COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State probably wasn’t trying to send any message from its sidelines or during a star-studded halftime show, but there was an unmistakable one sent that underscored just how big the challenge of reloading its roster might be.
But despite those reminders of all the talent coach Urban Meyer has to replace swarming around the Horseshoe, from his spot in the middle of the field in front of a record-setting crowd for Ohio State’s spring game on Saturday, there was no reason for him to live in the past. And while it might not have been the prettiest exhibition, the Buckeyes made it clear there is enough talent around with all of their young guys to potentially pick up right where those future NFL draft picks left off.
“We have to pick up the pieces of what left the program, but we’re not going to change our standards and that was the message all week to our players,” Meyer said. “There’s a gap there a little bit when you lose nine juniors, it’s like missing a recruiting class. ... Those are premier players you’re losing, so there’s a gap. But there’a lot of talent here, and you just have to push them up a year.
“I’m very pleased, I’m good. I’ll probably watch the film and get sick to my stomach, but what I saw today was that the future is bright.”
Meyer could hardly be blamed for simply focusing on the highlights and skipping through the missed blocks from his backup offensive linemen, a couple dropped passes or a few penalties in the defensive secondary in what amounts to a glorified scrimmage. But there was plenty for him to like after he got his wish for 100,000 fans to pack Ohio Stadium and give him the closest thing to a game-like environment any program has ever had to close out a spring camp.
While his former star receivers were watching, Parris Campbell, Torrance Gibson and Terry McLaurin put on a display full of athletic receptions, touchdown grabs and dazzling runs after the catch that suggest Ohio State might be able to take a long-awaited next step with its passing attack.
With a handful of likely first-round draft picks on defense looking on, linebacker Jerome Baker stole the show with a jaw-dropping one-handed interception, safety Malik Hooker nabbed two picks of his own and defensive lineman Jashon Cornell wreaked nonstop havoc up front while finishing with a pair of sacks.
And while Barrett won’t look back fondly at his limited afternoon of work after tossing a couple interceptions, he’s one of the few guys the Buckeyes never had reason to doubt given his track record leading the offense. But even at quarterback, Ohio State heads into the offseason with a bit more confidence about its potential and the road ahead thanks to a breakout performance from Joe Burrow that solidified his claim to the all-important job behind Barrett.
“I think it was a benefit to us that we had all the people at the game and you really got to see the people who can play in front of [fans],” Barrett said. “I think it showed a lot for a lot of guys. The good thing about it, even though somebody might not have played well, they recognize that this was good for them and a lot of people don’t have that opportunity and they know what to do next time if you didn’t play well.
“If you did play well, keep on going.”
With only six returning starters, the Buckeyes can hardly afford to slow down as they head into summer conditioning.
There’s obviously nothing that can be done over the next few months that can instantly turn Ohio State into a veteran team. The talent that walked out the door isn’t coming back and a trip to Oklahoma is still looming in September. But if the Sooners or anybody else were expecting that Meyer’s pipeline might be slowing down, even a spring game that has to be taken with a grain of salt sent a message that probably isn’t the case.
“The message was very clear to our team,” Meyer said. “If you want to play quarterback at Ohio State, you need to be a Heisman candidate now. You have to be a high draft pick to play defensive end. If you play receiver at Ohio State, you have to start in the National Football League because that’s what has happened with the great receivers we’ve had here.
“We’re not embarrassed, we’re not ashamed to say that’s what has to happen. We’re not going to change our standards. We’re young, we wouldn’t win a lot of games right now, but we don’t have to yet.”
Having all those famous faces back would surely help. But as Ohio State headed up the tunnel to the locker room and into the offseason without them, what might have once seemed like a rebuilding project was starting to look like reloading.