NCF Nation: Chris Ash

NEW ORLEANS -- A wild, unusual few years on the sidelines were about to produce a championship, and all Luke Fickell wanted to do was coach the final minute.

First the Ohio State defensive coordinator had to pry Urban Meyer off his back and break out of the vise-grip hug his boss had on him.

[+] EnlargeLuke Fickell
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDespite outside criticism and swooping changes over the years, Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell has stuck by the program and by Urban Meyer.
Fickell had plenty to celebrate both personally and with his players, and he was as emotional as anybody given all the rough patches he'd gone through professionally over the past few seasons. But he wasn't quite ready to return the embrace or start smiling until the Big Ten championship was officially clinched and a shutout victory was intact.

"He knew what I was trying to do," Fickell said. "I was like, 'Let's finish this thing.'

"There are different challenges, that was the first for that unique challenge."

There have been plenty of other challenges for Fickell since Meyer took over three seasons ago and retained Ohio State's interim coach as his defensive coordinator, some of them situations that popped up repeatedly and produced more than a few uncomfortable moments. But the way his relationship with Meyer has evolved is just a part of the reason Fickell had so much cause to grin as the No. 4 Buckeyes punched their ticket to the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

There was the scandal that brought down his old boss Jim Tressel, thrusting him into the spotlight as the one-year stopgap until Meyer's arrival. There was the criticism of his defense as it completely unraveled down the stretch last season and Ohio State's shot at a national title was buried in an avalanche of passing yards. That was followed by the uncertainty of his role with Ohio State moving forward as Meyer vowed to make changes to get that unit straightened out and brought in a new co-defensive coordinator in Chris Ash, who brought with him previous experience calling the shots on that side of the ball.

Fickell has stressed repeatedly that his school and his players are the most important things to him, and they were the ones he was most happy for as the seconds ticked down earlier this month in Indianapolis. But there was certainly a little bit more bottled up inside him that ultimately he would pour out once he peeled off Meyer.

"I was so happy for Luke," Meyer said. "He's a Buckeye, he's a great family man, he's a guy that I have a lot of respect for.

"He's a guy that we have hard conversations about. He was in a very interesting situation here before I got here and he had no reason to be as loyal as he has been to me."

Fickell's loyalty to the program where he played and has now coached for 13 seasons gave him some incentive to stick it out. Always fiercely committed to his players as well, Fickell also didn't want to set an example that he couldn't handle tough coaching while trying to dish it out on the practice field.

The Buckeyes were aware of the outside criticism, and it would have been impossible to ignore Meyer when he started popping into defensive meetings to figure out what was going wrong in the middle of the season a year ago. But that only added to their own appreciation for the way Fickell handled his business, and it gave them just as much reason to wrap their arms around him after he helped lead Ohio State back to a conference title.

"Coach Fickell has always been one of those guys, he played here, obviously, but he loves Ohio State and wants only the best for Ohio State," Buckeyes LB Joshua Perry said. "To see what happened when we played Wisconsin and to see his reaction and how happy he was in the locker room, it was amazing. This year has been really different for him.

"I know that people, they said some things about him in the media and a lot of people probably were down on him when the defense wasn't playing great, but he was one of those guys, you shut all that out and you go coach. If you're a player, you shut all that out and go play. ... Just seeing him from when I first came in and some of the situations we were in [compared] to now is just amazing."

The fact Fickell is even still around at Ohio State might be every bit as surprising because he has been pushed to the limit by Meyer and the two didn't appear to be reading from the same script at the end of last season.

Even if Fickell wasn't in danger of being forced out, he had chances to leave after being interviewed for a couple of jobs to lead his own program after his brief shot in charge of the Buckeyes. He also could have certainly put himself in the mix for other coordinator jobs if he wanted. But instead of running from the difficult discussions Meyer was having with him, he embraced them and turned them into chances to better both his own coaching style and a defense that improved dramatically this season.

"I've been mad, uncomfortable, pissed," Fickell said. "The reality is that is what makes you better, makes you grow. You asked why I stayed. Everybody wants to be challenged -- comfort is not the greatest thing in the world. We've had those moments, those times where he has a vision, and the most important thing is we all got clear on what that vision is.

"It's one of those things that only takes place in the public eye only on a Saturday afternoon. The reality is we're all competitors, [Meyer] as much as any of us. When things don't go as well as you want them to, obviously there's going to be conversation. The only thing you can do is address that head-on."

This time, Meyer actually attacked him a bit from behind with his big bear hug.

But just like everything else that has come Fickell's way over the past few seasons, he kept his focus straight ahead on the field, emotions in check until his winding road had officially reached a championship destination.
NEW ORLEANS -- Alabama safety Nick Perry has squared off against Amari Cooper on an almost daily basis in practice. Here is his best advice on how to stop the Heisman Trophy finalist.

"Uh, pray," Perry said.

Hopefully, Ohio State has a little bit more of a plan than that on Thursday night at the Allstate Sugar Bowl, or else the Buckeyes likely won't have much of a prayer of advancing in the College Football Playoff. Yet it may take something close to divine intervention to slow down the best receiver in college football.

"The ideal way to defend him," Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said, "is a pouring rainstorm, winds of 30 or 40 miles an hour. But I don’t think that’s going to happen in a dome."

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
AP Photo/Butch DillStar Alabama receiver Amari Cooper had at least 130 receiving yards in seven games this season.
Cooper caught 115 balls for 1,658 yards and 15 touchdowns this season on his way to winning the Biletnikoff Award and finishing third in the Heisman voting. He had at least 130 yards receiving in seven games this year.

How good is Cooper? Crimson Tide quarterback Blake Sims said on Monday that "he's open on every play." And while Sims said he resists the urge to throw to Cooper every time he drops back to pass, Cooper has 100 more targets and 78 more receptions than any other Alabama player. That's the largest gap between a team's No. 1 and No. 2 receiver in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

So covering Cooper is an enormous key to beating Alabama.

"If he has a big day," Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said, "it’s going to be a long night for us."

The Buckeyes know too well what it's like to get burned by an elite receiver on a big bowl stage. In last year's loss to Clemson at the Orange Bowl, they were pretty helpless against Sammy Watkins, who ended up with 16 catches, 227 yards and two touchdowns.

Of course, that was nearly a full calendar year ago, and comparisons between then and now hold little weight. The Ohio State secondary was in tatters by the time it got to Miami last December. Star cornerback Bradley Roby missed the game with a knee injury and true freshman Vonn Bell made his first start, with predictably rocky results. The Buckeyes revamped their pass defense this offseason by hiring Ash from Arkansas and unleashing some athletic young safeties. The Buckeyes are No. 5 in the FBS in pass efficiency defense.

Better talent or better scheme?

"It's definitely both," senior cornerback Doran Grant said.

While it's true that the Big Ten lacked many star wideouts this year, Ohio State did face the three most productive receivers in the league and fared well against them. Michigan State's Tony Lippett, who led the conference with 1,124 receiving yards, had just five catches for 64 yards. Rutgers' Leonte Caroo had five catches for 100 yards, but 40 percent of that came on one play in a 56-17 Buckeyes blowout. Illinois' Mikey Dudek mustered just 68 yards on three grabs.

"Without a doubt, every time you go into a game you talk about what are your keys to victory, and one of those keys to victory is that you can’t let their best players beat you," Ash said. "I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that throughout the course of the season."

Cooper has heard opponents talk all year long about how they plan to stop him. It hasn't much mattered.

"I hear about it a lot throughout the week," he said. "But it's different when the game actually starts because of how the game plays out. If we're running the ball good, then things have to change because they have to make sure our running backs don't go off. So, I really don't pay too much attention."

Cooper said he has been impressed with what he's seen on film from Grant, who has developed into Ohio State's lockdown cover guy and who will likely try to shadow Cooper for most of Thursday's game.

"He's always on his man," Cooper said. "The receiver never gets a lot of separation."

But Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has found effective ways to move Cooper all over the field, sometimes lining him up in the slot or even having him come out of the backfield. That means it will take a team approach to keep tabs on him.

"What's unique about him is not that he can just take an 80-yard post, but he can take a screen 80 yards," Fickell said. "On the next snap, he’s going to be running a jet sweep where he’s not getting the ball. The next one, he’s going to be cracking the safety to spring [T.J.] Yeldon free. His completeness is not just the ability to catch the ball, but to come out of the backfield, the ability to take a swing pass, his ability to catch the deep ball, the ability to break tackles. Those are the things that make him special."

Senior Jeff Greene, who's 6-foot-5, is impersonating Cooper on the scout team for Ohio State. But there's no real way to copy the real thing because of the 6-foot-1 Cooper's size, speed, smarts and hands.

"He's unstoppable, man," Perry said. "That's a scary guy when you get him out there on that island."

If all else fails for Ohio State, at least prayer remains an option.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The exact moment Michael Bennett's mentality changed is a bit too difficult to pin down more than a month later.

Figuring out what adjustment the Ohio State defensive lineman made on the field is pretty clear cut, though.

Those two tweaks overlapped at some point leading into a huge test on the road against Michigan State. And the combination between truly committing to become a more consistent practice player, being a better leader, adopting an empty-the-tank aggression on game days, along with the No. 4 Buckeyes sticking him at defensive tackle on a full-time basis certainly worked. It finally allowed Bennett to play like the All-American he was expected to be before the season instead of the sluggish player that played the first two months.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett, Joel Stave
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesMichael Bennett was a terror down the stretch for Ohio State, racking up five sacks in the last month of the season.
“I don’t really know what caused the change,” Bennett said. “I think it was Michigan State week, that was probably when it was the biggest difference. I think I played good football up until Michigan State week, but I think once they moved me to just straight three-technique and said, 'Go do what we know you can do,' I think that made me a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident than playing a new position.

“I don’t know, I was able to feed off my teammates and we just started gelling and things started working out.”

That’s something of an understatement considering the tear Bennett went on for the next five weeks, a binge of big plays and embarrassing moments for opposing blockers that arguably made him one of the most disruptive defenders in the nation down the stretch.

Starting with his breakout performance in the victory over the Spartans that put Ohio State firmly in control of Big Ten East Division, Bennett racked up five sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss and forced three fumbles over the next five weeks. In the process, a program that faded on defense late in the season in 2013 instead appeared to grow stronger as it bullied its way into the College Football Playoff and Thursday’s showdown with No. 1 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that Bennett’s emergence coincided with some of the best defense the Buckeyes have played in years, most notably the 59-0 whitewash of Wisconsin that had the senior captain’s fingerprints all over it. And while the veteran is quick to deflect attention elsewhere and steadfastly refuses to take credit for Ohio State’s recent defensive rise, there is plenty of success that can be directly traced to Bennett.

“Any time that you are playing your best up front, especially right in the heart of your defense in the middle, it’s going to help the rest of the defense,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “Michael Bennett, about six weeks ago, he flipped the switch and something changed. ... Everybody else has fed off of that.

“He’s a senior up there, he’s one of our most talented players, one of our best playmakers. When people see him doing things the right way, the investment he’s made into the game of football to help himself get better has been impressive, everybody else is following his lead.”

Obviously the standard Bennett has set as a lead and a competitor has been a boost for the Buckeyes, but he’s also not alone on a long list of defenders who have improved during the season. Darron Lee has become a game-changer at linebacker, a secondary that was picked apart last season led the Big Ten in interceptions, and Joey Bosa has rapidly developed into one of the country’s top pass-rushing threats.

But give or take a few days, Ohio State can look back to the week of the Michigan State game and see a pretty definitive turning point -- not only for Bennett, but the rest of the unit as well.

“I think the defense is starting to gel at the right time of the year,” Bennett said. “I think everybody is starting to play less selfishly. I just think my success stems from everybody on the field doing better, so I’m more free to go do what I can do. My success comes from the team doing well, and the team doing well comes from my success just like it would coming from anybody else.

“I’m never going to take credit for something like that.”

A team-first captain never would anyway. But it wasn’t hard to see who was leading the charge for the Buckeyes over the last five games right into the playoff.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There was already more than enough evidence proving the sharpness of Urban Meyer's eye for talent, but add one more perfect example to the Ohio State coach's file.

Tom Herman wasn't toiling away in total anonymity while at Iowa State and building his case as one of the hottest young coordinators in the nation, but he also wasn't so well known that it was obvious Meyer would have to pursue him when he was putting together his first Buckeyes coaching staff three seasons ago. In fact, there really was no previous relationship between the two of them at all.

But Herman shared a similar philosophy with Meyer and won him over quickly despite not popping up on many coaching hot lists. The same was true for current co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, when Meyer was in the market for an assistant on that side of the ball after last season.

With a coaching tree that has sprouted yet another branch -- Herman is officially taking over as Houston's coach -- and so many Meyer protégés scattered around the country, by now it should be no secret that Meyer is as successful at spotting what he wants in his coaches as he is recruiting top-shelf talent for them to work with on the field.

Filling Herman's shoes won't be easy, not after his wild success preparing four quarterbacks in the past two seasons -- thanks to a string of injuries that almost certainly would have crippled most attacks but barely slowed down the Buckeyes -- to operate the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten. But when added to a list of former assistants -- like Dan Mullen, Charlie Strong, Steve Addazio, Doc Holliday, Tim Beckman and Gary Andersen -- who are now in charge of programs, the loss of Herman represents another chance for Meyer to add fresh ideas and continue evolving, rather than pose an insurmountable obstacle for title chances in 2015.

The hiring of Herman by the Cougars also offers a fantastic fit for both parties. Herman's ties to recruiting Texas, his knowledge of quarterback play and the spread offense, and his personality will be smash hits with fans and boosters of his new program. It's a victory for the Buckeyes in that they'll keep him around for as long as they're alive in the College Football Playoff.

So even though there's always uncertainty when a job this critical to a major program like Ohio State comes open, Meyer has earned the benefit of the doubt that he'll get his hire right, probably by nabbing an up-and-comer who wasn't widely considered an option when the process began. And given the somewhat unusual way Meyer operates with his offensive staff, he's already working from ahead because he doesn't have to also replace his invaluable offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner, who like Herman is destined to run his own program at some point in the near future.

"Like on offense right now, we have two coordinators -- Ed Warinner, Tom Herman -- and myself," Meyer said recently. "It’s not one guy calling plays, that’s not the way how we do business. At some places, that’s maybe how they do it.

"But we script each play, everybody is involved in the game plan and that’s the only way I’m going to have it. I don’t want that dictator in there, that’s not the way we do business."

Losing another coordinator, even the reigning Broyles Award winner as the best assistant in the nation, isn't going to run the Buckeyes out of business.

It's probably going to provide a major boost for Houston and it sets Herman on the path to prove himself and potentially land a bigger job down the road, while leaving Meyer to do a bit of professional recruiting again this offseason. In the end, the odds look good that everybody gets what they want.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A year ago, Ohio State's emphasis on stuffing the run came at the expense of a horrific pass defense.

As recently as a couple weeks ago, the mandate to shore up the secondary seemed to be damaging what used to be the Buckeyes' strength up front stopping the run.

Finally, after nearly three full seasons under Urban Meyer, the No. 4 Buckeyes found the balance their coach had been looking for, just in time for a four-team College Football Playoff that could throw everything from smash-mouth football to a high-flying spread offense at his team as it contends for a national championship. And on the heels of what was effectively a perfect game on the defensive side of the ball in the Big Ten championship, it appears the Buckeyes are finally ready for anything -- and more than capable of shutting it down.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett
AP Photo/Darron CummingsOhio State's defense bottled up Melvin Gordon in the Big Ten title game, finally showing the balance desired by Urban Meyer just in time for the College Football Playoff.
“[Saturday] helped, because I had my reservations during the year, like everybody did, about stopping the run,” Meyer said. “Because we really installed a backward approach, a back-end-first approach to pass defense. Work the back end first and then move forward. We’ve always been a front-end first and then coverage-wise, we’ve added a lot of coverage principles.

“After last week’s performance, I feel like we’re still a little too young to say we’re a finished product. We’re not a finished product, there are too many young players out there. The future is very bright, though.”

The present isn’t too shabby for the Buckeyes, either. And suddenly it’s not just their offense and a seemingly endless supply of quarterbacks that could give a team like No. 1 Alabama some problems in the semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

The Buckeyes were anemic in the secondary as Ohio State unraveled late in the season a year ago, but the more aggressive approach to pass coverage installed by co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash has cut down the yardage allowed dramatically while also generating more interceptions than any other unit in the Big Ten.

Gashed for three consecutive weeks in November by some of the top rushers in the league, the Buckeyes bottled up the best in the nation against Wisconsin in the conference title game, holding Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon to just 76 yards on 26 carries.

The combination of those improvements produced utter dominance for the Buckeyes on the field in a 59-0 shutout victory. And off the field, it’s taken the self-belief of a defense that has been under intense scrutiny for the last two seasons to another level as it prepares for a stiff challenge from a versatile Alabama offense -- with another chance to show off its improvement waiting with a victory.

“The confidence is very high, and you can’t play this game without confidence,” Ohio State senior linebacker Curtis Grant said. “Just to go out and make a statement like that, it gives you more confidence and it makes you more hungry to come out and just keep getting better. If you can do that one week, why not keep continuing that?

“I can’t even explain it. I watched the first half of the game and I was shocked. Just to see how hard that we were playing, everybody looks super fast on film and we were just getting to the ball. It was just crazy. I can’t really put it into words.”

Meyer had found and used plenty of colorful words to describe the defense before this past weekend, and he reflected again hours after the game on how “abysmal” the pass coverage was heading into the postseason at this time a year ago.

But after a long wait, and nearly three years of work, he subtly slipped in a nickname that has come to define the traditionally stout defenses Ohio State has long been known for. After Saturday night’s performance it was impossible to argue it hadn’t been earned.

“Best effort we had since we've been here,” Meyer said. “There's always been games where the defensive line played well, maybe the back end was giving up some plays.

"This was a complete, thorough effort by our defense.

“Everybody was waiting for the Silver Bullets to come back, including the head coach.”

They appear to be back, all right, and the timing couldn’t be any better for the Buckeyes.

Boom or bust for Ohio State secondary

October, 1, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Four plays haven’t changed anything for Urban Meyer, but they certainly got his attention.

The Ohio State coach hasn’t lost any faith in the players he has recruited, the coaches he hired or the system he had installed to fix a broken pass defense. But a handful of busted coverages and lost individual battles Saturday against Cincinnati at least concerned Meyer enough that he had to spend part of his Sunday grading the defense himself.

Meyer came away still convinced the plan in place and the personnel on hand is capable of reaching a championship level. But there’s no question it wasn’t there yet last weekend, which might be a troubling sign with another set of dangerous wide receivers waiting for the No. 20 Buckeyes this Saturday at Maryland.

“I hear someone say just take away those four plays,” Meyer said. “You can't just take away those four plays. That's part of the game. ... We played a very good throwing offense and we had four really bad plays that we have to get corrected -- have to get corrected.

“I'm satisfied with the direction we're going. We've just got to get them corrected.”

The Buckeyes don’t have any time to waste making those corrections with Stefon Diggs and Deon Long on deck this weekend, and Meyer hasn’t really bothered to hide his disappointment coming out of a game he touted as the first real test for a rebuilt, revamped secondary.

Twice already he’s publicly gone through the details of the four critical mistakes that produced four touchdowns and 240 yards through the air, in the process making it clear just how closely he was inspecting the film and searching for answers after Ohio State had worked so diligently to correct the issues that essentially cost it a shot at the national championship last season.

There was a one-on-one battle safety Vonn Bell couldn’t win despite tight coverage. A missed assignment against a screen pass. The coaching staff was on the hook for dialing up a coverage Meyer didn’t appear to be a big fan of just before halftime. And finally, perhaps a momentary lapse in technique and recognition that led to one more deep strike that at least for a moment turned a blowout into a tight 33-28 battle with the Bearcats.

There are elements of risk with the more aggressive schemes the Buckeyes have installed this season, increasing the amount of press coverage, attacking quarterbacks with different blitzes and challenging players across the board to win individual matchups. The gambles aren’t always going to pay off, but Ohio State is well aware it can’t afford to go bust as often as it did last Saturday if the Buckeyes are going to climb back into contention for the College Football Playoff.

“I think that’s what we’re going to put on our shoulders as coaches,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “We want our guys to have confidence in what they’re doing. I told them and we’re going to keep repeating it: I’d rather bet on myself, I’d rather bet on my guys and put them in position to go ahead and know that we have confidence in them, that we don’t have to make wholesale changes and knee-jerk and do some things.

“There are some things we can do better, but we’re still going to bet on ourselves.”

In turn, Meyer is going to keep backing some of the most decorated recruits in the country at cornerback and safety. He may spend a little extra time watching the defense and offering a bit more input, but he trusts the staff to get the job done. And he’s definitely not planning to scrap the vision he has for his defense in favor of a conservative, bend-but-try-not-to-break defense.

And if the pieces are truly all in place, the message is pretty clear.

“When you do what we do, you’re going to put yourself in one-on-one battles,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “We’ve got to win some of them.”

The alternative is going flat broke.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- An entertaining matchup at Ohio Stadium featured some of everything, but not all that much defense. Ohio State was able to weather all the punches Cincinnati threw its way in a high-scoring affair on Saturday night, eventually pulling away for a 50-28 win to close out its nonconference schedule.

How the game was won: As long as the Buckeyes didn’t hurt themselves with penalties, dropped passes or a fumble, there wasn’t anything that could slow down their offense. Cincinnati didn’t see much resistance when it had the ball, either, but it really had no answer for an Ohio State spread attack that is starting to look exactly like Urban Meyer envisioned by blending a powerful rushing game with dangerous play-action passes.

Game ball goes to: J.T. Barrett. The redshirt freshman is developing quickly for the Buckeyes, and he’s doing a pretty impressive Braxton Miller impression in the process. With Ohio State’s defense struggling to offer much support, Barrett proved more than capable of winning a shootout by throwing for 330 yards and four touchdowns and complementing that with 79 rushing yards.

What it means: The fatal flaw that ruined Ohio State’s bid for a national title last season doesn’t appear to have been fixed quite yet. The Bearcats picked apart the Buckeyes through the air with Gunner Kiel making them pay for every defensive breakdown with 352 yards and four touchdowns. That’s a troubling sign for Meyer, who brought in co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash in the offseason solely to address that issue.

Playoff implications: The suspect secondary probably didn’t inspire much confidence around the country about Ohio State’s chances of climbing back in the race. But the Buckeyes survived a tough test from a motivated Cincinnati squad to at least keep hope alive if they can navigate the conference slate without a loss. For the Bearcats, any long-shot chance of crashing the party is gone.

What’s next: The Buckeyes wrapped up an interesting month outside of the Big Ten, a trying stretch that started during training camp with Miller’s injury, included the loss to Virginia Tech and then the indefinite suspension of defensive end Noah Spence. At least in the conference race, a new season starts next week with what should be a tough matchup at Maryland.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- If all Urban Meyer wanted was something to feel good about and reassure him progress on defense was being made, the Ohio State coach has plenty of numbers he can pull to set his mind at ease.

The Buckeyes just pitched a shutout before their bye week. They’ve already intercepted five passes. Only two teams in the nation are allowing fewer yards per game through the air.

Those things may be encouraging, and Meyer certainly isn’t complaining considering Ohio State’s horrendous pass coverage a year ago effectively cost them a Big Ten title and a shot at a national championship. But those statistics provide something of a false positive, because the reworked secondary of the No. 22 Buckeyes hasn't really been tested yet.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPrete"This is the test," Urban Meyer said of Cincinnati. "This is the one that we're all shooting for."
But Cincinnati figures to give them that test on Saturday night at Ohio Stadium.

“Here we go,” Meyer said. “This is the test. This is the one that we’re all shooting for.

“They’re really good at throwing the ball, and it will be a challenge for us. But I really can't make an evaluation yet after the first three games.”

The signs appear to be pointing in the right direction under new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who was brought in to lead the overhaul of a coverage unit that finished No. 110 in the nation last season against the pass.

Ohio State was routinely torched down the stretch a year ago, barely surviving a shootout against Michigan before falling to both Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl thanks largely to breakdowns in the secondary. Meyer didn’t hesitate in the aftermath of the losses that snapped a 24-game winning streak to express his frustration with a defense that wasn’t playing as aggressively as he wanted, and after Everett Withers left following the season to take over at James Madison, it was up to Ash to dial up the intensity and deliver what his new boss wanted in the secondary.

So far, he appears to be delivering that with a system that relies on simpler schemes, man coverage and players with fearless mentalities who don’t back down from the challenge of intense competition on every snap.

“We did make improvement, but again, we’ve got a long way to go in a lot of areas,” Ash said. “It’s hard to answer [how much improvement there is], because I don’t really know. I was hoping that we would be good, but I was hoping that we would be undefeated at this point and we’re not.

“Where are we at right now? We won [against Kent State], we made improvement and that’s all we can ask for.”

Kent State is a far cry offensively from Cincinnati, and the Buckeyes haven’t pretended otherwise since pitching a shutout ahead of their off date and turning the focus to one of the nation’s most dangerous quarterbacks and a talented receiving corps.

Ohio State had already snuck a peek at Gunner Kiel and the explosive Bearcats before taking on Kent State, watching the redshirt sophomore’s debut in a Friday-night game in which he carved up Toledo for six touchdowns. He was impressive again in another win last weekend against Miami (Ohio), and his hot start and the strength of the Cincinnati offense is clearly not a secret to the Buckeyes.

But with just three weeks of somewhat worthless data on hand, Ohio State is actually welcoming a measuring stick for the revamped secondary. That way Meyer might finally have something worth evaluating to put his mind at ease -- or maybe some evidence that last year’s problems haven’t yet been solved.

“We’ve got some things to work out, but we’re getting there, real close,” safety Tyvis Powell said. “I’m just excited about playing the game, and we’re ready to just display to the world that the pass defense has improved.”

Noah Spence is back, maybe a week too late

September, 12, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There were no intentions of trying to rewrite history, and Ohio State also wasn’t trying to make excuses.

But the conclusion was simple enough to reach that there was also no sense in denying what was obvious for the Buckeyes.

Noah Spence was clearly missed on the defensive line, and every scramble, every sack that slipped away and every third-down conversion that was picked up during Virginia Tech’s win last Saturday at Ohio Stadium only reinforced that as he served the final week of his three-game suspension.

“I’m sure he could have [helped],” defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “I think the guys we had in there did their jobs well, everyone makes mistakes, but Noah is a playmaker and you never know what plays he’s going to decide to make.

“I mean, I wouldn’t say no, he wouldn’t have made a difference because it is Noah.”

The Buckeyes still had Bennett, Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington on the field chasing around Hokies quarterback Michael Brewer. But without the full complement of starters available through two games, the defensive line hasn’t yet had a chance to prove it’s worthy of the preseason hype that touted the unit as the most lethal in the nation.

Spence has speed, strength and the nose for the quarterback. He displayed all of that while finishing second in the Big Ten with eight sacks last season before he was suspended for testing positive for a small amount of ecstasy ahead of the Discover Orange Bowl.

His contributions surely could have come in handy a week ago.

At a minimum, Spence would have provided an additional body in the rotation, which could have kept the linemen fresher in the fourth quarter after chasing around Brewer seemingly all game long. But given his emergence last season as a sophomore and the additional time he’s had since then to continue building his body, fine-tuning his technique and learning a more aggressive defensive system, it seems highly likely he would have provided more than just a breather for his teammates.

It’s too late, though, to change the outcome against Virginia Tech, and the Buckeyes haven’t been looking for sympathy. Ohio State still has plenty of season left ahead of it, including the entire Big Ten schedule, and it could potentially climb back in the national picture now that it’s whole again up front.

“We saw a lot of strides in the spring from him, and from the time we started until the time we ended in spring practice, he made a lot of improvement,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “He’s made improvement through training camp also, and I’m excited to see him get out there on game day.

“I think it’s going to be tremendous. Noah is a very talented player, fits well in our scheme, has a tremendous ability to get after the quarterback. I think it’s going to help us a lot.”

Getting a hand from Spence surely would have helped more last week against Virginia Tech than Saturday against Kent State. But either way, he’s back now and perhaps the most talented line in the country can get to work trying to prove it.
Dantonio/MeyerUSA TODAY SportsUrban Meyer and OSU might be the Big Ten favorite, but don't forget about Mark Dantonio and MSU.
Let's get this out of the way first. I don't begrudge anyone for listing Ohio State as the 2014 Big Ten favorite.

The Buckeyes are 16-0 in regular-season Big Ten games under coach Urban Meyer, and 24-0 in the regular season overall the past two seasons. Despite Wisconsin's surge in 2010 and 2011 and Penn State's in 2005 and 2008, Ohio State has carried the Big Ten banner since winning the league's last national title in 2002. Other than the 2011 season, when the program lost its coach and its quarterback late in the spring, Ohio State has been the team to beat in this league.

What bothers me is the tone about the Buckeyes and this season's Big Ten title race. I've been on several radio shows in recent weeks that have presented the conference as one where Ohio State is 50 yards ahead and everyone else is trying to catch up. Some playoff projections list Ohio State as the Big Ten's only candidate. Bovada's futures list Ohio State with 1/1 odds to win the Big Ten and 2/5 odds to win the East Division. That is an overwhelming endorsement for Meyer's crew.

I'm used to the Big Ten being framed in this way. In other seasons, it has made complete sense. It doesn't make sense entering the 2014 campaign.

The Big Ten conversation can start with Ohio State, but it also must include Michigan State, the team that outclassed Ohio State in the 2013 Big Ten championship game and went on to win the Rose Bowl against Stanford. The Spartans have earned a spot in the conversation.

Several other teams could catch, and possibly overtake, the Buckeyes and Spartans by early December, but right now, it's a two-team discussion.

So why are the Buckeyes dominating so much of the preseason chatter?

It takes a long time to change perception in college football, and the default perception in the Big Ten goes like this: Ohio State, canyon, everyone else. Michigan State last season was the Big Ten's most dominant team in recent memory -- the Spartans beat all nine of their league opponents by 10 points or more -- but the sense is MSU cannot sustain such excellence.

And why not? Well, the Spartans lost some key pieces from the league's top defense, including All-America cornerback Darqueze Dennard and linebacker Max Bullough.

But so did Ohio State. The Buckeyes actually lose more of their core: four starting offensive linemen, running back Carlos Hyde, linebacker Ryan Shazier, cornerback Bradley Roby.

Both teams say goodbye to quality offensive linemen but bring back proven quarterbacks in Braxton Miller (Ohio State) and Connor Cook (Michigan State). The Buckeyes likely have the single best position group between the teams -- and possibly in the entire Big Ten -- with their defensive line, but MSU's defense, with a multiyear stretch of elite performance, looks more complete. The Spartans, who lose only one key skill player on offense -- wide receiver Bennie Fowler -- seem to have fewer question marks on that side of the ball.

Both coaching staffs are excellent. Meyer added two quality defensive assistants this winter in Larry Johnson and Chris Ash. Michigan State retained arguably the nation's top defensive assistant in coordinator Pat Narduzzi.

Both teams should thrive on special teams with standout punters Mike Sadler (MSU) and Cameron Johnston (OSU).

I guess I'm trying to figure out where a significant gap exists between Ohio State and Michigan State. I understand the risk of basing too much on a previous season. MSU has to rise up again. But it's not like the Spartans are a one-year marvel. They have averaged 10.5 wins over the past four seasons.

Maybe the perceived gap is based on talent and recruiting. Ohio State has advantages in those areas and a roster that now includes several classes of Meyer recruits. But MSU also has made upgrades in the quality of players it brings in, and its ability to develop players can't be questioned at this point.

If you can make a case why Ohio State is well ahead of Michigan State and the rest of the Big Ten, be my guest. But don't base it on Ohio State being Ohio State and Michigan State being Michigan State. That type of lazy, it-is-how-it-is-because-it-always-has-been thinking enters too many college football conversations.

Ohio State could storm through the Big Ten en route to its first recognized league title since 2009. But the Buckeyes don't look like world-beaters on paper. They have significant questions (offensive line, linebacker, secondary, running back) and likely must get through East Lansing on Nov. 8 to return to Indianapolis.

They aren't entitled to the pedestal they have occupied in the past.

Go ahead and list the Buckeyes as your favorite. I might, too. But this year's Big Ten preseason buzz involves two teams, not one.


If Ron Burgundy coached college football -- the San Diego Border Terriers, perhaps? -- he would only need to learn two lines to survive spring practice.

1. "I like my team."

2. "I'm glad we don't have a game tomorrow."

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
AP Photo/Jeff HaynesPat Fitzgerald's Wildcats had to deal with a lot off the field this spring.
College coaches have recited those phrases in spring ball for decades. The 14 men leading Big Ten programs are no exceptions. But the standard spring sentiments apply to the league more this year than most.

There are reasons to believe the Big Ten will be better this fall, but the work is far from over on most campuses. This isn't a league of finished products, and the coming months take on added importance before the 2014 season kicks off in late August.

"I don't think we're that far behind; it's just painfully obvious that we're not there," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "This next phase will be the most important phase of this team's life. It's always important, but with a lot of things we've gone though, we've got to come together."

Northwestern went through a lot in the spring, mostly away from the field, as the campaign for a player union gained national media attention, especially after players were declared employees of the school in March. The team held a historic vote Friday, after Fitzgerald had expressed his opposition to unionizing. Some players expressed concern that the vote could split the team.

It will be months before we know if the union plan goes through, but the Wildcats continue preparing for a pivotal season. They found their quarterback this spring in senior Trevor Siemian and an offensive identity based around the passing game. But questions along both lines remain.

The spring also produced quarterback answers at Iowa (Jake Rudock) and Minnesota (Mitch Leidner). Michigan's Devin Gardner had a rough spring game but still seems likely to retain his job. Another senior signal-caller, Rutgers' Gary Nova, is a good bet to remain atop the depth chart. Although Nebraska's Tommy Armstrong lacks Nova's or Gardner's experience, he exited spring just as he entered it: as the Huskers' top quarterback.

Indiana's platoon system of Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson frustrates some, but not coach Kevin Wilson, who has given every indication that he'll continue to use both for another season.

Other quarterback races have been reduced but not resolved. Illinois will pick between Wes Lunt, the Oklahoma State transfer who impressed for much of the spring, and veteran backup Reilly O'Toole. Coach Tim Beckman wants a resolution before two-a-day practices in August.

Purdue's Danny Etling, who started the final seven games of his freshman season, appeared to have a slight lead coming out of the spring, but coach Darrell Hazell isn't ready to declare a starter. So Austin Appleby and David Blough remain alive.

Wisconsin reduced its candidate pool from four to two as Joel Stave, who boasts 19 career starts but also a nagging throwing shoulder injury, will compete with dual-threat Tanner McEvoy in camp.

"It will be a fight," coach Gary Andersen said.

Quarterback is just one spot where Wisconsin has questions. The Badgers went through much of the spring with only four healthy wide receivers. They've also revamped their defensive front seven, which returns only one starter from 2013.

[+] EnlargeRaekwon McMillan
Miller Safrit/ESPNEarly enrollee Raekwon McMillan could make an immediate impact for Ohio State's defense this fall.
Ohio State didn't have star quarterback Braxton Miller for spring ball because of shoulder surgery, but the Buckeyes focused on bolstering a defense that struggled last fall. Freshman Raekwon McMillan, an early enrollee, is pushing for the starting middle linebacker spot, and competition will continue at the cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Chris Ash, the Buckeyes' new co-defensive coordinator, worked to simplify the scheme this spring.

"We only have about six defensive calls," safety Tyvis Powell said after the spring game. "We had too many last year."

Offensive line remains Michigan's focal point coming out of the spring. A sloppy spring game didn't ease fears about the Wolverines' front five, although coach Brady Hoke saw positive signs in earlier practices. A critical summer awaits new coordinator Doug Nussmeier, tasked with resurrecting Michigan's run game.

At Penn State, new coach James Franklin continues to energize both players and fans. But he's also realistic about the depth challenge his team faces, particularly along the offensive line.

"When you don't have a two-deep of scholarship players, you've got issues that you're going to have to overcome," Franklin said. "We don't."

Like Rutgers, Maryland began its Big Ten transition this spring and welcomed running back Wes Brown and wideout Marcus Leak after absences from the team. If the Terrapins finally stay healthy, they could be worth watching in a loaded East Division.

Sitting atop the division is defending Big Ten champ Michigan State. The Spartans had a relatively stress-free spring, but they must fill key spots on defense, especially at linebacker and cornerback, where players like Taiwan Jones and Darian Hicks step in.

The returning pieces for teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin fuel optimism around the league. But in spring, optimism is always tempered by what lies ahead.

"We're improving," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Saturday, "but we're hardly ready to play."

They won't have to for 132 days.

Until then, stay classy, Big Ten fans.


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always trying to find new ways to motivate his players.

Last spring, he had a banner put up in the Ohio State field house reading “The Chase …” in reference to the Buckeyes’ championship pursuits. Meyer said he thought about changing the display for the 2014 offseason. In the end, though, he stuck with the same one.

“We didn’t accomplish it,” Meyer told ESPN.com. “We chased it but didn’t catch it. So the chase is still on.”

Ohio State, of course, nearly made it to its desired finish line. After going 12-0 for the second straight season under Meyer, the Buckeyes just needed to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game to clinch a date with Florida State for the BCS national title. Instead, they fell 34-24 to the Spartans and closed the year on a two-game losing streak with a 40-35 setback against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer says Ohio State is still trying to finish "The Chase."
So the chase continues, albeit with a much different-looking team in the 2014 starting gate. Gone is four-fifths of the offensive line that formed the backbone of the Big Ten’s top-scoring offense the past two seasons. Also gone are reigning Big Ten running back of the year Carlos Hyde and top receiver Corey “Philly” Brown, as well as the two biggest stars on defense -- linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby -- who opted to enter the NFL draft.

Experience is lacking in many key areas, but Meyer is ready to let some talented youngsters loose, including true freshmen. In retrospect, he wishes he had done so last year, when defensive end Joey Bosa and receiver Dontre Wilson were the only first-year players to make a big impact until safety Vonn Bell started in the Orange Bowl.

“We redshirted too many last year, and that was our fault,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding, and we just didn’t do a good job, especially on defense. When they show up on campus, we need to get them ready to play.”

This spring, early enrollees Raekwon McMillan (linebacker), Curtis Samuel (tailback) and Johnnie Dixon (receiver) were all heavily involved and have secured roles in the fall. Redshirt freshman are also at or near the top of the depth chart at strongside linebacker (Darron Lee and Chris Worley) and cornerback (Gareon Conley and Eli Apple), while true sophomores like safety Cam Burrows and tailback Ezekiel Elliott could force their way into the starting lineup.

“When you talk about inexperience, that’s a good thing right now,” said Chris Ash, who was hired from Arkansas as co-defensive coordinator to help fix Ohio State’s pass defense. “There aren’t a lot of habits that we have to change to fit what we’re trying to do. We don’t have older guys that are comfortable with where they’re at in their careers.”

An already young offense became even greener this spring because of injuries to three senior leaders: tight end Jeff Heuerman, receiver Evan Spencer and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will no doubt look a lot different when Miller returns from shoulder surgery. During the 15 spring practices, the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year often stood behind the offense and wore a camera on his head so coaches could go over what he was seeing on the field.

“We're exhausting every avenue and even inventing different avenues to make sure he's engaged and getting mental reps,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We're doing the best we can with a bad situation. He has embraced it and is working his tail off, making sure he’s getting the most out of it.”

Herman says the Buckeyes should be more explosive on the perimeter this season, with guys like Wilson, Dixon, junior college transfer Corey Smith, sophomore Michael Thomas and freshman Jalin Marshall at receiver and a stable of athletic tailbacks. The safeties are longer and quicker than they have been in the past, and the defensive line -- which could be one of the nation’s best -- will have four starters who all used to be defensive ends.

The objective is clear: more speed. To that end, Meyer has hammered a new mantra in the players' heads: “4 to 6, A to B.” That means play hard for four to six seconds and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's hard to interview an Ohio State player these days without hearing the phrase.

“That’s all he’s been preaching this spring.” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “He said he’s not really worried about technique and all that stuff. It’s just about playing hard, because if you play hard, effort makes up for mistakes.”

Washington said the defense was greatly simplified this spring, with only about four or five different calls to learn. Aggressiveness trumped scheme.

“The culture of Ohio State is to go hard, not trick you,” Meyer said. “I just felt like there was too much stuff last year, instead of just going hard.”

By moving faster and playing harder, the Buckeyes hope to overcome their youth and track down what they've been hunting. They have been tantalizingly close.

“We’re still on a chase,” Washington said. “We’ve just got to finish it.”


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas primarily to fix Ohio State's problems in its pass defense.

What Ash found is that the biggest area of need might have been from the shoulder pads up rather than any scheme or philosophy.

"You talk about Ohio State and the history, and there have been some really good defenses and some really good defensive backs," the Buckeyes' first-year co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach told ESPN.com. "You knew what you were going to get when you lined up against Ohio State -- you were going to get hit in the mouth.

[+] EnlargeChris Ash
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsChris Ash says instilling a new attitude in the secondary is as important as any scheme he is bringing to Ohio State.
"From my observations, some of that confidence and swagger has been lost in the last couple of years. And that mental psyche is probably as big as anything for us to regain."

It's understandable why the secondary might have felt shell-shocked by the way last season ended. The last three games of the season saw Ohio State surrender 451 passing yards to Michigan in a one-point win, allow Michigan State's Connor Cook to register his first career 300-yard passing day in a Big Ten championship game loss and serve up five passing touchdowns to Clemson in the Orange Bowl defeat. That led to withering criticism from fans and media about the pass defense.

"It’s been everywhere about how bad our back end was," senior cornerback Doran Grant said.

Ash said he hasn't looked much at the past and doesn't really care about it. But he does want the defensive backfield to play with an attitude and confidence, a task that's not made easier by the loss of three starters from last season.

One way Ash has tried to instill those traits is by showing his players clips from the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks' secondary. Seattle's hard-hitting, long cornerbacks and safeties set a tone for its entire defense.

"We made lot of cutups of them and said, 'Guys, this is how the best in the business play the game of football,’'' Ash said. "Are we going to be that? No, but we can be in our own way, and this is the way we need to play."

Ash wants his players showing energy and excitement on the field. So whenever a defensive back gives a great effort or celebrate a big play in practice this spring, you'll hear Ohio State coaches say, "Locker it." That's jargon for saving the video clip, which Ash will later show to his players in meetings.

Ohio State needed more change than just the mental side of the game, of course. Ash will help give the Buckeyes a more consistent and aggressive approach in its pass coverage, utilizing the Cover 4, or quarters, scheme. That will also feature some man-to-man, press coverage at times. It's kind of a combination of what Ash ran at Wisconsin, mixed in with some principals that Michigan State has had so much success with.

"We're taking the same approach that we take to stopping the run and putting it in the back end," Meyer said. "The feeling around here was as long as we stop the run and give up some passing yards, that’s OK. That’s not the case anymore. There are too many good throwing teams out there."

Grant is by far the most experienced player in the secondary and looks to take over the role of No. 1 cornerback after Bradley Roby's departure to the NFL. Working opposite him are junior Armani Reeves and redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple. The latter two were both big-time recruits, and Ash said Apple is probably the defense's most improved player over the latter half of spring ball.

Sophomore Vonn Bell, who made his first career start at safety in the Orange Bowl, tore his MCL early in spring practice. In his absence, the 6-foot-3 Tyvis Powell and the 6-foot Cam Burrows are taking first-team reps at safety. Both are former cornerbacks and are what Ash calls "the model of what we want to recruit here" at safety because of their speed and size.

They've got a long way to go to match the Seahawks, but the Buckeyes have very promising, if somewhat raw, athletes to work with. They hope that leads to a much better and more confident secondary this season.

"It’s not about the size or anything like that," Grant said. "It’s about going hard and being coachable. [The Seahawks are] a high standard, but Ohio State, we’re also a high standard."
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Ohio State way has been almost all Luke Fickell has ever known, and for years, there wasn’t much reason to branch out and try another approach.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer, Luke Fickell
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsLuke Fickell's 2013 Ohio State defense didn't live up to the standards Urban Meyer wants in Columbus.
As a former player, the current defensive coordinator played a role in maintaining the proud tradition of the program, so he understood the demands of representing the Buckeyes. For more than a decade, he’s passed on the gospel of the Silver Bullets on to the coaching staff, surrounded by familiar faces who knew the system just as well as he did and had been a part of many wins together.

And when the results are positive, there might be little incentive to figure out what made Wisconsin so effective in bottling up passing attacks under Chris Ash or how Penn State was churning out NFL prospects on the defensive line under Larry Johnson. But when things go wrong, that comfort with the way things have always been done can become dangerous complacency for somebody unwilling to change. That said, Fickell is embracing some fresh approaches if they can help get Ohio State's defense back to an elite level.

“It’s been a great transition, to be honest with you,” Fickell said earlier this month after the second practice of spring camp working with the new-look staff. “I know we haven’t had the real stressers and the reality of a season, but I tell you, we’ve battled through a lot of things in the last month or so and it’s been a great growing experience for me. I’ve always had a little bit of a comfort level here with the people that I’ve known ... and that’s one of those things that Coach [Urban] Meyer likes to challenge you to do is get out of your comfort zone.

“Having some new guys has made me do that and has made me broaden the things that we do. It’s been a great growing experience.”

The Buckeyes certainly left themselves plenty of room to grow defensively after completely falling apart down the stretch last season on that side of the ball. The Buckeyes came up short in the Big Ten title game, fell out of contention for the national title and coughed up a lead in the Orange Bowl, which were all products of the late-season struggle.

Meyer didn’t fire any assistants after his team finished the season ranked 110th in the nation in passing defense and allowed 115 points over the final three games, but he was afforded the chance to shake up his staff after safeties coach Everett Withers left to take over as the head coach at James Madison and Mike Vrabel surprisingly left his alma mater for a position with the Houston Texans.

“I have a lot of confidence in the coaches that were here,” Meyer said. “Obviously we didn’t perform up to the standard. We won a lot of games, but there were some holes.

“Holes are very easy to blame players or blame coaches, so just overall, we need to freshen up our defense.”

Meyer has admitted that fresh voices were probably needed as part of that rebuilding job, and the offseason departures allowed him to bring in a couple of them in Ash and Johnson. The current plan still has Fickell retaining play-calling duties for the Buckeyes, but Ash in particular is expected to play a prominent role in reshaping the pass coverage -- and updating what it means to play Ohio State defense.

“The idea of sometimes bending but don’t break is not exactly the mentality that obviously Coach Meyer likes,” Fickell said. “Those are some of those things that, as we get into our third year of it, we figure out each other, and hopefully, we do a lot better job of it.

“You know, the most important thing to understand is we ask our guys to be 1 of 11. We ask them to play together, that’s why this is the greatest team sport known to man, and it’s not any different for coaches. It doesn’t matter the titles or anything like that. ... We’ll be on the same page.”

That might mean reading a slightly different textbook than the one Fickell has had for years at Ohio State, but he’s clearly open to new ideas.


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The slogan on the banner hanging outside Mickey Marotti’s office was no longer delivering exactly the right message, so the Ohio State strength coach decided to update it himself.

The last word left some room for ambiguity, so Marotti pulled out some athletic tape to cover it up, got out a marker and made his expectations much more clear for a team coming off consecutive losses to end last season.

The sign that greeted the Buckeyes used to demand that “the BEST players have to be the BEST workers,” but that bar was too low for Marotti and necessitated some editing and minor redecorating during offseason conditioning ahead of Tuesday’s first practice of spring.

“Anybody can be a worker,” Marotti said. “Anybody can punch a clock and get a paycheck. I want grinders.”

The Buckeyes can now find that word scribbled in all caps on the white tape just above the door to Marotti’s office. And that hard-working mentality has clearly emerged early in the year as a driving force for a team that came up short of a couple of its most important goals after its 24-game winning streak came to an end, giving way to a two-game losing streak.

Ohio State still had plenty to feel good about last season after winning its division again, knocking off rival Michigan to cap another perfect regular season and piling up some individual honors along the way. But the loss in the conference title game that kept the Buckeyes from claiming the top prize in the Big Ten and likely from playing for the national championship, and the defeat in the Discover Orange Bowl that followed it, still sting in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

And part of the process in erasing that pain and reaching a higher level in 2014 started with tweaking their vocabulary along with their mindsets.

“Last year, I don’t want to say the word entitled,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “ … Last year it was kind of, well, you were 12-0, you’re preseason this, you’re this, and I haven’t had many people ask about our preseason [ranking]. Right now we’re just trying to find out who’s going to play for us in some spots.

“I don’t want to diminish what happened because we came back and took the lead in the fourth quarter and lost a couple [leads] in those last two games, and that happens. If I felt like there was a lack of fight, then we’d blow the whole thing up. There was certainly not lack of fight.”

There were, perhaps, a few critical pieces missing in terms of personnel and maybe a defensive philosophy that didn’t quite match up with what Meyer ideally wants from his program. Those were obviously at the top of his list when he reported for practice on the indoor field Tuesday.

Ohio State still has some questions to answer at linebacker, but it attacked that weakness on the recruiting trail by signing four guys in the most recent class and appears like it might have a somewhat unexpected solution to replace Ryan Shazier on the weakside with Darron Lee emerging with the first-team unit to start camp.

The process of installing a more aggressive secondary under new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash has only just begun, but his approach appears to be more in line with what Meyer is expecting even in the early stages.

But again establishing Meyer’s standard for work ethic and reinforcing his emphasis on “4-to-6 seconds of relentless effort” on every play was just as important in shaping his team to compete for a title, and Marotti did his part to help cut down on any wiggle room.

“We just have to improve, we’ve got to finish and I like where we’re at as a team,” Meyer said. “I want an angry, blue-collar team, and I’m hoping that’s what we have.”

The key for the Buckeyes is apparently making sure those blue-collar workers are showing up to do more than punch a clock.

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