Nine units strong: These positions could make or break Ohio State's repeat chances

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Just in case there was any chance that the importance of coach Urban Meyer’s oft-repeated mantra wasn’t sinking through, Ohio State added one more visual reminder this offseason to drive the point home.

Spanning one side of the end zone all the way around to the other in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, the Buckeyes installed new, individual banners for every position. Complete with bold letters for each group and spruced up with pictures of players who have thrived there since Meyer arrived, each winning at least a division title and most of them earning at least a shot in the NFL, the familiar “nine units strong” message is not-so-subtly delivered again on a field where the team obviously spends plenty of time.

Ohio State famously lived up to that standard a year ago and won a national title. Meyer is quick to point out the Buckeyes delivered only six units capable of playing at a championship level two years ago, when they came up short in the Big Ten title game. The importance of every position doing its job is just about impossible not to grasp on any visit to Ohio State headquarters -- either verbally or visually.

“We don't have team goals, per se,” Meyer said. “We want to compete for a championship in November, OK. But what we really want is to be nine strong.

“What's pounded in all through this facility is nine strong, nine strong, and we don't want them to focus on anything other than their unit.”

There is now some hardware on hand that demonstrates what can happen when those individual units all hold up their ends of the bargain. Given the culture Meyer has built with Ohio State, the volume of experienced, elite talent he has returning across the board and the impressive batch of recruits he’s landed to complement it, there’s no reason the program can’t match that expectation again this season and claim another title.

But even for a team with seemingly all the answers in each of those units, there at least exists the slightest of possibilities to ask questions about a couple of them -- and as Meyer will readily attest, anything less than a full complement can keep a team from accomplishing what it wants. So, maybe -- just maybe -- there might be reason to watch these groups of either side of the ball heading into Ohio State’s opener at Virginia Tech just to make sure it’s really “nine strong.”

Wide receivers

The Buckeyes obviously won’t be a finished product with H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson suspended along with wide receiver Corey Smith, but the hallmark of a strong unit is how the backups respond when needed. Ohio State’s quarterbacks are the gold standard of that after dipping all the way into the third unit to win the title with Cardale Jones at the helm last season. Now it's the wideouts dealing with some adversity after also losing projected starter Noah Brown late in training camp.

A pair of converted quarterbacks have moved to wide receiver to bolster the depth, highlighted by former Big Ten Player of the Year Braxton Miller, who claimed at least a share of a starting job on the season’s first official depth chart. But there are a handful of touted youngsters itching for a shot to make an impact for a team that also must replace deep-ball specialist Devin Smith and veteran Evan Spencer, with Parris Campbell, Johnnie Dixon and Terry McLaurin all waiting for the chance to do it. The issue for the Buckeyes isn’t talent but rather: How long will it take for the unit to gain experience and keep the offense balanced?

Defensive line

The Buckeyes also have a speed bump at defensive end heading into the opener with star pass-rusher Joey Bosa suspended, but that’s also a position where the Buckeyes appear more than content with the young guns in reserve -- led by Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes. Those guys will certainly have to prove themselves in live situations early in the season, but the real pressure could be on a senior who has yet to develop into the game-changer he was long expected to be on the interior.

It’s now or never for Tommy Schutt, who has battled injuries at times but also needed to rededicate himself to getting in shape this offseason in an effort to deliver on his potential in the trenches. The Buckeyes have no concerns about Adolphus Washington, which is a plus, but if Schutt or fifth-year senior Joel Hale can’t shoulder the load, the middle of the line could be a trouble spot.

And in case there was any remaining doubt, even one of those is too many for a team trying to make history.