NCF Nation: Ed Warinner
The trophy his Ohio State Buckeyes were chasing had been tracked down. Now they might just run away and hide with it.
If the Buckeyes truly were a year ahead of schedule not only to compete for a crown but to claim it in such impressive fashion Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T, that doesn't exactly bode well for any team looking to knock them off their newfound perch.
"The chase is complete," Meyer said. "It's done. It's over. They accepted their final mission, their final assignment, their final directive, and it was a job well done.
"We're going to enjoy this one, but they're going to get a new mission assignment here pretty soon: Let's get back here again next year."
Defending a title is never easy, and the rush to proclaim a new superpower typically fails more often than not. But with all the pieces Meyer has returning to accept the next mission, it's hard not to look at the Buckeyes and see a team built for the future.
There are going to be notable losses, particularly on defense where both the leadership and production of defensive tackle Michael Bennett, linebacker Curtis Grant and cornerback Doran Grant will be missed. There's also going to be an opening on the offensive line with Darryl Baldwin graduating, and big-play wideout Devin Smith is out of eligibility as well. But that's pretty much all the Buckeyes will be worried about replacing, and they are locked and loaded with the majority of their standout contributors returning and another influx of talent on the way.
After his epic postseason tear, Ezekiel Elliott appears to be getting better heading into his junior season, and he will have Curtis Samuel as his sidekick in the backfield again.
The linchpins of the dramatic improvement in the secondary, safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell, will both be back for another season as starters. Joey Bosa, already one of the most feared pass-rushers in the nation, will spend at least another year with the Buckeyes, and defensive tackle Adolphus Washington has indicated he will stick around as well.
There will be four experienced starters on the offensive line. Despite losing Smith, Ohio State will have six of its top seven options in terms of receptions back in the fold. Even in spots where the Buckeyes are losing people, like at middle linebacker or offensive coordinator with Tom Herman heading to take over Houston, there are ready-made replacements who have proved capable of handling a larger role such as rising sophomore Raekwon McMillan or co-coordinator Ed Warinner, a criminally undervalued assistant who was integral in the title run this season.
That doesn't even dive into the most important position on the field, where the Buckeyes still expect to have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal. Assuming nobody changes his mind and decides to transfer or turn pro, Ohio State could have a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in Braxton Miller, the reigning Big Ten Quarterback of the Year in J.T. Barrett and yet another option who came off the bench to win all three postseason games in Cardale Jones.
That potential battle for the starting job behind center is almost absurd given the accolades and talent each of those guys brings to the table, but it also gives an indication of just how much depth and ability the Buckeyes have been stockpiling as Meyer eyed a run in 2015. Just because they reached the summit a bit earlier than expected, that doesn't mean the directive moving forward will change.
"We've just got to stay a hungry team," Elliott said. "We're losing some great seniors, but we have a lot of great young players that will step up, and this year was just a great year to learn a lot of things.
"I think we'll be the same team next year. As long as we stay humble, we grind hard in the offseason, don't let our heads get too big, I think we'll be here next year."
The difference is that the Buckeyes are no longer chasing something they don't have. The rest of the country is coming after them and that shiny trophy, but a budding dynasty isn't going to make it easy to catch them.
That’s not guaranteed, obviously. But if there is such a thing as a stone-cold lock, the boost Ohio State figures to receive from having the starting left tackle around for one more season might just qualify.
Though, of course, he’s not yet done with his work as a junior with the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T set for Monday night against No. 2 Oregon.
“I wasn’t really wanting to get into that prior to this game, but I’m coming back for my senior year,” Decker said. “You know, personally, growing up I wanted to play here and this is my first year at a new position, and I’ve seen projections of where I could go, but I think for the most part I’m kind of under the radar. So, I think another year, barring something drastic happening, can only benefit me.
“You know, my draft stock can only go up, and I have goals that I haven’t accomplished yet here.”
Since his decision has been made prior to the title game, it’s safe to assume that those accomplishments are probably personal, so Decker declined to go into any detail about what they might be for fear of calling too much attention to himself.
That’s yet another example of the team-first approach that has already made Decker so invaluable to the Buckeyes this season, even if for the most part seniors like Michael Bennett and Evan Spencer have carried the torch and set the tone on the run to a Big Ten title and a victory in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
But Decker’s impact as the only returning starter on an offensive line that was effectively rebuilt entirely from a year ago shouldn’t be overlooked, particularly given the early struggles for the unit as Ohio State was shockingly upset by Virginia Tech in Week 2. He called back to his own transition into the lineup the previous season and the rude awakening to the demands of playing a full-time role he had as a sophomore to help bring along his inexperienced teammates. That, in some ways, gave offensive line coach Ed Warinner another assistant to help speed up the process on the practice field and in games. And while it has already given him a valuable leadership role within that group, it seems like a safe bet to expand to the rest of the team moving forward.
Certainly, his contributions on the field are nothing to scoff at either. And with defensive tackle Adolphus Washington and postseason superstar quarterback Cardale Jones both joining him this week in expressing their desire to return, the Buckeyes appear to pretty much be retaining all the pieces they need to make another push for a championship again next year.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t think it was going to happen, because I didn’t really get any interest from here,” Decker said. “But it was something that I really wanted, and to be given that opportunity, I’ve just done everything I can to be successful. You know, it is a really good feeling and gratifying when you accomplish something huge like that, and I’ve loved my time here. I like being here, I like playing for Ohio State and representing this university, and that’s important to me.
“I love playing with my friends, on the line especially. Once I leave here, I can never come back.”
So Decker is in no hurry to find the exit. And however that might help him individually, it figures to benefit the Buckeyes even more.
The presumptive centerpiece of the offense, Braxton Miller, was lost during training camp and never took a snap at quarterback this season. Arguably the most touted returning defender, Noah Spence, never played a down, either, because of what turned into a permanent suspension.
Those weren't the only holes the No. 4 Buckeyes would have to fill after losing a handful of significant contributors from last year's roster. Any chance of developing into a contender was always going to include contributions from fresh faces and new leaders. Even without what appeared to be Ohio State's most important players on both sides of the ball, as it stormed to a conference title and into the Allstate Sugar Bowl against No. 1 Alabama, it morphed into the most dangerous kind of team: a complete constellation.
"Incredible year, a year that if you would have told me back in August when I saw our starting quarterback go down that this would happen, I would have said, 'Not yet,'" coach Urban Meyer said. "You just never can devalue the chemistry on a team, the closeness of a team. And then when you deal with tragedy and other things that our team has experienced throughout the year, it was a learning experience.
"I learned more from our players maybe this year than in a long time."
Those lessons were working in both directions between the coaching staff and a roster long on talent but short on experience. The trust that was cultivated clearly helped forge a strong bond among the Buckeyes as they dealt with all kinds of on-the-field adversity and the death of teammate Kosta Karageorge.
From a football perspective, the hits started coming even before the season opened. Losing Miller, a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, to a second shoulder injury seemed like enough to knock Ohio State out of the Big Ten running. The loss forced the Buckeyes to reload the entire attack on short notice. They were already breaking in four new offensive linemen and trying to replace their leading rusher and receiver.
On defense, Ohio State was also seeking to replace a pair of first-round draft picks who left early for the NFL. On top of that, the Buckeyes would soon be without another future pro when Spence failed a second drug test and was ruled permanently ineligible. This left them without the piece that was supposed to give them potentially the best overall unit in the country up front.
Difficulty filling these spots became painfully apparent in Week 2, when Virginia Tech stunned the Buckeyes by beating them in the Horseshoe. But it also proved to be an opportunity for Ohio State to rally together, close ranks and establish an us-against-the-world mentality that would fuel its rapid rise.
"I think it's the closeness of our family," running back Ezekiel Elliott said. "We're truly a family, we've been through so much together, and I mean, it's going to take a lot to tear us apart.
"We've been underdogs this season; a lot of people haven't believed in us. If it was losing Braxton or losing J.T. [Barrett], a lot of people have lost faith in us. All we have is each other, and we're going to keep this whole brotherhood together, keep grinding and keep pushing."
Singling out any one member as the engine behind Ohio State's success is almost impossible -- which is perhaps the primary reason the team is headed to the semifinal to face the Crimson Tide.
Barrett set a Big Ten record for touchdowns after replacing Miller, but he suffered his own injury. That thrust Cardale Jones into the lineup at quarterback, and the offense didn't miss a beat in a 59-0 destruction of Wisconsin.
Joey Bosa did become a bona fide star in his own right at defensive end as a finalist for a couple of major awards. Bosa had a prolific campaign that included 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss. He more than eased the loss of Spence. But he also wasn't working alone, with tackles Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington raising their games as the season progressed, combining for 21.5 tackles for loss and making it increasingly difficult for opponents to focus solely on Bosa.
And whether it was Elliott in the backfield, Michael Thomas at wide receiver or sophomore safeties Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell taking over and revitalizing the secondary, the list of young Buckeyes who stepped out of the shadows and into critical roles could keep on going.
All of them along the way turned a cliché into a simple fact for Ohio State: The team was the star.
"I think that's why this team has survived and even continued to improve and flourish through the adversity we've had," co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. "It's the high-character people on this team, the leadership of this team and then the leadership of our head coach and our staff.
"We have all those ingredients. That's what makes a team, and that's why we are where we are."
They're on the path to a possible national title, two games away, stepping into the brightest lights the game has to offer -- as a unit.
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.
You know Mike Riley as the universally liked, overachieving, player-developing, Prius-driving, bicycle-riding coach who made Oregon State relevant but never a conference champion. He spent time in the NFL and had opportunities to take jobs at brand-name college programs (Alabama, USC) but never did until Thursday, when he shocked the college football world by accepting the Nebraska job. He's a "wow" hire, as Tom Shatel writes, but not a doing-backflips hire.
Less of you know Jim McElwain, the new head man at Florida. He did a tremendous job building Colorado State into a Mountain West contender, and previously excelled under Nick Saban as Alabama's offensive coordinator. Like Riley, McElwain is a quarterback guru with some NFL experience, spending the 2006 season coaching the Oakland Raiders' signal-callers. But a rock-star hire he is not, even though the 52-year-old will upgrade Florida's sleepy offense and should get the Gators back in the SEC East mix.
I like both hires and think both men will have success at their new programs. But fans want big names, flashy hires, and these two are not.
Of course, then there might be no reason for Ohio State to employ a coach for that position at all.
So instead, it will have to live with rocky debuts like the one Taylor Decker suffered through a year ago against future NFL star Khalil Mack when he was at Buffalo. He’ll have to watch three other new regulars get overwhelmed in a prime-time matchup against a unique, aggressive defensive line in a loss to Virginia Tech.
“The biggest thing is you can’t blame the players,” Warinner said. “The first thing you do is say, ‘We’re going to help you in these scenarios.’ Then secondly, any fundamental mistakes they make, you have to make sure they understand that poor fundamentals against a strong defense won’t play out very well.
“You can get their attention, because players want to be successful, they want to look good. Players are more receptive to listening and being coached and details after a loss. You tell them, ‘I’ll do a better job coaching, you do a better job playing and we’ll get through this and grow from it.’”
It’s hard to ignore how much Ohio State has grown on the offensive line since the debacle against Virginia Tech on Sept. 6, a disaster for the entire unit that can’t be blamed solely on three new first-team blockers making just the second starts of their careers against a talented, unique defense. The Hokies relentlessly dialed up pressure and seemingly met little resistance on the way to seven sacks while holding Ohio State to just 108 rushing yards.
Certainly it was asking a lot to expect the Buckeyes to instantly and seamlessly replace four seniors on the line from a year ago, including three who have started games in the NFL this season. Just in case there was any doubt about the difficulty of breaking into the rotation and succeeding right away, the only returning starter on the line could have shared his own experience about his trial-by-fire debut a year ago.
But like Decker, the Buckeyes learned from their youthful mistakes instead of continuing to make them. And once again they’ve got the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten and have only allowed 12 sacks over the past eight games as part of a resurgence back into contention for the College Football Playoff.
“Especially on the offensive line, you’re going to have struggles before you’re a consistent player, even if you’re really talented,” Decker said. “There were guys that struggled at times in the year and kind of got down on themselves, and I know exactly what that feels like. You just have to be in their corner, but also you have to make sure they realize there is a standard around here that must be upheld.
“It’s not going to be a finished product from the start. Everything takes work, and for guys starting in their first year, they’re going to need more work to get to that finished product.”
There may still be more room to grow, and Warinner obviously isn’t backing off now just because he’s getting positive results lately and he suddenly finds himself leading a group stocked with both playing experience and confidence.
After all, until the Buckeyes can find that perfect first-time starter who only continues to play perfectly after that, he’s still got a job to do.
“I didn’t have doubts we’d improve because we have good guys who are talented and coachable,” Warinner said. “I didn’t know when it would happen, but it has started to happen here through the last three or four games. You could start to see it coming along, and we just have to keep improving. We still have areas we can improve at, but the biggest thing is consistency and confidence and the physicality.
“We want that, and it's important to us. And we’re getting that out of them.”
Perhaps it will never be something that can be tapped into right away on the offensive line. But with Warinner around, it clearly isn’t taking Ohio State long to get what it wants.
There are several places in college football where the national spotlight fixates, and Ohio Stadium is one. When Urban Meyer is prowling the sidelines, the glare is even brighter.
But Ohio State has been somewhat of a forgotten team since 11:54 p.m. ET on Sept. 6. That's the moment when Virginia Tech completed a 35-21 win against the Buckeyes in Columbus.
It wasn't just the shock of the loss or that it marked Ohio State's third defeat in four games after a 24-0 start under Meyer. It was that Ohio State fulfilled the doom-and-gloom outlook many had after quarterback Braxton Miller's season-ending shoulder injury in August.
It was one of those worst-fears-fulfilled kinds of nights. The loss, while surprising, followed a narrative many had mapped out the moment Miller's labrum tore during an innocuous throw in practice.
So Ohio State became a forgotten team nationally and, to a degree, in the Big Ten -- as crazy as that sounds.
Well, it's time to take notice again. No Big Ten team is playing better than No. 13 Ohio State. And few quarterbacks nationally are playing better than Barrett.
Since the Virginia Tech loss, the Buckeyes' numbers are staggering. They've outscored their opponents 224-69. They set a team record with four consecutive games of 50 or more points and tied a team mark with four straight games of 500 or more yards.
Barrett's four-game line: 1,170 pass yards, 17 touchdowns, one interception (none in the past three games), 68.3 percent completions, 263 rush yards, three touchdowns.
"He's throwing it on time, throwing it early, trusting what he sees, directing traffic, going through his progressions, not getting freaked out with a little pressure," offensive coordinator Tom Herman recently told me.
He has accounted for at least four touchdowns in all four games, the longest active streak in the country and the longest for a Big Ten quarterback since former Purdue star Kyle Orton in 2004, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Offensive line coach Ed Warinner once again worked his magic, simplifying things so a group that looked like a liability in Week 2 has become a strength.
"Until you understand Algebra 1, you can't take Algebra 2," Warinner told me. "You just have to be patient and trust that playing hard and having good fundamentals will carry you through. Eventually, you can build on that with your changeups, your exceptions, your adjustments.
"People get caught up in thinking, 'I'm a really good coach. I've got these guys who never played and look at all this stuff I told them.' And you don't get anything done."
Ohio State also is getting it done on defense during the win streak: 12 sacks, 23 tackles for loss, eight interceptions. The Buckeyes held both Maryland and Rutgers well below their averages for yards and points. They suddenly rank in the top 25 nationally in points allowed (24th), opponent adjusted QBR (21st), pass yards allowed (16th) and first downs allowed (20th).
"We're playing at a pretty high level right now," Meyer said of his defense.
But what about the competition? Ohio State hasn't beaten a ranked team during its run. Unlike teams in the SEC, Pac-12 or Big 12, the Buckeyes' schedule has allowed them to regain their mojo. But you play who you play, and Ohio State has destroyed everything in its path.
It's all pointing to the Nov. 8 showdown at No. 8 Michigan State, which hasn't lost at home since 2012. Both teams won 56-17 on Saturday, but Ohio State seems to be playing at a higher level. The Buckeyes are No. 5 nationally in ESPN's Football Power Index, which measures team strength as a future predictor.
According to FPI, Ohio State has a 48.5 percent chance to win the Big Ten, the third-highest percentage of any Power 5 team and by far the highest percentage in the league, as defending champion Michigan State has just a 23.7 percent chance. Yes, we all know FPI has never been high on the Spartans, who remain the team to beat in this league until proved otherwise.
But the numbers favor Ohio State, which, according to FPI, is the one-loss team from a Power 5 conference with the best chance (27 percent) to finish with just the sole blemish.
So everyone must pay attention to the Buckeyes again, including the playoff selection committee. Virginia Tech is a bad loss that seems to be getting worse. But the circumstances surrounding Ohio State with Miller's injury should be considered, if the committee members stay true to their word.
Ohio State has few résumé-boosting opportunities left: trips to Michigan State and Minnesota, and the Big Ten title game.
But if the Buckeyes continue on this trajectory, they should be in a familiar spot: playing for championships.
The height is the same, but Ezekiel Elliott is about 20 pounds lighter than the guy who came before him.
The unique mentality requires a bit more of an explanation.
The offensive system isn't even exactly the same now, either, with the Buckeyes dialing up the tempo to unprecedented levels and rotating through their personnel at the skill positions instead of largely relying on two main guys to carry the load.
But for all the ways he might not fit the mold Carlos Hyde left behind, it looks clear that the two share at least one key trait after Elliott tallied 112 yards after contact last week in a performance that would have made his old mentor proud.
"Well, yeah, I'm not as big of a back as Carlos," Elliott said. "I can't take as many hits as him. He's more of a bruiser-type back, and I have a little more finesse to me.
"But just being a running back, you've got to be tough. You have to have some bruise to you."
Elliott might not pack quite the same punch, but Cincinnati certainly left Ohio Stadium black and blue last weekend after the sophomore relentlessly pounded away at its defense. He unofficially announced himself as a worthy heir to Hyde in the backfield.
He also showed the same ability to handle a healthy workload while appearing to gain strength as a game goes on. Elliott wore down the Bearcats with his 28 carries for 182 yards while adding 51 more on 5 catches. The record-setting outing with 45 first downs and 710 yards was sparked largely by Elliott and the rushing attack, a throwback to last season ago when Braxton Miller was teaming with Hyde and posting eye-popping statistics at nearly every turn.
That explosive dynamic was notably absent during the Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech, with redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett and Elliott struggling to make an impact. The defeat put Ohio State's playoff candidacy on the ropes quickly. Elliott finished with just 32 yards on 8 carries against the Hokies, and there certainly wasn't much happening after contact in that game.
But like seemingly everybody else on an inexperienced offense, the improvement every week has been pretty evident as Elliott grows more comfortable with his role and responsibilities. The Buckeyes figure to only grow more dangerous as a result.
"On Saturday, he did the job you would want a Carlos Hyde to do," co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. "But he's a different runner than Carlos. He's playing with very low pad level, he plays with great energy, he's explosive and he finishes runs with great pad level. He doesn't want to make direct contact. He wants to edge defenders, which always allows you to finish runs and come out the other end.
"He's developed, and here we go starting to show that on the field."
Against the Bearcats, Elliot left a lot of defenders having to pick themselves back up while he kept moving down the field.
That's been a familiar sight for Ohio State opponents over the last few seasons. While the guy doing it now has a different method, it's already shaping up to be just as effective.
"That's definitely one of our core values in the running back room," Elliott said. "Get those yards after contact, fight with that extra effort.
"You can't just be all outside, you know? You've got to have a downhill aspect to you."
After a bit of a slow start, Elliott has the ball rolling that way now and Ohio State is building momentum again in the process.
The Ohio State quarterback is on what amounts to a pitch count early in training camp, limiting his involvement in team periods as the coaching staff slowly builds the strength back up in the arm of the star senior.
And while at times that made him look like little more than another observer during an open practice on Wednesday, the Buckeyes are stressing that it’s all part of a plan to make sure he’s exactly where he needs to be by the end of the month for the opener against Navy.
“Nah, nothing [wrong] at all,” Miller said as he walked off the practice field. “I’m 100 percent, just trying to stay healthy. I’ve got to get it back in shape.
“Mental reps are one of the best things you can do, so I’m not complaining.”
That mental work behind the rest of the offense was all he could do in the spring after the Buckeyes elected to have the procedure done on a shoulder he injured early in the Discover Orange Bowl. And minus the sling that he was wearing during a few workouts in March and April, Miller spent the majority of his time Wednesday working through coverages, looking at receivers and communicating with the coaches while backups J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones were doing the physical work.
The extra work for the backups could prove invaluable for a team trying to fill a void in the No. 2 spot under center, a role that was critical during each of the past two seasons when Miller was injured and Kenny Guiton came off the bench to keep the high-powered attack rolling. But it also ensures that Miller isn’t doing too much before he’s ready for a full load, throttling back on a guy that knocked out one planned stage of his rehab that involved throwing tennis balls in just a single day.
“He’s come along well from what I’ve seen,” co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. “Now, we haven’t done much with him yet. We’re kind of bringing him along slowly. I think we have a really good plan to get him where he needs to be Aug. 30, and we don’t need to rush it.
“The guy has played for three years, so just bring him along like a pitcher in spring training, you know? An inning, then two innings, then three innings and by the time opening day comes, he can pitch seven innings for you or eight innings or whatever you need. So, I think we’re doing that the right way. It’s just part of the plan.”
The Buckeyes are in no hurry to skip any steps, either. They’re well aware of the importance of getting complete games out of their ace when it actually matters.
MIAMI -- Ohio State offensive line coach Ed Warinner huddled with his position group in a corner of the team's locker room following a 40-35 loss to Clemson in Friday's Discover Orange Bowl.
Warinner's voice started to crack as he told the players what they'd meant to him and what they'd accomplished. Warinner wrapped it up by saying, "You all are champions in my heart."
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, they'll have to settle for those kinds of fond memories from their supporters. They've won 24 games the past two seasons, but it's the "And-2" that will haunt them. As in, 24-2.
Those two losses came at the worst possible times, first in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State with a BCS title-game berth at stake, and then on the wrong end of a wild South Florida shootout. A program that went 12-0 the past two regular seasons managed to end up feeling disappointed at the end an otherwise magical run.
It's not hard to pinpoint why Ohio State fell short of earning a championship: a defense that literally limped to the finish line and a still-too-inconsistent passing game.
All of the pregame fears about Clemson's passing attack shredding the Buckeyes proved valid as the Tigers tandem of Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins abused a makeshift secondary. With star cornerback Bradley Roby sidelined by a knee injury and two players starting at their defensive backfield positions for the first time, Ohio State surrendered 378 passing yards and five touchdowns through the air, while Watkins set Orange Bowl records with 16 catches for 227 yards.
Even when they applied solid coverage, the Buckeyes' corners and safeties found themselves almost helpless against the best receivers they'd faced in three years. At one point, Armani Reeves was called for pass interference and tipped the ball out of the hands of the 6-foot-5 Martavis Bryant in the end zone. Bryant still caught the ball for a touchdown.
"I can’t get any closer than that," Reeves said. "That’s what happens when you play great players."
Then again, Ohio State's defense made a lot of people look great down the stretch this season, giving up averages of 38.3 points and 539 total yards (Clemson piled up 576) in its final three games. If there's any optimism to be found there, it's that six players who were either freshman or sophomores started on defense Friday, and the future for guys such as Joey Bosa, Jamal Marcus and Vonn Bell looks bright.
Despite the defensive problems, the Buckeyes still had plenty of chances to win the game. They somehow led at halftime even after yielding 362 yards in the first two quarters. They were up 29-20 and were getting the ball back late in the third quarter when Philly Brown muffed a punt return to give the Tigers new life. That would be the first of four second-half turnovers that would ultimately doom Ohio State, the next three coughed up by quarterback Braxton Miller.
No one could fault Miller's effort. He accounted for four touchdowns while absorbing a severe beating most of the night. He injured his shoulder early in the game. He lay on the turf for a few minutes after taking a late hit on a touchdown pass to Carlos Hyde. Miller said he probably had a cracked rib to go along with his throbbing shoulder.
"That's probably one of the toughest games I’ve played in, as far as being hit-wise and being banged up," Miller said. "Probably the toughest one all year."
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer rightly called Miller "a warrior" for his performance. But Miller also turned the ball over twice in the final 3 minutes, 12 seconds and didn't see linebacker Stephone Anthony slide underneath a post route on the game-sealing interception near midfield. Miller was non-committal after the game about whether he'd go to the NFL or return to Columbus. Friday's game made it clear he still has a lot to work on in college as a quarterback, though he might want to save his body from more punishment with a nearly brand-new offensive line next season.
Miller had come through at the end of big games so many times before in his career that it was shocking to see him not do so against Michigan State and Clemson. Same goes for Meyer. Ohio State had made a habit out of choking out opponents in the fourth quarter in his tenure, and before Friday he was 4-0 in BCS games.
"That's what we train for," center Corey Linsley said. "We train to finish. It's definitely disappointing, because that was our M.O."
Ohio State was not far away from its championship goals this season. Another play or two against Michigan State, and maybe the Buckeyes are in Pasadena, Calif., right now getting ready to play Florida State, an admittedly frightening prospect given the tattered state of their defense. Friday's game went back and forth and could have ended differently if not for the untimely turnovers.
But a team's record tells the story. Ohio State won its first 12 games again this season. Then came the "And-2."
"Those were championship games," cornerback Doran Grant said. "And we didn’t win 'em. Plain and simple."
Carlos Hyde had the wrong idea about Urban Meyer's offense when Meyer came to Ohio State.
Like many others, Hyde couldn't get past the S-word -- spread. He envisioned five-wide formations, a hastened pace and a system tailored to track stars, not bruising ball-carriers north of 220 pounds like himself.
Hyde soon found out that he would have a home in Meyer's offense, as long as he earned the right to carry the ball. The scheme didn't simply tolerate his talents; it celebrated them.
Ohio State's offense isn't Oregon's or Baylor's or Arizona's or Auburn's. Aesthetically, the Buckeyes might be a spread team. But at their core, they're all about power.
"People see me back there and they see our offensive line back there, and they’re like, 'These are some big dudes, they've got a big running back,'" Hyde said. "This is not really a spread. It's more like a power team."
Need evidence? Study the second halves of Ohio State's past two wins against Northwestern and Iowa. After some sloppiness in the first 30 minutes of both contests, Ohio State methodically chipped away at the Wildcats and Hawkeyes. The Buckeyes racked up 142 rush yards and three touchdowns in the second half against Northwestern and 194 rush yards and two touchdowns in the second half against Iowa.
An offense with a knack for big plays -- Ohio State has 34 plays of 20 yards or longer this season -- had just one chunk play in each second half. Instead, the Buckeyes mounted long, sustained drives, swinging away with the Big Ten's best offensive line and a 235-pound hammer in Hyde. After running a meager 25 first-half plays against Iowa, Ohio State opened the second half with touchdown drives of 13, 11, 10 and 11 plays. Hyde's 1-yard scoring run early in the third quarter marked the first rushing touchdown Iowa had allowed all season. He tacked on a 19-yard scoring dash in the fourth quarter.
"Offensive linemen in general, after they look up at the scoreboard and see that you've won the game, the first question out of their mouths is how many yards did we rush for?" Buckeyes offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. "Then it's, how many sacks did we give up? And then, where do we eat?"
The Buckeyes are feasting on opposing defenses to the tune of 279.6 rush yards per game, ahead of last year's pace (242.3 ypg), which ranked 10th nationally. Their run focus has helped older players recruited by the previous coaching staff transition to the current regime.From Woody Hayes to John Cooper to Jim Tressel, Ohio State's identity has been closely tied to the power run game. It remains that way under Meyer, despite his ties to the spread.
"That's Ohio State," Hyde said. "When Beanie Wells, Eddie George, Archie Griffin and all the great running backs who came through here, that's what Ohio State has been: traditional, a power I offense. That's basically what this spread offense still is, it’s power.
"That’s pretty cool that the tradition is still going."
The only prerequisites for a spread offense, according to Warinner, are at least three detached wide receivers and the shotgun formation. Other than that, the canvas is blank. Some teams will spread out five receivers and throw 80 passes per game; others will run the ball 60 times.
"A lot like the West Coast offense, there’s many different versions," Meyer said. "I have our version of the spread offense, which is a very physical, power run offense. And it's always really been that way. At Utah, we had the bigger backs. At Florida, the biggest back we had was Tim [Tebow], and Tim became our power guy to offset and complement the speed that we had in the backfield. Here, our speed guy is really our quarterback [Braxton Miller] and some other skilled athletes, and we've got the big, power backs."
When Meyer coached Utah to an undefeated season in 2004, he leaned on two bigger backs in Marty Johnson and Quinton Ganther. The 6-3, 235-pound Tebow rushed for 2,478 yards and 49 touchdowns in his final three seasons as Florida's starting quarterback.
Despite his track record in the power run, Meyer never has produced a 1,000-yard rusher, a fact often used against him on the recruiting trail.
"You hear it, but you just have to be armed and ready to go," he said. "And then they see the yards per carry, they see the opportunities you get."
Hyde feels fully prepared for the NFL, not only as a runner but as a pass blocker. Warinner notes that Ohio State's top three run plays are often called on Sundays, and that Meyer's system has produced plenty of pro linemen.
Four of Meyer's linemen at Florida were selected the 2010 or 2011 NFL drafts, including first-rounders in the Pouncey brothers (Maurkice and Mike). Ohio State has had a surprisingly low number of linemen drafted the past five years but produced a seventh-rounder this past April in tackle Reid Fragel, a converted tight end. Warinner expects all four returning starters from last year's line to be drafted.
"We feel that our offense is as close to a pro spread as can be," Warinner said. "So when you watch people play on Sundays, how they run the ball and how they protect, those things have a lot of carryover to what we do. Most players at this level want to play at that level. Their learning curve is very small leaving Oho State with what we do.
"We sell that pretty hard in recruiting, and it's factual. Plus, it wins games."
Ohio State has won 19 straight, the nation's longest win streak. If the power surge continues, the Buckeyes could be playing for a crystal football Jan. 7 in Pasadena.
It's rare when a defensive line coach steps on the practice field and doesn't see a single starter from the previous season. How rare? According to Ohio State's athletics communications staff, the Buckeyes haven't had a complete overhaul of their starting defensive line since the 1985 season, when all three top spots had to be filled. Although Ohio State ended up starting four new linemen in 1998, it had a returning starter from 1997 (end Matt LaVrar) on the roster.
All four starters from the 2012 team -- ends John Simon and Nathan Williams, and tackles Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel -- have moved on. The effort to replace them is arguably Ohio State's top offseason story line, as the Buckeyes could be a defensive line away from contending for a national title in 2013.
Vrabel is stressing three areas for the linemen this spring -- attitude, effort and toughness. If all three are achieved, Vrabel thinks the players can "let their God-given ability to take over."
The Buckeyes' linemen boast plenty of ability. Ohio State had arguably the nation's top defensive-line haul in the 2012 recruiting class, signing four ESPN 150 defensive linemen, three of whom -- Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt -- saw the field as true freshmen. More help is on the way from the 2013 class with standouts like tackle Joey Bosa, an ESPN 150 selection. Two incoming line recruits, Tyquan Lewis and Tracy Sprinkle, enrolled early and are participating in spring ball.
But the group has only nine combined career starts, five from junior end J.T. Moore. Its career tackles leader, junior tackle Michael Bennett, has a whopping 28 stops in 21 games.
"The guys we've got have a little bit of experience with Adolphus and Noah and Tommy," Vrabel said. "Michael Bennett and Joel Hale, Steve Miller, those guys have been here, contributing and giving us some leadership. And Tracy and Tyquan are just trying to figure their way through this thing.
"We're learning every day."
Although Ohio State's defensive line undoubtedly will be younger, Vrabel also thinks it will be faster with players like Spence and Washington, who finished third on the team with three sacks in 2012. Again, talent isn't a problem, but the line needs leadership after losing two-time captain John Simon.
Head coach Urban Meyer challenged several of the older linemen at the start of the spring, saying, "Steve Miller's been here for a while. It's time to go play. Chris Carter, how long has he been here? At some point you can't redshirt anymore." At the very least, Ohio State needs the veterans to fill out the line rotation.
Ideally, they can take the reins.
"No one's going to replace what John Simon provided for this program," Vrabel said. "We can only hope that we find guys who are willing to lead, be the same person every day, be competitive, play with some toughness and play with some effort. We'll have guys step up."
Vrabel should get an accurate gauge on his group this spring because of the men they'll be lining up against. What the Buckeyes lack in defensive-line experience, they make up for on their offensive line, which returns four starters with 81 combined career starts.
"If we can compete against them," Vrabel said, "we feel like we're going to be OK."
Spence evidently has been competing well, impressing Buckeyes offensive line coach Ed Warinner with his edge-rushing speed.
Vrabel's return to his alma mater in 2011 generated tremendous excitement, and he made an immediate impact on the recruiting trail. But his coaching skills will be under the microscope as he works with a group that, for now, is Ohio State's biggest question mark.
"I'm a young coach, I'm new to this, so every day is a challenge," he said. "I enjoy it, I embrace the challenge and try to do my best."
Ohio State co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Ed Warinner, who served as the Irish's offensive line coach and run game coordinator last season, is also a nominee. The Irish and the Buckeyes are the nation's only two unbeaten teams.
Five finalists for the award will be announced Monday, and the winner will be announced Dec. 4.
LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis won the award last year.
Most of this information has been publicized in team-by-team form, but it's interesting to examine from a league-wide perspective. Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison are the league's highest-paid assistants, both earning $750,000. Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges ($550,000) is next, followed by Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi ($500,000), who recently received a raise that more than doubled his previous salary ($233,000).
Several of the Big Ten's highest-paid assistants from 2011 -- Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning -- since have left the league for other jobs.
Here are the totals paid for assistants among the 10 schools reporting salaries:
1. Ohio State -- $3.22 million
2. Michigan -- $2.755 million
3. Illinois -- $2.314 million
4. Michigan State -- $2.18 million
5. Iowa -- $2.16 million
6. Nebraska -- $2.13 million
7. Wisconsin -- $1.973 million
8. Indiana -- $1.96 million
9. Minnesota -- $1.745 million
10. Purdue -- $1.61 million
When factoring in the head coach salaries, the rankings look like this:
1. Ohio State -- $7.22 million
2. Iowa -- $6.035 million
3. Michigan -- $6.009 million
4. Nebraska -- $4.905 million
5. Wisconsin -- $4.571 million
6. Michigan State -- $4.098 million
7. Illinois -- $3.914 million
8. Minnesota -- $3.445 million
9. Indiana -- $3.22 million
10. Purdue -- $2.535 million
The Big Ten had 40 overall coaching changes during the past offseason (head coach and assistant). Here are the highest-paid new assistants among the programs reporting salaries (not including assistants promoted internally).
1. Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers -- $450,000
2. Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman -- $420,000
T-3. Illinois defensive coordinator Tim Banks -- $400,000
T-3. Illinois co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales -- $400,000
T-3. Illinois co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty -- $400,000
6. Ohio State co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Ed Warinner -- $350,000
7. Iowa offensive coordinator Greg Davis -- $300,000
8. Wisconsin offensive coordinator Matt Canada -- $265,000
T-9. Purdue defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar -- $250,000
T-9. Indiana offensive coordinator Seth Littrell -- $250,000
- It's no surprise Ohio State paid top dollar for head coach Urban Meyer, but the school also has increased its commitment for assistant coaches. Former coach Jim Tressel had a fairly anonymous staff for a big-time program, and while there were good coaches on it, you knew the overall financial commitment would need to be increased. The Buckeyes have three assistants making more than $400,000. Interestingly enough, Illinois is the only other Big Ten squad listed here with three aides at the $400,000 mark.
- As Rexrode points out in his post, Michigan State's staff was a major bargain before the recent raise. The Spartans paid approximately $1.6 million for a staff that helped them to 21 wins in the past two seasons. The pay increases put Michigan State fourth in the Big Ten in assistant coach pay, which sounds about right.
- Illinois' athletic director transition from Ron Guenther to Mike Thomas didn't change the school's approach toward rewarding assistants. Guenther allowed former coach Ron Zook to open the coffers after a disappointing 2009 season and land high-priced coordinators (Petrino and Koenning). While new Illini head coach Tim Beckman ranks eighth in the league in salary, he was allowed to spend a lot for his staff, which includes just one holdover (D-line coach Keith Gilmore, who earns $200,000). It's why Illinois ranks third in the league in assistant coach pay.
- Wisconsin's staff turnover after the Rose Bowl resulted in lower overall compensation, which isn't a huge shock because of Chryst's departure. It's a bit surprising that Badgers coordinators Chris Ash (holdover from staff) and Matt Canada (new addition) are near the bottom of the league in coordinator pay. Wisconsin did spent a good amount for new offensive line coach Mike Markuson ($255,000).
- Some Nebraska fans I've heard from complain that Bo Pelini's staff lacks prestige, given the program's tradition and resources. The Huskers have a mostly young staff that ranks in the middle of the league in compensation. Pelini lured new secondary coach Terry Joseph for $230,000, while new defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski made the move from Iowa and will earn $195,000. Kaczenski is a bargain in my view.
- Anyone else find it odd that Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker, promoted during the winter from secondary coach, makes $1,000 more than new offensive coordinator Greg Davis? While it's nice for Iowa to reward Parker's loyalty as a position coach, the $1,000 difference seems a little trivial, especially since Davis has been a coordinator for decades.
- Purdue pays less for assistant coaches than the nine other Big Ten schools reporting information here. Penn State obviously doesn't rank at the bottom in paying assistants, and I've been told Northwestern doesn't, either. Factoring in head coach Danny Hope's salary, and Purdue's overall coach compensation is significantly lower than others, including its arch-rival Indiana. Boilers fans, how do you feel about this?
Bill Sheridan, who coached the Irish defensive backs in 2001, has rounded out the Buckeyes' staff and will be their new secondary coach, according to multiple reports.
The 53-year-old Sheridan has also coached at Michigan, Michigan State, the New York Giants (2005-09) and the Miami Dolphins (2010-11).
Former Irish assistants Tim Hinton (running backs) and Ed Warinner (offensive line/running game coordinator) were hired away from Notre Dame by Meyer this offseason. They will coach the tight ends/fullbacks and the offensive line, respectively.