Following Ohio State’s Big Ten Championship Game loss to Michigan State last December, coach Urban Meyer looked positively inconsolable.
The Spartans’ upset ended the Buckeyes’ 24-game win streak and their hopes of competing in the final BCS National Championship Game, and Meyer wasn’t taking it well. An image of the intense head coach perched on a golf cart in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium, “enjoying” some Papa John’s pizza, went viral.
His mood matched that of Buckeye fans. While some questioned Ohio State’s BCS worthiness, the tandem of quarterback Braxton Miller and bruising tailback Carlos Hyde playing behind a senior-laden offensive line gave Meyer’s bunch a chance to compete with anyone nationally.
As Ohio State prepares for Saturday’s spring game, the Buckeyes remain at the top of the Big Ten food chain alongside Michigan State. But those expecting them to take another step forward towards national prominence in 2014 could be in for a rude awakening.
The Buckeyes have major questions to answer on both sides of the ball, and while they’ll be among the Big Ten’s best again, expecting them to be better than 2013 could be a very difficult undertaking indeed.
Last fall, Ohio State’s offense was fueled by its ground game. Hyde rushed for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns, and multi-talented quarterback Braxton Miller added 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns. Miller missed spring practice while recovering from shoulder surgery, but will be fine for the regular season. However, Hyde is gone, and so are four of the five starting offensive linemen who paved his way.
Rising junior tackle Taylor Decker is the only returning starter, and competition for three offensive line spots is expected to stretch into preseason practice. Pat Elflein has locked down a guard spot, and Antonio Underwood leads for another guard spot with Darryl Baldwin the favorite at the other tackle spot. Jacoby Boren and Billy Price are battling to become the No. 1 center.
Who will replace Hyde in the backfield? 2013’s No. 3 rusher, Jordan Hall (536 yards, 8 TDs), was also a senior. That leaves rising sophomores Ezekiel Elliott (262 yards, 2 TDs) to battle with Rod Smith and Bri’onte Dunn, although Elliott is the favorite to win the role.
Steady playmaker Philly Brown (63 receptions, 771 yards, 10 TDs) was Miller’s favorite target at receiver, but with his departure, rising senior Devin Smith must become a more consistent option as Miller’s lead receiver.
Smith had 44 receptions for 660 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013, but had just six catches in the Buckeyes’ final five games.
With Hyde gone and a mostly new offensive line, it is unclear exactly what form the Buckeyes offense will take this fall. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman will still spread the field, use Miller in the running game and employ a power run attack, but in what mix now?
Here’s the rub. Unless Ohio State’s defense makes serious improvement (particularly on the back end) it might not matter how much the offense progresses this fall with its new pieces.
Ohio State allowed 268 yards passing per game last fall, which ranked 110th nationally and 11th in the 12-team Big Ten.
Over the last three games, Michigan’s Devin Gardner carved up the Buckeyes for 451 yards passing, Michigan State’s Connor Cook rolled up his first 300-yard passing game and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd torched the secondary for 378 yards and five passing touchdowns.
Rising senior corner Doran Grant is the only full-time starter returning from that secondary. Junior Bradley Roby declared early for the NFL draft and safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett graduated. Rising sophomore Tyvis Powell, a part-time starter, returns. The secondary’s progress has been slowed this spring by rising sophomore Vonn Bell’s knee injury, which has sidelined him.
Meyer revamped his defensive staff following safeties coach and co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers’ departure to become James Madison’s head coach and defensive line coach Mike Vrabel left to join the staff of the NFL’s Houston Texans.
Meyer replaced Withers with Arkansas secondary coach Chris Ash and Vrabel with former Penn State line coach Larry Johnson. Ash will use a Cover 4 style of coverage and the defense is expected to put more emphasis on stopping the pass.
The secondary does not lack for talent.
Redshirt freshman corners Eli Apple and Gareon Conley were highly touted recruits, and Powell and Cam Burrows (who stand 6’3” and 6”0’, respectively) bring much-needed size to safety.
Ohio State’s defensive line should take some pressure off the secondary. Rising junior Noah Spence (52 tackles, eight sacks) and rising senior Michael Bennett (42 tackles, seven sacks) were both All-Big Ten selections, and the linebacker corps is also solid.
Meyer is also trying to change the Buckeyes’ culture this season. He has adopted a mantra: 4 to 6 and A to B. What does that mean? He wants Ohio State players to go hard for four to six seconds every play and run hard from point A to point B.
“We have a mantra, we have a culture that I want to make sure we don’t lose,” Meyer told The Lantern after his team’s first spring practice March 4. “What I’m looking for is simplicity, and 4 to 6 and A to B. If you can’t give us that, then we gotta move on and get another player that will.”
Unless the defense shows significant improvement and a replacement for Hyde emerges, however, it is hard to imagine Ohio State making a move upward from last year’s 12-2 record.
The Buckeyes will be good this fall. They’ll win a bunch of games. But national greatness could be elusive. Double-digit wins and a New Year’s Day bowl bid, while not necessarily what the fanbase is hoping for, would be a solid baseline for the new-look Buckeyes.