn't play at this level, that we weren't good enough."

The group entered the 2014 season as a major question mark after losing four starters, and the Virginia Tech game seemed to solidify those concerns. The Buckeyes gave up seven sacks and rushed for just 108 yards on 40 carries against the Hokies' aggressive scheme.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Boren
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsCenter Jacoby Boren (50) hasn't let being undersized stop him from being a force. "He plays mad," teammate Taylor Decker said.
But Ohio State is playing for the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T on Monday night versus Oregon in large part because its offensive line has developed into one of the best in the nation. That was obvious in last week's 42-35 semifinal win over Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, even though skeptics said the Buckeyes couldn't run up the middle against the Crimson Tide's massive defensive front.

"Everybody kept saying that," center Jacoby Boren said. "But ultimately, we knew that's something we take pride in, and we had confidence in knowing we would be able to do it."

Ohio State ran for 281 yards versus Alabama, which led the FBS in rushing defense during the regular season. The Crimson Tide hadn't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season until Ezekiel Elliott set a Sugar Bowl record with 230 yards. Elliott rumbled for 220 yards in his previous game against Wisconsin, another team that had one of the country's best rush defenses before getting bulldozed by the Buckeyes.

"The offensive line is opening up big holes for me," Elliott said.

The nature of Urban Meyer's offense is a power run game based out of a spread set, and it all starts with a strong effort up front. It took a while for this year's unit to jell because of youth and inexperience, but it is now operating at peak efficiency.

"No question, this is as well as they have played," Meyer said Tuesday.

This group was a bit more of a project than Meyer's first two O-lines in Columbus. It includes a fifth-year senior in right tackle Darryl Baldwin, who began his career on the defensive line and had never started before this year. There's a redshirt freshman in Billy Price at left guard and a sophomore in right guard Pat Elflein, who proved himself in an emergency start in last year's Big Ten title game.

The line is perhaps personified by Boren, an undersized junior who Meyer thought might project as a fullback when he first saw him. Ohio State brought in Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay this summer as its potential starting center, but Boren just worked even harder to beat him out. That was nothing new for him. Boren is such a grinder that he helped plow snow all night for his family's business last winter, showing up for 6 a.m. workouts on little or no sleep.

"Yeah, maybe he's not as tall or as heavy as you want him to be," Decker said. "But you can't teach that scrappiness, that edge he has to him. He plays mad. I think that's probably just a product of people telling him he can't do things. Without him, our offensive line wouldn't play as well as where we're at."

Decker is the star of the group, a 6-foot-7 road grader who was the only returning starter from 2013. Yet even he had to make adjustments this year as he moved from right to left tackle. Decker is an outgoing animal sciences major who interned at the Columbus Zoo last year and aspires to wrangle big cats one day when his playing days are done. For now, he's taming opposing pass-rushers.

"I would take him over any tackle in college football," Boren said. "I think he's done a great job out there."

The season didn't start out great for the offensive line, but Decker said the players never listened to critics or lost confidence. That's because they believed in position coach Ed Warriner. And rightly so. Warriner is a big reason three starters from last year's line -- Jack Mewhort, Andrew Norwell and Corey Linsley -- started in the NFL as rookies. Meyer will likely promote Warriner to offensive coordinator to replace Tom Herman after the national title game.

Just as Ohio State keeps pumping out successful quarterbacks, there also is now a tradition for "The Slobs," as Norwell nicknamed the offensive line last year.

"We always talk about theory and testimony," Meyer said, "and when Ed Warriner teaches an offensive lineman, that's the way it's supposed to be, it's not theory anymore."

The last challenge for this O-line comes against Oregon, which presents different obstacles than Alabama did. The Ducks show a lot of odd-man fronts, and while their front doesn't have the bulk of the Crimson Tide, they have speed and length -- especially with defensive ends Arik Armstead (6-8) and DeForest Buckner (6-7).

"We can't get a lot of double-teams, and that's kind of our strength as an offensive line," Decker said. "If people line up and play four down, we're going to kill them.

"So that makes it hard, because there are a lot of one-on-one base blocks, and they have long athletes pretty much across the board. They extend off blocks well, they use their hands well and they shed blockers well. They're going to be flying all over the field. But without a doubt, I think we'll be able to move the ball and score on them."

No one should be skeptical of this offensive line's ability anymore.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There is a weekly routine for Urban Meyer on the drive home from games on Saturdays.

First the scores of his friends from around the country are rattled off to the Ohio State coach, followed by some updates in the Big Ten and, obviously, what happened to Michigan.

The next day Meyer will brainstorm with his operations coordinator to put together a Top 25 and cast his vote in the coaches' poll.

 Neither of those activities involve watching any film or perhaps going any deeper than catching some highlights, and Meyer usually makes it clear during the season that he doesn’t make much of an effort to stay up to date with what’s happening in college football outside of his own program.

But at least once a year an exception has to be made, and Ohio State’s standing in the national race must be addressed. Meyer brushes up on the rankings, takes stock of the conversation about his team in the championship picture and carves out about five minutes for a “state of the union” to clear the air.

Then the Buckeyes move on.

“We do that every year this time of year,” Meyer said. “I just show the [players] rankings and I show the teams, because they’re going to hear it. When you look at it, everything is wide open. College football, this is a pretty open year.

“I know they can hear it, probably walking around campus or watching TV. So why not address it? ... But I don’t want to hear much about it at all after our conversation.”

Thanks to a combination of wild upsets elsewhere and steady progress since an early loss to Virginia Tech last month, the Buckeyes can once again be realistically included in the playoff discussion after seemingly being left for dead.

A team that appeared hamstrung by its youth at quarterback, inexperience on the offensive line and a defense that couldn’t defend the pass has rapidly developed over the past few weeks, and the rest of the pack in the Top 25 has allowed Ohio State to climb back into the mix at the same time it’s gaining confidence.

J.T. Barrett is now playing like a veteran in place of Braxton Miller at quarterback, rewriting the record books and setting a pace with his passing numbers that would exceed even those of his decorated predecessor. The blockers up front have established a rotation and chemistry that has improved the protection for Barrett and opened huge holes for running back Ezekiel Elliott and a handful of other skill players. And while still far from perfect, the pass defense is coming off a game that included four interceptions in a blowout on the road to open Big Ten play.

Ohio State’s loss may still hurt it down the road when the selection committee comes together to pick the four-team field for the College Football Playoff. But in summing up the state of the Buckeyes as it relates to their title chances, two things work in their favor: The loss was outside the league, leaving championship dreams in the Big Ten intact; and just about everybody else has already dropped a game as well.

“I think guys know [the situation],” center Jacoby Boren said. “Stuff got pretty crazy last weekend, but I think our attitude is just that we go out and try to get better every week. We can only control what we can control.

“We’re going to go out and try to win every game and take care of trying to win a Big Ten championship, and after that, we’ll see how things stack up. Hopefully it will work out for us.”

If the Buckeyes did need a progress report, Meyer made a little bit of time for it this week during the off date.

But they shouldn’t expect to hear about it again, and it certainly won’t be part of Meyer’s weekend routine moving forward.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Low on veterans and looking for depth during its rebuilding project on the offensive line, Ohio State seemed to have landed the perfect bridge to the future when Chad Lindsay transferred in from Alabama to lend a hand for his final season in college.

But after just two games, his career is over and the Buckeyes are right back where they started.

Lindsay announced his decision to walk away from football and leave the program via email on Monday night, citing undisclosed injuries that couldn't be immediately confirmed by an Ohio State spokesman. No matter what the exact issue might be, the former four-game starter with the Crimson Tide and a player the Buckeyes hoped would be able to plug right in to provide some experience for a unit replacing four starters is now no longer in the plans moving forward.

"As most of you know, I sustained a serious injury during fall camp and, unfortunately, was re-injured last week," Lindsay said in a statement. "As a result, and after careful consideration, I have determined that it is time for me to walk away from football. I have had a great career and I will always be grateful for so many wonderful experiences.

"I would like to thank coach [Urban] Meyer, the coaching staff, players and trainers as it has been an honor to be a part of The Ohio State University football family. I wish the team great success for the remainder of the season."

Lindsay didn't appear in either game to open the season for the Buckeyes, though he was frequently mentioned during training camp as battling with Jacoby Boren for the starting job at center.

Ohio State struggled mightily up front during its upset loss on Saturday to Virginia Tech, giving up seven sacks and showing plenty of signs of growing pains as it works to replace Corey Linsley at center and three other key linemen from last year's record-setting offense.

If it wasn't already, the job clearly belongs to Boren as the Buckeyes try to bounce back and make a run at a conference championship. And the pressure to anchor a revamped line and speed through the learning curve might have just kicked up a notch.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The challenge was always clear, and Urban Meyer offered one final reminder of its importance to his offensive line on the practice field. But it still remains a bit of a mystery who exactly will be on that unit and embracing the opportunity to protect the precious cargo in the backfield just three days shy of Ohio State’s opener.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Decker
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteTaylor Decker is the only full-time starting offensive lineman returning this season for Ohio State.
It appears at least two position battles remain unsettled on the offensive line for the Buckeyes based on the depth chart Meyer released on Wednesday afternoon. Picking starters from a talented pool of options at left guard and center might not have been quite as big of a deal two weeks ago with Braxton Miller around to help make up for a few mistakes or a lack of chemistry up front thanks to his innate ability to escape from pressure. But the Buckeyes don’t have the senior quarterback around to get them out of jams anymore, and with J.T. Barrett making his first start, it seems less than ideal not to have five established blockers in front of him on Saturday against Navy, even if Meyer himself isn’t concerned.

“[Competition] is great,” Meyer said on Monday. “If you have bad players, then it’s a problem. If you have really good players and they’re just battling, battling, battling, that’s kind of normal at this time of year.”

Those battles started in March, and now they’re on the brink of spilling over into September with neither Billy Price nor Joel Hale pulling ahead at left guard or Jacoby Boren or Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay solidifying themselves as the anchor in the middle.

The Buckeyes only have one full-time starter returning on the line in the first place, and even with Taylor Decker back at tackle, he’ll be playing in a different spot after lining up on the right side last year. But there continues to be no panic from within the Ohio State camp heading into the opener despite trotting out so many new faces who will be entrusted with keeping a redshirt freshman quarterback protected as well as opening holes for a new starting running back.

“I’m not at all concerned with it because I’ve seen how everybody who has been in there has performed through practice,” Decker said. “When coach knows, he’ll know and he’ll put forth who is going to be the starters. I have no concern at all, because I know whoever is going to be in there is going to get it done.

“There’s one thing, we’re going to have to develop some cohesiveness once we know who is where. But there’s just been high energy [in practice] because there are guys competing for spots. High energy, up tempo, everybody is going hard. That’s going to help prepare us well for games.”

The first of them is finally here, but it’s still hard to tell exactly who is going to be where in front of Barrett. But no matter who winds up on the field for the Buckeyes, there’s no uncertainty about the top responsibility for staying there.

“Braxton made a lot of bad plays right with his athleticism,” Meyer said. “J.T. certainly has the ability to do that as well, maybe not as dynamic as Braxton, but everybody just has to go a little bit harder, be that much more sound and step up and protect our guy.

“They’ve stepped up very well. It’s a very good group of players, very good group of people.”

The issue for Ohio State continues to be figuring out the best way to arrange them.
CHICAGO -- Urban Meyer wasted little time updating everyone on his quarterback, saying during his opening statement that Braxton Miller is ready to go at full speed and is in the "best shape of his life."

As for what else the third-year Ohio State Buckeyes coach addressed during his time at the podium:
  • As happy as Meyer is with his quarterback, he was disappointed in his offensive line and his secondary coming out of the spring. He fielded three different questions about the O-line during his less-than-15-minute news conference, plus one more about the importance of keeping Miller healthy, and he said that Chad Lindsay, Billy Price and Jacoby Boren are all candidates to start at center.
  • Meyer did not hide his feelings on a Big Ten East division that also features traditional heavyweights Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State, saying: "I think it's one of the toughest divisions in college football." He mentioned three tough road games, as the Buckeyes will travel to East Lansing, State College and Minneapolis (in addition to College Park for Maryland's Big Ten home opener).
  • Meyer is much more pleased with what he has at linebacker, saying, "the last two years they weren't what we expect" before conceding that two years ago they weren't that bad. Still, anytime you have to move a fullback to linebacker, he said, you have a problem, especially at a place that has churned out the likes of James Laurinaitis and A.J. Hawk.
  • New Ohio State president Michael Drake took office June 30, and Meyer said he has invited him to meet the team. Meyer said he looks forward to working with Drake but added that it really doesn't affect how Meyer does his job as long as the president takes care of business.
  • Meyer reiterated that defensive end Tracy Sprinkle is no longer a part of the program following his arrest and charges in the wake of a bar fight earlier this month.
  • Asked about Miller's durability issues, Meyer said it has more to do with great players who go above and beyond what their body tells them to do. The same questions came for stars like Tim Tebow, John Simon and Christian Bryant, he said.
  • Asked what Ohio State needs to do to live up to the preseason expectations, many of which have it winning the Big Ten, Meyer said chemistry, trust and developing young players are the top priorities.

Arrival date set for Chad Lindsay

April, 29, 2014
4/29/14
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Help is now officially on the way for Ohio State at center.

The anticipated transfer of a former starter at Alabama with instant eligibility -- thanks to his status as a graduate -- is all set, with Chad Lindsay confirming via email that he will be on campus in time for summer workouts and ready to compete right away for a position that was something of a trouble spot during spring practice for the Buckeyes.

“I will always be a proud graduate of the University of Alabama and I will always be appreciative to the coaching staff for the privilege of playing for the Crimson Tide,” Lindsay wrote in a statement to ESPN.com. “I was fortunate to have had great teammates and to have been a part of an incredible four-year run of success.

[+] EnlargeChad Lindsay
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesChad Lindsay should figure into the mix at center immediately for the Buckeyes.
“And now I am looking forward to enrolling at The Ohio State University in June to play for the Buckeyes and to pursue a master’s degree. My goals are to compete hard, to be a productive member of the team and to do whatever I can to help Ohio State win championships.”

If the Buckeyes are going to compete for championships again this season, finding replacements almost entirely across the offensive line has been at the top of the priority list for coach Urban Meyer since losing four starters to graduation off last year’s wildly productive unit.

After naming just two OL starters after the spring game and without much experience to choose from between Jacoby Boren and Billy Price at center, a veteran option somewhat unexpectedly materialized in Lindsay.

Lindsay spent two seasons in a reserve role before moving into the starting lineup in the middle of his final campaign with the Crimson Tide, starting three games in a row and also running with the first string in the regular-season finale against Auburn. That game experience and his time competing on the practice field with a team that won a pair of national championships could be invaluable for the Buckeyes as they retool the offensive line, and it figures to give Lindsay an edge over Boren and Price when practice resumes in August.

That doesn’t completely solve the puzzle for the Buckeyes as they head into the offseason conditioning program with just tackle Taylor Decker and guard Pat Elflein currently tabbed for starting jobs. But if nothing else, the addition of another experienced blocker and a product of a program that has been the most successful in the country over the last five years will certainly provide more depth and competition at a crucial spot.

“Coach Meyer likes to have the depth chart set leaving spring, but if it’s not there, it’s not there,” Decker said after the spring game. “That battle will just continue through camp. There’s good and bad to it, but I’d say there’s more good to it.

“It’s good because there’s that competition there, so there’s going to be a sense of urgency. You’re not going to have guys taking days off, taking plays off in practice because you still have to earn that spot.”

Another guy is on the way to fight for one.
Head coaches from the Big Ten East Division, along with a player from each team, addressed the media this afternoon on teleconferences. The West Division players and coaches spoke Wednesday.

Here's a closer look at the East:

INDIANA
  • Defense has been a lingering Indiana concern for years, but coach Kevin Wilson believes he's starting to see a change, thanks to new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. The scheme hasn't changed radically, but the Hoosiers return 10 starters there -- and Wilson's seen a promising spring so far with an added focus on competition and communication: "They've for sure held their own on a daily basis -- and, in some ways, probably even better -- against the offense."
  • Wilson believes teams need to invest scholarships into the kicking game, but he thinks it's also too risky to offer recruits straight out of high school. If you look at the NCAA's top 25 kickers, Wilson estimated at least 15 started out as walk-ons. So he's hoping to find some walk-ons who are willing to work for a scholarship, rather than be granted one right away.
  • At 5-foot-7, Shane Wynn is the Hoosiers' leading returning receiver, and he's transitioning to playing the outside. It's been a little different for Wynn, who said he's had to watch more film as a result. He's reading the corners now, instead of the safeties, as just one example.
MARYLAND
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall is confident in his offense and believes the Terrapins have enough options so that opponents can't focus on just one person. If defenses lock on to wideout Stefon Diggs, then quarterback C.J. Brown can take off running or receiver Deon Long can pick up some slack. "The No. 1 thing I do like," Edsall said, "is we can spread the field."
  • Maryland's staff has already started looking at film of Big Ten teams, so they know what to expect when the conference season begins. Edsall said he wants to at least get a feel for their personnel and what kind of schemes he'll face. He's also confident the Terps will be ready: "We fully expect to be able to compete when we get into the Big Ten this year."
  • Brown said one of the main reasons he committed to Maryland was the coach who recruited him at the time, former Terps assistant and current Penn State coach James Franklin. He's looking forward to squaring off against Franklin this season, and Edsall said there's no question he would like to develop a rivalry with the Nittany Lions.
MICHIGAN
  • The quarterback derby will continue, and Brady Hoke included all three of his options in the discussion heading into the offseason. The Wolverines coach did acknowledge, though, that Devin Gardner “probably would be” the starter if there was a game on the schedule this weekend. There isn’t, so Shane Morris and Wilton Speight will continue to be in the conversation.
  • The first opponent on the schedule will always stir emotions for Michigan fans, but Hoke didn’t attach any revenge or sentimentality to his reasons for wanting to take on Appalachian State in the opener this fall. “We needed a game,” Hoke said. “I thought it would be a good game.” Defensive end Frank Clark was certainly aware of the history between the programs, even though he was still years away from joining Michigan and getting a shot at making up for the upset loss in 2007 -- which he called “shocking” and “shows how hard those guys play.”
MICHIGAN STATE
  • Michigan State is coming off a Rose Bowl victory, but coach Mark Dantonio and quarterback Connor Cook would prefer not to think about that any longer. Dantonio said they've talked a lot these last four months about not growing complacent, and Cook only echoed his coach. "A lot of people keep bringing up the Rose Bowl," Cook said. "But we're past that. We're focusing on the now."
  • The offensive line has made some big strides since January, at least according to Cook. He felt like he had no time in the pocket last spring and said the pass rush was getting to him every time. This spring? He doesn't feel rushed in the pocket, and he thinks that's pretty indicative of how far this line has come.
  • Jeremy Langford earned a lot of praise from Cook, who said the running back has become a much bigger part of the passing attack. "He's improved a lot with catching the ball," Cook said, complimenting Langford's versatility. "He's done so many different things for us."
OHIO STATE
  • There is still work to be done in addressing the most glaring weakness on the team last season, but Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s pass defense “drastically improved” and will be watching closely for more signs of progress in Saturday’s spring game. The Buckeyes will play a traditional game, but the emphasis will be on throwing the football and assessing the skill players on both offense and defense -- giving Meyer a chance to evaluate backup quarterback Cardale Jones in a live setting in addition to checking out the secondary.
  • Arguably the strongest part of last season's team is undergoing a transition without four senior starters, and the offensive line is somewhat of a concern for Meyer heading into the offseason. With guard Pat Elflein the only other player to have earned a first-team slot to play alongside junior Taylor Decker at this point, that competition is likely to spill over into preseason camp in August. Both tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood were praised for their work by defensive tackle Michael Bennett, and Billy Price and Jacoby Boren are dueling at center.
PENN STATE
  • Franklin said he knew exactly what he was getting into at Penn State, in terms of the current depth and sanctions. He and former coach Bill O'Brien worked together at Maryland, and he said the two had a lot of honest conversations about the current state of the Nittany Lions. The two have continued to talk since.
  • Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are both making transitions from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and Franklin said he has been pleased with their performances so far: "They're doing a good job for us -- and they have to. We're thin at that position."
  • Franklin said he feels especially comfortable with the talent at running back and defensive line. Middle linebacker Mike Hull was more specific about naming the players who impressed him, pointing to backup linebacker Gary Wooten and cornerback Da'Quan Davis. Hull said Wooten is always around the football and that Davis, who missed part of the spring with a hamstring injury, has come up with several interceptions.
RUTGERS
  • Another open competition at the most critical position on the field -- quarterback -- is still playing out at Rutgers, and coach Kyle Flood isn’t ready to declare a winner in what would seem to be a wide-open battle. Flood indicated that Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano are all “really vying for that first-team job.”
  • The change in conference affiliation has been welcomed with open arms by the Scarlet Knights, who can “feel the energy” as theypractice for their first season in the Big Ten. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said the team was already buzzing with excitement about the opportunity, and Flood called joining the league a “positive in every way.” The move also presents the opportunity for a rivalry to develop with new divisional neighbor Penn State, with both Flood and Hamilton citing the proximity between the schools as a bonus.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The change in Ohio State's offensive line is impossible to ignore this spring, even in regard to the only returning starter.

For one thing, he’s now lining up at left tackle, swapping sides after a breakout sophomore season on the right for one of the best offensive lines in the nation.

And then there’s the haircut, as Taylor Decker trimmed off his long locks as part of a job shadow program, trying to give himself a more “professional” appearance.

[+] EnlargeDecker
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesTaylor Decker is the only returning starter on Ohio State's offensive line, but even he'll be at a new position this season.
Both developments help drive home the completely new look up front for Ohio State, where even the lone holdover has a new position as part of a makeover of a unit that lost four starters, a group that's arguably been the strongest in Urban Meyer's tenure with the Buckeyes.

“It’s definitely a different feeling, but I think our focus needs to be not worrying about who lost, but on who we have,” Decker said. “We have really talented guys; they just need to develop confidence in themselves. They can do everything. They just need to realize they can go out and do it play after play after play and be consistent.

“We’ve got a lot of talented guys. Our only issue is inexperience.”

That certainly wasn’t a problem for the Buckeyes a year ago when Decker was the only fresh face in the lineup. Now the only projected first-teamer on the roster with starting experience is guard Pat Elflein, who filled in for a suspended Marcus Hall in the Big Ten championship game after admirably replacing Hall after he was thrown out of the Michigan game.

That leaves plenty for the Buckeyes to sort through this spring, and the process of nailing down full-time replacements for tackle Jack Mewhort, guards Hall and Andrew Norwell and center Corey Linsley might well spill into August. But offensive line coach Ed Warinner isn’t low on options, and the young guys trying to step into those big shoes aren’t short on confidence, either.

“For us, I think it motivates us a unit,” center Jacoby Boren said. “There is no doubt, those guys were freaking awesome, great guys, great players. But we have a lot of good guys here competing, and we’re working hard.

“We’re not working to be like them. We’re going to work to be the best that we are and keep building on that.”

Their predecessors obviously set the bar pretty high during the last couple seasons, setting the tone for an offense that led the Big Ten in scoring and was fifth in the nation in rushing, averaging more than 300 yards per game on the ground.

The Buckeyes started preparations for replacing them last season, occasionally cutting back on practice reps for the first unit in favor of the backups in an effort to speed through the learning curve and getting them as much game action as possible. Prospective right tackle Darryl Baldwin, Elflein and Boren figure to benefit from that taste of experience, and Antonio Underwood's return from knee surgery has gone smoothly enough that he opened camp as the starter at left guard. Behind that starting group, Ohio State has recruited well and could conceivably have players such as converted defensive lineman Joel Hale or Kyle Dodson make pushes for playing time.

And with all those candidates on hand ready to take over, Warinner isn’t losing much sleep, even though he’s looking at a totally different line.

“I’m pretty confident, yeah,” Warinner said. “Because everything that you want to see at this point, we’re seeing. Great work ethic, tough guys, very well-conditioned, guys who want to learn, guys who come and watch film and work the game. Guys who do extra, guys that are very coachable; they’re sponges. Guys who come with energy to practice.

“You’ve got all these things. The only thing they lack is experience.”

Now there’s nobody in their way to keep them from getting it.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always chasing the sizzle. What the Ohio State coach needed more than anything this time, though, was some steak.

Like usual, Meyer had skill players with speed in his recruiting class, a prerequisite for his spread offense and perhaps the type of target he annually covets above all else. But on the heels of a class that was light on linemen and with four senior starters walking out the door after last season, Meyer had no choice but to load up on big guys with his third class since taking over the Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer and Braxton Miller
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesWith four senior starters on the O-line leaving, Urban Meyer knew he had to sign some linemen to help protect Braxton Miller.
And he did exactly that, signing more offensive linemen than any other position. When all the paperwork was filed on Wednesday, Meyer had a group that might not be as flashy as the burners on the perimeter but ultimately figures to be the foundation for Ohio State’s future.

“Last year was a [recruiting] disappointment in the offensive line,” Meyer said. “I’d say two of the five this year have to be in the depth, and we recruited as such.

“Typically you don’t put freshmen in there early, but these guys have got mature bodies and they’re fairly mature men.”

Certainly the newcomers aren’t as physically developed as the veterans who just graduated, and obviously they don’t have anywhere near the experience competing at the Big Ten level. But based on the numbers and the talent on hand, the Buckeyes may have no choice but to plug a couple true freshmen at least into the two-deep depth chart as they rebuild the unit almost from scratch.

Taylor Decker is the lone holdover, and Meyer confirmed that the junior is set to move from right tackle to left as part of the transition. Pat Elflein handled himself well at guard in place of Marcus Hall late in the season, and he’s a safe bet to lock down another starting job. Jacoby Boren has played in reserve and impressed on the practice field, and he will move into the lineup at center. The rest of the rotation is currently written in pencil, which if nothing else at least leaves the possibility open that a fresh face could make a push for playing time.

With such precious cargo at quarterback, though, the Buckeyes would surely prefer to plug in a player who has at least been through a season with the program to help protect Braxton Miller. Their options, however, are somewhat limited after signing just two linemen a year ago, losing one of them before the season and ultimately moving a defender to the other side of the ball to help make up for it.

“I think last year’s smallness in numbers certainly led to an increased urgency to have to go sign those guys,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “But with last year, at Ohio State we’re not just going to sign a guy just to fill a spot. If we don’t think he can help us win a national championship, we’re not going to sign him. Those guys weren’t out there towards the end of recruiting last year, so that put us in a dire need of urgency this year.

“Really the entire staff did a great job coming through with five offensive linemen, and all five of them, none of them are guys who you would think would be reaches at Ohio State.”

Out of that bunch that earned their offers, Jamarco Jones had his name pop up most frequently as a crucial signee and possible option to lend a hand early, with Demetrius Knox not far behind him. Brady Taylor, a late flip from Virginia Tech, caught Meyer’s eye as well after getting up to 295 pounds and could emerge as a guy he said “could sneak in the depth fairly quickly.”

On top of that, the Buckeyes also have a pair of true freshmen linemen already on campus in Marcelys Jones and Kyle Trout, potentially giving them a chance to acclimate quickly and make an impression during spring practice as the Buckeyes sort through the candidates on hand. But even if none of them wind up as regulars by the end of the season, the day surely isn’t all that far off when all those speed-burners Meyer is stockpiling are counting on the latest group of beefy blockers to give them room to work.

“Our toys are very useless,” running backs coach Stan Drayton said, “until we take care of that front.”

Offseason to-do list: Ohio State

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Last season is barely in the rearview mirror, but it's already time to look ahead at what's next. After a rocky finish to a season that had such high hopes, perhaps no team has shifted its attention forward more quickly than Ohio State.

The Buckeyes are up next in the look around the Big Ten at the top priorities in the offseason, as Urban Meyer looks to squeeze a little more out of his team coming off a 12-win campaign -- and a two-game losing streak.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesOhio State coach Urban Meyer made no secret of the fact that he was not happy with the way his defense performed in 2013.
1. Fix the defense: Even before the Discover Orange Bowl, Meyer was already vowing changes to his beleaguered defense and promising to look at every aspect of the unit in trying to get it right. That process quickly started with personnel changes in the secondary, and with the loss of star linebacker Ryan Shazier, that position group may now be under the most intense scrutiny moving forward. Meyer also seemed bothered throughout the season that the scheme wasn't as aggressive as he'd prefer, and that will no doubt be addressed in the coming months. And to help deliver that message, he'll have two new staff members around to get the defense patched up, including former Wisconsin and Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who specializes in the secondary and has a real mess to clean up given Ohio State's problems against the pass. There is still plenty of talent on hand, but the Buckeyes have to figure out a way to maximize it and complement a high-scoring offense.

2. Balance the attack: For all the emphasis the Buckeyes put on evening the play-calling out between the run and the pass, for the second season in a row they were clearly more comfortable with the former and were never really able to get things moving through the air when they had to down the stretch. They still scored a ton of points, and they'll still have Braxton Miller's legs to help bail them out thanks to his decision to return for a senior year, but they would be much better off if the quarterback takes another step forward as a passer and allows offensive coordinator Tom Herman to get closer to a 50-50 split between the run and the pass. Ohio State finished the year rushing the ball more than 63 percent of the time, and while the success Miller and running back Carlos Hyde had on the ground made it hard to resist leaning on them, the Buckeyes will need to air it out more often to get some extra defenders out of the box.

3. Plug the holes up front: The early loss of Shazier to the NFL, the departures of a handful of defensive backs and the graduation of Hyde and wide receiver Philly Brown all leave notable jobs to fill, but clearly the most important vacancies are up front for the Buckeyes. The program was blessed with four senior starters on the offensive line last season, and Jack Mewhort, Andrew Norwell, Corey Linsley and Marcus Hall set the tone for Ohio State both on and off the field. But they're all gone now, and the downside to having a season with all that veteran talent to work with is that they all have to be replaced the following season. Taylor Decker is the lone holdover at right tackle and provides a solid building block, and Ohio State also had a glimpse at what Pat Elflein could do at right guard late in the season. The Buckeyes can likely count on Jacoby Boren to rise up and fill the void at center, but that still leaves two more spots open for competition and questions, and finding answers in spring practice will be critical.

More to-do lists:
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Several factors usually get mentioned first as reasons for Ohio State's 12-0 season in 2012. Braxton Miller's heroics. Carlos Hyde's emergence. The play of the defense down the stretch, led by John Simon and Ryan Shazier.

But one factor probably doesn't get mentioned enough: the performance of the team's offensive line. A major question mark going into last season, the line shaped up as one of the best in the Big Ten last year under the tutelage of Ed Warriner. And with most of the group back and some better depth, the unit provides a strong reason to believe in the Buckeyes again in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJack Mewhort
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsLeft tackle Jack Mewhort, an all-Big Ten-level talent in 2012, could be the Buckeyes' next great leader.
Warriner turned in one of the better coaching jobs in the league last year, rounding into shape a crew that was previously undistinguished and underwhelming. He turned Reid Fragel, a former tight end, into a standout right tackle who should get drafted later this month. Corey Linsley went from playing guard to one of the conference's top centers, while Jack Mewhort developed into a top-flight left tackle. One of the indelible images of the Buckeyes' season was the line pushing around Michigan State's terrific defense to grind out the victory in East Lansing.

About the only thing Warriner had to worry about last season was health, as there was no experience and precious little depth behind the starters. He doesn't have the same worries this spring.

"It's a nice feeling to know you probably have a backup tackle and a backup guard," he told ESPN.com.

Four starters are back, so the real battle this spring is to replace Fragel at that right-tackle spot. Right now, sophomores Chase Farris and Taylor Decker are splitting a lot of first-team reps there, with Darryl Baldwin also in the mix.

"Those two guys have a lot of ability," Warriner said. "The more comfortable they get and the more confidence they get, one of them could take off -- or maybe both will and we'll play by committee. But they have high-level talent and all the traits of really good linemen."

Head coach Urban Meyer said Tuesday that redshirt freshman Pat Elflein has been one of the surprises of the spring, and he could add depth at guard or tackle. Warriner also said Jacoby Boren is making strides at center. While the team suffered a setback when reserve Antonio Underwood tore his anterior cruciate ligament late last week, the Buckeyes should still be able to rotate more guys on the offensive line this fall.

"If the next man in can play a certain amount but the level doesn't drop off enough to hurt our team, we might do that just to keep the unit fresh and hopefully be smart throughout the season," Warriner said.

But Ohio State will want its veterans on the field as much as possible. Mewhort, whom ESPN.com voted as a first-team All-Big Ten performer, has been hailed as one of the team's best leaders and anointed by Meyer as a possible replacement for Simon in that regard.

"He's what you want in terms of an attitude, of work ethic, of being a competitor," Warriner said. "When you're a first-year starter at a new position with a new coaching staff, sometimes you just worry about your own business, and that was him to some degree last year. But now, he's taking kind of a bigger role with his leadership on offense and even the team as a whole."

Warriner said guards Andrew Norwell, a first All-Big Ten team honoree by the media last season, and Marcus Hall have made maybe the biggest improvements of anyone on the line this offseason. Along with Linsley, whom Warriner said has "elite-level strength," the Buckeyes have the potential to field four all-conference type linemen.

"We think we possibly could, if they play up to their ability level," he said. "The good thing about the group is, they don't really care about that. If we won the Big Ten and none of them made all-conference, they wouldn't care a bit. That's the kind of unselfish players they are."

Warriner said he has challenged the group to help lead a top-five national offensive attack this season. Ohio State led the Big Ten in scoring last year (37.2 points per game) and finished second in rushing yards per game (242.3). The offensive line led the way, though players like Miller and Hall sure helped.

"We know the quality of our skill guys can erase some things and create some big plays," Warriner said. "If you block it for six, you might get 16. At some places, if you block it for six, that's what they'll get -- six yards."

Everything works in concert. But don't forget the Buckeyes' offensive line when talking about reasons for the team's success.

Ohio State spring wrap

May, 11, 2012
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2011 overall record: 6-7
2011 conference record: 3-5 (fourth, Leaders division)
Returning starters: Offense: 7; defense: 9; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Braxton Miller, RB Jordan Hall, TE Jake Stoneburner, T Jack Mewhort, DE John Simon, DT Johnathan Hankins, DT Garrett Goebel, LB Ryan Shazier, S Christian Bryant, S C.J. Barnett, CB Bradley Roby

Key losses
OT Mike Adams, C Mike Brewster, RB Dan Herron, WR DeVier Posey, LB Andrew Sweat, S/LB Tyler Moeller

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Braxton Miller* (715 yards)
Passing: Braxton Miller* (1,159 yards)
Receiving: Devin Smith* (294 yards)
Tackles: C.J. Barnett* (75)
Sacks: John Simon* (7)
Interceptions: Bradley Roby* and Orhian Johnson* (3)

Spring answers

1. System suits Miller: Ohio State's offense will take time to settle in, but it's clear from the spring that the no-huddle, spread system suits quarterback Braxton Miller. The athletic sophomore ran a version of the spread in high school and should flourish in an offense that demands mobility from the quarterback position. Miller completed 24 of 31 passes in Ohio State's spring game; he attempted 37 total passes in his first seven games last fall. Things are changing in Columbus, and Miller should benefit.

2. Simon dazzles: John Simon hasn't played a game for Urban Meyer, but the Buckeyes defensive end already has put himself in an elite group of former Meyer stars. Simon dominated play this spring, so much so that the coaches had to pull him off of the field at times so the offense could get in its work. Meyer made headlines by calling Simon "Tebowish" and later told ESPN.com, "It should be Simonish. He's a next-level type player: leader, character, toughness, commitment. He's elite, elite."

3. Hall, Stoneburner emerge: Meyer spent much of the spring grumbling about Ohio State's lack of offensive playmakers, but he identified two in running back Jordan Hall and tight end Jake Stoneburner. Like Miller, Hall is a player who could flourish more in the spread offense and fill the so-called "Percy position," occupied by former Meyer standout Percy Harvin and others. Stoneburner is a pass-first tight end finally playing in a pass-heavy offense. While he needs to improve his conditioning this fall, he'll play a big role for the Buckeyes.

Fall questions

1. Search for playmakers: Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman are adamant about the need for additional playmakers to emerge around Miller. The Buckeyes might have found one in the spring game in freshman receiver Michael Thomas, who recorded 12 receptions for 131 yards. Whether Thomas can build on his performance in August remains to be seen. Other players to watch include receivers Corey Brown, Devin Smith and Chris Fields, and running backs Carlos Hyde, Bri'onte Dunn and Rod Smith.

2. Offensive line depth: The Buckeyes appear to have a good starting five up front on offense, but offensive line depth remains a big concern entering the summer. Tight end Reid Fragel moved to tackle this spring, and the Buckeyes will need some of their younger linemen like Chris Carter Jr. and Jacoby Boren to grow up in a hurry. Help is on the way from the recruiting trail, but Ohio State can't afford many injuries to its starters.

3. Studying the spread: While Ohio State will be much more interesting to watch on offense under Meyer and Herman, the fact remains that the new system is a dramatic departure from what the Buckeyes ran in the past. Early this spring Meyer likened the offense's performance to a "clown show," and while things improved, the unit is far from a finished product. Meyer and Herman want to operate at an extremely fast past -- think Oregon -- but can only do so if players can execute without drive-killing mistakes.

Big shoes to fill: Ohio State

February, 28, 2012
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Spring practice is just around the corner, and that will be a time for Big Ten teams to locate replacements for departed stars. We're taking a look at how each team might fill the roles of two key contributors no longer on campus.

Today, we turn our attention to Ohio State and its Urban renewal projects. The Buckeyes didn't lose a whole lot of seniors, and they already experienced what it was like to play without departed seniors Dan Herron and DeVier Posey for large stretches of last season. So we'll focus our attention on the offensive line:

[+] EnlargeMike Brewster
Melina Vastola/US PresswireOhio State has to replace departing center Mike Brewster, who made 49 consecutive starts.
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Mike Brewster, C

Why: Brewster was a fixture in the Buckeyes' lineup, making 49 consecutive starts after debuting as a true freshman. He was one of the best centers in the Big Ten for the duration of his career, and was named an All-American in 2010. He also provided good leadership -- especially in a year when some other seniors ran afoul of NCAA rules.

Replacement candidates: Brian Bobek (6-2, 280, Soph.); Corey Linsley (6-2, 310, Jr.); Joey O'Connor (6-4, 295 incoming freshman); Jacoby Boren (6-2, 275, incoming freshman).

The skinny: One reason to temper expectations about Urban Meyer's first year in Columbus is a dangerous lack of depth on the offensive line. The Buckeyes were already thin there last season, and lost three senior starters. If anyone other than Bobek is starting at center, it's probably because of an injury or something else unforeseen. The former blue-chip high school prospect spent last season as Brewster's understudy, and saw some time in mop-up duty. He should make a smooth transition to starter this spring, though living up to Brewster's production won't be easy.

Linsley has played guard in the past for the Buckeyes ,but likely will be one of the starting guards this season, along with Jack Mewhort. O'Connor and Boren project as guards, but could play center in a pinch -- a situation Ohio State hopes to avoid.

BIG SHOES TO FILL: Mike Adams, LT

Why: Adams missed the first five games of 2011 while serving a suspension, and his absence was notable. He was one of the best offensive linemen in the Big Ten during his three years as a starter, and the 6-foot-8, 320-pounder has been projected by some as a first-round NFL draft pick this spring. The Buckeyes' offensive line played much better last season once he returned.

Replacement candidates: Andrew Norwell (6-5, 308, Jr.); Marcus Hall (6-5, 315, Jr.); Antonio Underwood, (6-3, 305, Soph.); Tommy Brown (6-5, 320, Soph.); Chris Carter (6-6, 350, R-Fr.); Taylor Decker (6-8, 310, incoming freshman); Kyle Dodson (6-5, 315, incoming freshman).

The skinny: Here's another place where a successor is in place, but things could get shaky if something goes wrong.

Norwell started the first five games at left tackle last season while Adams was suspended before sliding back to guard. He should take over the blind side full time this season, and he has good instincts for the position. Everything else at tackle this spring is a little bit up in the air, as Meyer plans to convert tight end Reid Fragel into a right tackle. He and Hall will likely battle for that starting spot, with Hall potentially ending up as a super sub along the line.

Underwood started the Purdue game when J.B. Shugarts was injured but was pulled after a poor performance. Hopefully, another year of coaching will help him develop into a solid contributor. Brown and Carter are largely unknowns at this point, but at least have big bodies. Don't be surprised to see at least one of the true freshmen crack the two-deep this season. They're both very talented, and unfortunately for Ohio State, they don't have a ton of competition ahead of them.

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