Blue Ribbon Preview: Ohio State
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Ohio State officials hope they have the perfect answer to the wreckage of 2011: Urban renewal.
When coach Urban Meyer was hired on Nov. 28, the Buckeyes had just lost to Michigan for the first time in eight years and were on their way to their first losing season since 1988.
Earlier in the year, a memorabilia-for-cash scandal forced out 10-year coach Jim Tressel, then senior quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Three other key offensive players faced major suspensions.
Interim coach Luke Fickell made a valiant effort but took his lumps in part because of poor quarterback play but also because of atypical breakdowns on defense.
What had been whispered for much of the season became reality with the hiring of Meyer, perhaps the only move that could have turned around the spirits of a dejected fan base.
The 47-year-old Ohio native, whose first job was as an Ohio State graduate assistant in the mid-1980s, pronounced himself, "home," and almost immediately began talking tough and backing it up with aggressive recruiting.
He retained Fickell as defensive coordinator but allowed all but two of Tressel's other assistant coaches to depart. One who stayed is former longtime NFL standout Mike Vrabel, who shares Meyer's hair-on-fire competitiveness.
The defense is experienced, and Meyer likes what he sees in sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller, the team's leading rusher, who should thrive in the new fast-paced spread offense.
But beyond Miller, the Buckeyes are surprisingly thin at the skill positions.
Meyer certainly has set a tone. He immediately helped turn around what was shaping up to be a lackluster 2012 recruiting class, to the point that he rankled several Big Ten coaches who thought he "poached" their committed players.
At the spring game, Meyer had many of his players face off in a pregame "circle drill" -- basically pitting guys one-on-one in tough man contests as others circled around.
The crowd loved it.
This savior-of-the-program talk is a bit overplayed. After all, Ohio State is just two years removed from a string of six straight Big Ten titles. Tressel ran a similar drill, but in practice, not for public consumption.
But there's a lot to be said for Meyer re-energizing the program. There is a feeling that his teams will be ruthless -- try-and-stop-me rather than Tressel's style of make-fewer-mistakes, punt and play defense.
Meyer also has relatively little pressure this season, as the Buckeyes are ineligible for postseason play.
He can spend this year instilling his philosophy and scheme, and with another stellar recruiting class apparently headed his way in 2013, the Buckeyes are confident they will quickly get back to their winning ways.
Head Coach: Urban Meyer (Cincinnati '86)
Record at school: First year
Career record: 104-23 (10 years)
Everett Withers (Appalachian State '85) Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator/Safeties
Tom Herman (Cal Lutheran '97) Co-Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks
Ed Warinner (Mount Union '84) Co-Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line
Luke Fickell (Ohio State '97) Co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers
Kerry Coombs (Dayton '83) Cornerbacks
Stan Drayton (Allegheny '93) Running Backs Tim Hinton (Wilminton '82) Tight Ends/Fullbacks
Zach Smith (Florida '07) Wide receivers
Mike Vrabel (Ohio State '04) Defensive Line
Braxton Miller's 2011 season was supposed to be spent watching Pryor and learning. Instead, he started 10 games and ended up as the team's leading rusher with 715 yards.
And this spring, Miller (6-2, 210) displayed enough potential to have Meyer sounding confident in his sophomore dual-threat signal-caller.
"He can pass the ball," Meyer said. "Here's the way you evaluate him: Release, A. A very good release. Arm strength, I would say a B, but I'm very critical. Accuracy, a C to B. We've got to get him more accurate, but he's getting better.
"He had a very good spring."
Last year, Miller sat behind fifth-year senior Joe Bauserman for three games, then took over. His start was rocky, going 1-2 as the Buckeyes sank to 3-3 overall.
OSU then beat Illinois almost without a passing game (Miller was 1 for 4 for 17 yards).
From there, though, Miller began to take off. In his first eight games, he accounted for just an average of 120 total yards a game, and eight TDs. In his last four games, he boosted those numbers to 229 total yards a game and 12 TDs.
He had three 100-yard rushing games, and though he completed only 54 percent of his passes, he showed some flashes of promise in that phase, as well -- including a last-second game-winning TD toss against Wisconsin.
Another positive was throwing only four interceptions.
In the spring game, Miller completed 24-of-31 passes for 258 yards as the Buckeyes focused almost exclusively on the passing game.
The hope is Miller's skills fit well with Meyer's new, fast-paced spread system.
Of his first impression of Miller, new offensive coordinator Tom Herman said, "The ability level is there. It's my job to make sure we harness that ability."
Fourth-year junior Kenny Guiton (6-3, 206) is the only other experienced quarterback, and that experience amounts to two pass attempts.
Freshman Cardale Jones (6-5, 226) is third string.
Senior Jordan Hall (5-9, 198) may finally have found the perfect offensive system to fit his skills.
Hall spent his first two seasons mostly as a kick returner, then worked his way a bit more into the backfield mix last season. He remained the team's top return man but added 100 rushes and 12 receptions for 522 yards and five TDs.
This year in the spread, expect those receptions to go up. Many foresee Hall to assume a role not unlike Percy Harvin once filled for Meyer at Florida -- more as a receiver in the flats and slot.
"The zone reads, the screens just getting in the open field, I think that's a good fit for me," Hall said.
That leaves room for a standard run-first back or two to get work, as well. The leading candidate is junior Carlos Hyde (6-0, 235), a bruiser who averaged 5.3 yards a carry while splitting time last season.
Hyde had a good spring.
"He's drinking the Kool-Aid right now," Meyer said.
Two other tailbacks challenging for time are sophomore Rod Smith (6-3, 230) and true freshman Bri'onte Dunn (6-1, 214).
Smith attracted much attention coming into last year, drawing comparisons to former OSU great Eddie George. But he fumbled in each of the first two games and was relegated to spot duty afterward.
He then missed the team plane to the Gator Bowl, ending on a bad note.
Dunn enrolled early and showed enough potential that Meyer said he would not be redshirted.
With the Buckeyes moving away from an I-formation base offense, Meyer said his fullbacks will assume more of an H-back role. Hard-nosed senior Zach Boren (6-1, 246), who has 20 career receptions, probably will be a captain, even if his snaps decrease.
After his first practice, Meyer was lamenting a lack of playmakers at receiver.
"At Ohio State, you should walk off the field going, `Wow! Who are those two guys?'" he said. "I still today haven't done that."
It was a refrain throughout spring, and understandably so. OSU was woeful in the pass game last year, mostly because of Miller's learning curve but also because its best receiver, DeVier Posey, was out for all but three games because of an NCAA suspension.
It sounds like a statistic from the Woody Hayes era, but it's true: OSU's leading receivers had just 14 catches (tie between sophomore Devin Smith, junior Corey Brown and Jake Stoneburner). Posey almost caught them at 12 in his three outings.
So the pressure is on, and the Buckeyes are feeling it.
"It definitely gets on our nerves," sophomore Evan Spencer said of the constant harping on the lack of playmakers, "but we also use it as a challenge."
The opportunity will be there, of course, in the spread. Meyer has put an emphasis on short, quick patterns in which the receivers catch it on the move.
Brown (6-0, 186), Spencer (6-2, 205) and Smith (6-1, 196) went through most of spring as the starting trio, but in the spring game, a new name emerged.
Freshman Michael Thomas (6-2, 193) caught 12 passes for 131 yards.
The problem is that Thomas is more of a possession receiver and the player most suited to be a deep threat (Brown) has shown questionable hands.
Other candidates include towering sophomore Tyrone Williams (6-6, 229) and converted high school quarterback Verlon Reed (6-1, 200), another sophomore who flashed last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
All of this could lead to much more work for the steady senior Stoneburner, a tight end by name but a receiver in high school and at heart. Again, some point to Meyer's use of tight ends at Florida, such as Aaron Hernandez's 68 catches in 2009.
"The first day we were warming up, [Meyer] said, 'You better be a hell of a player,'" said Stoneburner, who has 35 catches in three seasons. "I think he's expecting a lot from us."
Only two starters return, but that might not be a bad thing. The three departing starters were highly touted as members of the 2008 "Block O" recruiting class, but only one -- Mike Adams -- was an NFL draft pick (Pittsburgh, second round).
The line has underachieved in the past, and now it must retool and adjust to Meyer's spread system, which demands athleticism first and foremost.
The returnees are juniors Jack Mewhort (6-6, 310) and Andrew Norwell (6-6, 304), but Mewhort is moving from right guard to left tackle. That leaves Norwell as the only player coming back at the same spot (left guard).
The only spot still with some uncertainty is right tackle. Senior Reid Fragel (6-8, 298), the converted tight end, has a slight edge on true freshman Taylor Decker (6-7, 310), who had a very impressive spring.
Some think it's just a matter of time for Decker, who was a Notre Dame verbal commit until Meyer hired two Irish assistant coaches -- Ed Warriner (O-line) and Tim Hinton (tight ends and fullbacks).
Another touted recruit, Kyle Dodson (6-6, 310), arrives in the fall.
Meyer and Warriner both expressed dismay at the line early on, when bodies were too soft and minds apparently were, as well. Several linemen were late to their first team meeting in January.
Depth remains a potential sore spot, but the other issues have at least begun to be resolved.
"They've really made a tremendous amount of progress," Warinner said after the spring sessions. "[The offensive line] was probably the biggest area of concern in January when we got here. Through their hard work and dedication, they've put themselves in position where they can be a pretty good offensive line if they continue to work the next six months."
It was not a normal season for the Ohio State defense in 2011. After a half-dozen years of being ranked one of the nation's best, it slipped to 50th in run defense (allowing four games of 200-plus rushing yards) and recorded just 23 sacks.
But the good news for the Buckeyes is the entire starting defensive line returns, and it features two of the team's best players.
Senior John Simon (6-2, 260) has been a renowned workout warrior since his arrival, earning playing time right away as a true freshman in 2009. He has played in all 39 games in his career and earned immediate and effusive praise from Meyer.
"A warhorse; he is Ohio State football," Meyer said. "He is 'Tebowish' in terms of his commitment."
Last season, Simon racked up 16 tackles for loss, including seven sacks. Though he came to OSU more as a strong-side end (and looked as if he could bulk up and play inside), Meyer now has him in the team's rush-end spot.
Inside, junior Johnathan Hankins (6-4, 317) is starting to look like a prototypical SEC-type tackle with which Meyer is familiar: Huge but still athletic. Hankins emerged last year in his first season as a starter, posting an impressive 67 tackles, including 11 for loss.
Inside, sophomore Michael Bennett (6-3, 277) could challenge Goebel. He had an impressive rookie season with three sacks in part-time duty.
At end, a big question is whether fifth-year senior Nathan Williams (6-3, 249) will return from two knee surgeries last season that forced him to redshirt. Before his injury, he was one of the team's best pure pass rushers, recording 21.5 career tackles for loss and 10 sacks.
Depth is plentiful, as well. OSU has brought in five recruits each of the last two years, including three for 2012 who are considered blue-chippers.
Ohio State appears to have at least one dynamic playmaker here, in what was a sore spot in 2011. But the Buckeyes need more than one, and it's not clear whether they have another.
Ryan Shazier (6-1, 226) was a pleasant surprise last season as a true freshman. He converted from safety and showcased speed and aggressiveness en route to a 57-tackle, three-sack, two-forced fumble season.
Listed generously at 212 pounds last season, Shazier added about 15 pounds in the offseason. He enters the season as the starter on the weak side.
Etienne Sabino (6-3, 237), a senior, gets a final chance to make a good impression after four mostly-puzzling years, including taking a redshirt season as a healthy third-year player.
Early in his career, his problem was not grasping the system well enough to use his natural abilities. Late last year, he came on and had a good performance in the Gator Bowl. He ended spring atop the depth chart at the strong-side spot.
Curtis Grant (6-3, 235) came in last year very highly touted but was a non-factor as a freshman. He showed some flashes in spring before a pinched nerve forced him to sit out, but he enters fall camp as the starter in the middle.
"He over-analyzed everything a year ago," Meyer said. "He didn't play very fast. He was -- I don't want to say depressed -- but he wasn't enjoying football."
Senior Storm Klein (6-3, 242) has experience but struggled much of last year when he was given extensive playing time. He slides into a reserve role.
Because the Buckeyes are thin on experience here, two freshmen, Luke Roberts (6-1, 226) and Joshua Perry (6-4, 231), could see immediate playing time.
This unit rivals the defensive line in terms of experience and depth, and could be poised for a big season.
As is so often the case, a relatively unknown player emerged last season and turned heads. Sophomore cornerback Bradley Roby (5-11, 190), a middle-of-the-road recruit from Georgia, grabbed a starting spot in spring ball and played impressively, recording three interceptions.
Three proven safeties are back, including thumpers C.J. Barnett (6-1, 202) and Christian Bryant (5-10, 190), both juniors. Barnett led the team in tackles (75) and added two interceptions. Bryant hits harder than his size would indicate he could.
Co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers, the safeties coach, said Bryant "has a lot of playmaking ability, a lot of instinctive ability. What you see is a guy who is physical, who likes being around the ball."
Orhian Johnson (6-3, 210) is the third safety. The senior has been a starter in the past and can be opportunistic (four career pickoffs), but is better suited to a reserve role.
The position got an infusion of coaching experience with the addition of Withers, interim head coach at North Carolina last year, and enthusiasm with the addition of cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs.
Ohio State largely fixed the kick-coverage breakdowns that plagued it in 2010. Until the Gator Bowl, that is, when Florida ran back a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown and then blocked Buchanan and ran it in for another TD.
Hall is the team's workhorse return man, handling 38 of 63 total attempts. He is better at kickoff returns, where he averaged 26.3 yards, then at punts, where he averaged just 5.8.
Receivers Smith and Chris Fields (6-0, 197), a junior, also got some return work, and Fields scored on a 69-yard punt return.
It's possible the Buckeyes will use freshman Bri'onte Dunn in this role to get him some more work, assuming he is second- or third-team at running back.
Junior Drew Basil's career got off to a slow start. He missed his only two field-goal attempts as a freshman in 2010 (both were 50-yarders), and then his first two as the starting kicker last fall.
From that point, though, Basil (6-1, 210) was virtually flawless, connecting on 16 of his final 17 tries (and the miss came from 50).
The only other miss was costly -- a blocked extra point against Purdue that prevented OSU from a regulation win, and the Boilermakers went on to win in overtime.
Basil also handles kickoffs and had a respectable 14 touchbacks in 63 kicks.
Senior Ben Buchanan (5-11, 190) improved last year in his second season. He bumped his average up from 41.0 to 41.3 yards, but more impressively, he dropped 27 of his 70 punts inside the 20-yard line.
As a team, OSU improved from 94th in net punting in 2010 to 41st last year. The only issue that remains troubling is Buchanan's three career blocks -- two in 2011.
Meyer has yet to win a game for Ohio State, but he sent a jolt through the fan base -- and many of OSU's rivals -- with what he and his staff pulled off in recruiting.
The Buckeyes' 2012 class was not ranked in ESPN's top 25 before Meyer was hired. That was a product of the looming NCAA sanctions, the team's on-field struggles, and uncertainty surrounding Luke Fickell's future as head coach.
Meyer came in and began landing four- and- five-star players seemingly daily, and OSU's 25-man class ended up ranked No. 6 nationally.
Offensive lineman Kyle Dodson was a signing-day convert who had committed to Wisconsin. That ticked off Badgers coach Bret Bielema and created a minor flap.
Meyer spent much time and effort on both front lines.
It may not be this year, but defensive linemen such as Noah Spence (6-4, 245), Adolphus Washington (6-5, 245), Se'Von Pittman (6-5, 245) and Tommy Schutt (6-3, 300) will be heard from eventually.
Taylor Decker and Dodson likely are future starting offensive tackles.
Skill-position wise, Dunn and Michael Thomas look to contribute right away.
And Meyer didn't stop there. He already has landed his quarterback of the future. Dual-threat star J.T. Barrett of Wichita Falls, Texas arrives next season.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
It's a safe bet that many coaches could take the Buckeyes from six to, say, nine wins this season. Last season was an anomaly, with the NCAA turmoil and being forced to turn to a raw rookie quarterback so soon.
Braxton Miller should take a step forward as a sophomore and should be better on defense.
The test of Meyer's ability will be to see if he can coax double-digit wins out of a group that has nothing to play for. No conference championship, no bowl game.
Their sole interesting non-conference game is a California team at home, coming off a 7-6 season.
Road games at Michigan State and Wisconsin will be the toughest tests, followed by home games against Nebraska and Michigan, which ended a seven-game losing streak in the rivalry last season.
Ten wins, and/or a Leaders Division title (although it would be meaningless), would prove the Buckeyes are back on track.
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