The notion that Urban Meyer is obsessed with speed is more of a fact than it is an opinion. A year ago, I was watching high school prospects run 40-yard dashes at Ohio State's summer camp when a recruiting reporter turned to me following a particularly impressive showing.
"Urban's not going to be able to help himself," the reporter said with a smile.
No more than 10 minutes later, wide receiver Terry McLaurin had a scholarship offer from the Buckeyes.
But while Meyer's need for speed may be the worst-kept secret in Columbus, circumstances have diverted the attention of the third-year Ohio State head coach elsewhere for the foreseeable future. Because after the Buckeyes' disastrous defensive showing in 2013, it's clear that it's been "D" and not speed that's been on Meyer's mind lately.
So much so that when Meyer was asked to name a few breakout players for the upcoming season two weeks ago, the first three that came to mind were from the defensive side of the ball. Sure, some offensive options followed, but when it comes to what Meyer has had his eyes on this offseason, the message was clear: Beware of the Buckeyes defensive backfield.
What follows are the five (really, six) players Meyer mentioned when asked which Buckeyes will have breakthrough seasons in 2014.
A former 5-star prospect, as per 247 sports, Vonn Bell served as one of the headliners of Ohio State's highly touted 2013 class. A rangy safety with a knack for making the big play, Bell chose to play for the Buckeyes over the likes of Alabama and Tennessee.
But when the Rossville, Georgia native showed up in Columbus, his immediate impact was minimal. As Ohio State struggled to the nation's 76th-ranked pass defense, Bell predominately watched from the sideline, with the majority of his presence being made on special teams.
That all changed in the Orange Bowl, however, when Meyer decided that he had seen enough from the old guard and inserted the true freshman into the Buckeyes' starting lineup. Facing Clemson's pass-happy offensive attack, Bell responded admirably, recording seven tackles and an interception in his starting lineup debut.
Bell appeared to have the Buckeyes starting free safety spot locked up heading into the offseason before an MCL injury kept him out of the majority of OSU's spring football session. He'll battle with classmate Cameron Burrows come training camp, but all indications are that Bell will be given every chance to realize his seemingly limitless potential on the Buckeyes defense this fall.
While Bell will attempt to bring something new to his unit, Doran Grant will try to bring something better. The cornerback from St. Vincent-St. Mary endured an up-and-down junior season in 2013, but Meyer has been given reason to believe that Grant's senior season could be something special.
"Doran Grant has been the most impressive guy in spring and summer workouts from what I'm hearing," Meyer said at his annual youth football camp in July.
A big senior season from Grant would provide an obvious boost to the Buckeyes, which are now without first-round pick Bradley Roby at the cornerback position. That means that the ultra-athletic Grant will have plenty of chances to show the strides he's made, as he'll often match up with opposing teams' top receivers.
Regardless of whether it's Bell or Burrows starting at free safety for the Buckeyes, they'll have an experienced running mate in strong safety Tyvis Powell. Ohio State's nickelback a season ago, Powell recorded 48 tackles, one interception and defended three passes in his redshirt freshman campaign.
But the Bedford, Ohio native provided Ohio State with perhaps its most important moment of the 2013 season. With 32 seconds left on the clock in Ann Arbor, it was Powell who intercepted what would have been a go-ahead two-point conversion in the annual Michigan game, preserving the Buckeyes' undefeated season in the process.
The big play clearly instilled a newfound confidence in Powell, as evidenced by his impressive sophomore spring. Meyer said that you can go ahead and etch his name in the starting lineup with ink for the fall and expects big plays to be the norm from the big 6'3", 205-pound Buckeyes safety.
Jeff Heuerman/Nick Vannett
It's an annual tradition in Columbus: hyping up Ohio State's tight end position in the preseason and receiving minimal returns from it in the fall. But both Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett showed enough last season to prove that this year will be different as Meyer aims to add flexibility to his spread attack.
"We have two really good tight ends," Meyer said. "We're not a big (two-tight end team), but we will be."
Last season, Heuerman was the Buckeyes' third-leading receiver with 26 catches for 466 yards and four touchdowns. Playing more sparingly, Vannett added eight catches for 80 yards and a score in 2013.
Both big bodied and capable blockers, Heuerman and Vannett will only see their respective roles increase with the departure of leading receiver Corey "Philly" Brown from last year's squad. Heuerman has already proven to be one of Braxton Miller's favorite targets but should be featured more prominently as a senior, while Vannett could slide into Heuerman's old role as the Buckeyes' de facto safety valve.
Ezekiel Elliott, the sophomore running back from St. Louis, Missouri, has been chosen by many as a breakout player for the Buckeyes, and Meyer apparently agrees. He only saw limited playing time as a freshman behind Big Ten Running Back of the Year Carlos Hyde, but when he was on the field, he showed both the size and the speed that made him one of Ohio State's top recruiting targets in 2013.
Appearing in seven games as a running back a season ago, the true freshman rushed for 262 yards and two touchdowns on just 30 attempts. That may not be enough of a sample size to truly judge how effective Elliott can be at the college level, but the fact that he has already managed to jump elders Rod Smith, Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball on the Buckeyes depth chart is telling.
He may not have a stranglehold on Ohio State's starting running back spot just yet, but that shouldn't be the case for long. Having added 15 pounds of muscle since the end of his freshman season (now up to 225 pounds), look for Elliott to provide the dynamic of speed and power in the Buckeyes backfield that Meyer so desperately covets.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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