Recruiting and preparing his team to play Clemson in the Orange Bowl are top priorities right now for Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer. On January 4, his attention will turn to 2014.
Even though fans are disappointed that their team came up a little short in its quest for a national title this year, they can take comfort in knowing that the sting and bitterness will drive the players during the offseason.
The coaching staff certainly has its work cut out for it. The Buckeyes are saying goodbye to running back Carlos Hyde, offensive linemen Jack Mewhort, Corey Linsley, Marcus Hall and Andrew Norwell, cornerback Bradley Roby and maybe even Ryan Shazier. Despite the challenges of replacing these veterans, the Buckeyes are considered legitimate title contenders in 2014.
To make a run at the inaugural College Football Playoff, four players will need to step up and carry the team.
As the lone returning starter on the offensive line next season, the 6’7”, 315-pound Decker will need to step into a leadership role and demand the same intensity from the new players that this year’s seniors brought each day.
In a press conference on December 19, as reported by the Buckeyes' official website, Coach Meyer said this year’s offensive line has been one of the better lines at Ohio State because of the work ethic of Mewhort, Norwell and Hall. Meyer continued saying that pressure forced Decker to work harder and get better. His commitment paid dividends on the field.
The Buckeyes have significant depth at offensive line, but the talent is young and raw. Competition will be fierce in the spring to fill the open spots. Kyle Dodson, Pat Elflein, Jacoby Boren and Evan Lisle are high on the list, but nothing is guaranteed. Look for line coach Ed Warinner to lean on Decker to help get the new line up to the standard needed to win championships.
With Hyde and backup Jordan Hall gone, the running back position appears to be wide open next year. The job is really Elliott’s to lose. In mop-up duty this year, he finished with 262 yards rushing and two touchdowns. His playing time dropped significantly as the season progressed, but Elliott is the man to beat in the spring.
Quarterback Braxton Miller has a tendency to get banged up from running too much, and Meyer needs a back that can step in quickly with a short learning curve. Elliott’s versatility fits the mold. He is powerful enough to run in between the tackles, quick enough to get to the edge and his good hands make him a receiving threat.
Warren Ball might have the best chance at beating out Elliott. He was a reliable scout team player, and earned a spot on special teams which is critical to staying on Meyer’s good side. Rod Smith and Bri’onte Dunn have the talent to make some noise, but both will have to dramatically improve their consistency and attitude if they want to earn Meyer’s attention and support.
Spence finished the regular season with 58 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks which may go down as one of the least recognized great seasons by a Buckeye defensive lineman over the last 15 years.
In the last 10 years, Will Smith won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2003, Cameron Heyward was First Team All-Big Ten and John Simon was Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Spence's production matches favorably. He did make both the Coaches and Media All-Big Ten teams, but the noise around his play seemed dull compared to others.
The lack of flair around Spence's season is likely based on the overall play of the Buckeyes’ defense this season and the sudden and surprising rise of freshman defensive lineman Joey Bosa. He’s also battling the enormous expectations placed upon him because he was the top-ranked defensive end in the 2012 recruiting class. Regardless, Spence has had a stellar sophomore season, and his ceiling is unlimited heading into next season.
With Bosa, Adulphus Washington, Tommy Schutt, Joel Hale and possibly Michael Bennett returning, this unit has the potential to be the best in college football next season. Spence is the right person to get them ready to create havoc every Saturday.
If he needs any motivation, Spence won’t have to look too far. Defensive line coach Mike Vrabel was the Big Ten Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 1995 and 1996, and he is the Buckeyes all-time, career sacks leader with 36. Vrabel should challenge Spence to raise his level of play and beat all of these records. If he does, 2014 will be a special year for Spence.
The secondary has taken a beating on and off the field this year. There is a surplus of reasons why this unit played well below expectations, but none of them really matter. If Ohio State wants to play for a title next season, a top priority is making major improvements in pass defense.
Fans need not worry. There’s little debate that Meyer has recruited well at every position, but he’s arguably done his finest work at defensive back. Ohio State has what every coach wants; an excess of elite talent competing for limited spots on the field. Waiting in the wings might be the best collection of players that Ohio State has ever had on the roster at one time.
Bell is at the top of the list. Playing behind seasoned veterans, Bell had trouble getting on the field early in the year. As the season progressed and his play improved in practice and on special teams, Bell saw more action. After practice this week, Meyer said Bell has earned more playing time for the bowl game and is excited about his future, as reported on the Buckeyes' official website.
Joining him are Tyvis Powell, Armani Reeves, Cam Burrows and Eli Apple. Powell was already playing pretty well when he saved the season with his interception on the final play against Michigan. Reeves gained considerable experience as Bradley Roby’s backup. Burrows played in 11 games, but mostly in mop-up duty. Apple is redshirting. If any of these players fail, there is a handful more ready to get their shot.
The future is bright for Ohio State in the secondary. The trials of this season will be a distant memory if the talent plays up to its potential. Bell is the top-rated player so the burden is on him to be the leader of the group.
Wildcard: J.T. Barrett
The chances are probably slim that Miller will leave early for the NFL, but what happens to the Buckeyes next year if he forgoes his senior season? What if he sustains an injury that keeps him on the sidelines? Odds are pretty high that Meyer will need a backup to play significant time next year. Taking nothing away from Guiton, but the 2014 schedule is considerably stronger than the cream puffs he faced while Miller was injured. Can Barrett deliver like Guiton?
A year ago, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was barely a household name while running the Seminoles’ scout team offense. He was definitely a standout athlete, but few people outside of Tallahassee and Alabama knew exactly how good Winston would be this year. The coaching staff knew it had a gem in waiting though, and he proved it on the field while leading the Seminoles to an undefeated season and a shot at the last BCS Championship.
Barrett is a 6’1”, 220 pound, dual-threat quarterback serving the same purpose for Ohio State this year. He was a 4-star recruit from Wichita Falls, Texas who flew a little under the radar because he suffered an ACL injury early in his senior year.
He enrolled early at Ohio State early in January 2013 and sat out spring practices, but he was soaking in everything he could from Miller to learn the new offense. The intangible that he shares with Winston is leadership ability.
Buckeye offensive coordinator Tom Herman told Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain Dealer that Barrett's leadership gift comes naturally and said it difficult to teach young players how to make the team better.
The consensus is that without Miller, the Buckeyes’ chances of making a run at a title are nearly impossible. The challenge might be more difficult without Miller, but Barrett is a star waiting for his moment to shine. He’ll deliver if given the opportunity.
Year two in the Meyer era passed without earning any hardware. His biggest challenge in the offseason will be finding new leaders on both sides of the ball. Meyer has brought in the elite talent, and now he needs to find a group of players willing to carry the team to the next level. Decker, Elliott, Spence and Bell cannot do it alone, but they must be out front. If they step up as expected, the Buckeyes will make it to the playoff next year