If you’re a fan of the colors scarlet and gray, like watching a pigskin fly through a horseshoe and have a predisposed affinity for coaches whose names signify the concept of city dwelling, it is feasible that you are an Ohio State football fan brimming with excitement for the upcoming 2012 season.
There are several reasons to justify this growing anticipation leading up to the opening game with Miami of Ohio on Saturday Sept. 1, at the Shoe. Not the least of which is a coach, whose savior like reputation has preceded him, prior to having presided the sidelines for a single regular season snap.
However, even more compelling is the focus on several players and how they will perform throughout the inaugural season in the Urban Era of OSU football.
Here are four in particular, who will garner significant interest as key contributors in the coming campaign.
Miller, other than new head coach Urban Meyer, will incur the most significant amount of interpretive analysis throughout the progression of the 2012 season, by both fans and pundits alike.
Having acquired the kind of experience in his freshman year that he couldn’t have anticipated leading up to the beginning of 2011, as a result of the unraveling of the team through Tattoogate, and stepping in for the fleeing Terrelle Pryor, Miller will enter this year’s spring practice with the reassurance that he is the No. 1 quarterback.
While this is a far more reassuring way to initiate his sophomore season, it will bring with it the added expectation of being effective with more immediacy. And although Meyer has instantaneously re-instilled the Buckeyes’ potential to reassert themselves atop the Big Ten, Miller will have to adjust to a new head coach and new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, Tom Herman, who filled the same roles at Iowa State previously.
In his freshman year, Miller continued the recent tradition of OSU quarterbacks who are just as formidable when tucking the ball under as they are when freeing it into flight, with his predecessor the maligned Pryor, and going further back, Troy Smith, as other examples of this kind of combination quarterback. He finished 2011 with 715 yards rushing on 159 attempts for 4.5 average and seven touchdowns, the latter category representing half of his final number of thrown touchdowns.
However, much of OSU’s success will be contingent upon Miller’s maturation in the pocket and his ability to develop as an efficient passer within a new offensive system. He does not have to transform into a singularly prolific passing quarterback, completely negating his ability to be creative in broken plays, rather, his development into more of a legitimate threat in the pocket, will simply accentuate his abilities as a multifaceted offensive organizer.
He is capable of the kind of games that he put together in last year’s affair against Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he threw for 235 yards, and rushed for 100 more, totaling three touchdowns on the day with two of them passing, despite narrowly losing to the Wolverines 40-34.
And Meyer has been known throughout his career as a coach who can maximize the talents of his on-field signal-callers, with examples of his work being Alex Smith, while coaching at Utah, and more recently Tim Tebow, during his time at University of Florida. The burgeoning relationship between Miller and Meyer, will be indicative of the direction, not only of the Buckeyes offense, but the team as a whole.
Although Curtis Grant saw minimal action last year, the sophomore will be looked upon to contribute significantly on the defensive side of the ball in 2012. The Buckeyes defense, which returns nine starters, would be greatly enhanced by Grant’s ability deliver on the promise that made him the highest ranked inside linebacker and second highest ranked player overall in the 2011 recruiting class, according to Rivals.com.
It is clear based on early reports from this week’s spring practice that Grant has moved up considerably on the depth chart, and he has all the natural physical tools to be as impactful of a collegiate player, as he was in his high school career. Much of what will allow him to make a successful transition from limited action in 2011 to defensive contributor in 2012 will be based on his ability to grasp the defensive system and make mental adjustments in the process.
And with just about five months to go before the opening game, Urban Meyer is already singling out Grant as a player who needs to become a more prominent presence on the field. He stated after the spring practice session, "He had an excellent offseason and he’s a guy who has to play well for us,. It’s his first day. He’ll be fine. We have no choice. He has be a player for us. If he’s not, we have a problem."
If Grant is truly the talent that he was projected to be coming out of high school, that is the kind of ultimatum and pressure he will thrive on in the coming season, if not, well, Meyer already alluded to the "if not" part of the statement.
In addition to calling out Curtis Grant after the team’s first spring practice, Meyer made an even more definitive assessment of the need for an upgrade in the level of performance from his receivers. He told the Columbus Dispatch, “At Ohio State, you should walk off the field going, Wow! Who are those two guys, I still today haven’t done that. There has got to be a wow factor, and we should have one (player capable), should have two—here you should have probably more than two.”
Not only is this the kind of challenging statement and assessment that you want from a coach who has been hyped to the level that Meyer has, but also players trying to erase the memory of the school’s first losing season since 1988 should relish this kind of approach, especially sophomore Devin Smith.
Although last year’s team was fairly sub-standard in the passing game, much of that could be attributed to the turmoil and flux, which residually affected the team throughout, and although another transition year is taking place, there will be an earlier sense of structure in 2012.
Smith was the top receiver for the Bucks young receiving corps last year, finishing with 294 yards on 14 receptions with four touchdowns. While those are not the kind of numbers that you want to represent your team’s leading receiver, Smith has the ability to significantly increase his production in all facets in Meyer's spread offense. Especially considering quarterback Braxton Miller should benefit from a more concentrated amount of tutelage from the tandem of Meyer and Herman.
Smith was state long jump champion and a state qualifier in the high jump and 4x200 relay in addition to being a basketball standout at Washington High School in Massillon, OH. And while simply being an all-around athlete doesn’t necessarily translate to being a great wide receiver, it nonetheless provides him with the necessary talent to become Miller’s No. 1 target.
With Meyer effectively laying down the gauntlet with his early verbal assessment, Smith should welcome the opportunity to establish himself as the early candidate for the offenses on-call “wow factor” in 2012.
With depth on the offensive line being an area of concern, especially at the tackle position, where the Buckeyes lost starting tackles Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts, coach Urban Meyer showed he can make do with what he has, converting Fragel, formerly a tight end, to right tackle.
This conversion is not a stretch, at least from a physique standpoint, as Fragel played his former position at 6’8” and just under 300 pounds, and his training in being able to get off the line and into receiving patterns, as well as blocking position should aid his transitional ability towards tackle.
And so fans who looked at Fragel and saw a tight end trapped in an offensive tackle’s body, will surely laud Meyer’s decision, although being that Fragel is a senior, this is not a project that has the luxury of panning out over several years, but rather must be a fast tracked apprenticeship in order to increase the offensive line’s depth this season. This, as much as any other transitions on the team, will be a work in progress.