Biggest Storylines Heading into Ohio State Fall Camp
When the Ohio State football team takes the field for the start of fall camp on Monday, it will do so with both national championship aspirations and expectations. The Buckeyes fell short of their goal of playing for the crystal ball a season ago and will now have to qualify for the inaugural College Football Playoff in order to capture a national title.
But before the Buckeyes can start thinking about selection committees or even their first (official) conference championship since 2009, Ohio State must first focus on its third fall camp under the direction of Urban Meyer. And as is often the case when it comes to Meyer, there won't be any shortage of storylines in Columbus as Ohio State sets sail for a pivotal 2014 season.
With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the Buckeyes' top storylines entering the fall camp season.
Getting Braxton Better
Although Meyer and his staff managed to make the most of spring football this past offseason, it was hard to get an accurate gauge on the Buckeyes without their star player on the field. A shoulder injury suffered in the Orange Bowl forced Braxton Miller into offseason shoulder surgery, sidelining the reigning two-time Big Ten MVP for the entirety of the spring session.
As spring turned into summer, however, Miller regained strength and finally found himself back on the football field. Rehab throwing sessions with a tennis ball lasted a mere day, and Miller claims to have been throwing a football for the better part of the past two months.
But being on a practice field and under the bright lights of Ohio Stadium are two different challenges. And if the Buckeyes were to be taking the field for a game this Saturday, Miller still doesn't know whether or not he'd be in the starting lineup.
"My shoulder's pretty good. I'm at the end of my recovery but I'm still healing up," Miller said. "Camp is right around the corner, so I gotta take it slow and make sure I'm smart about it. I'm taking it day by day."
Given the importance of Miller to the OSU offense—Buckeyes tight end Jeff Heuerman compared it to that of LeBron James' to the Cleveland Cavaliers—getting Miller back to full strength will be Ohio State's top priority throughout fall camp. Expect for daily—if not hourly—updates on the senior signal-caller's progress from now until the start of the season.
Speaking of the start of the season, it's a mere month away and the Buckeyes find themselves preparing for a unique opponent in Navy and its triple-option offense. Admittedly for Meyer, that's far from ideal, as Ohio State will find itself spending a significant amount of time getting ready for a one-of-a-kind opponent.
"It's awful," Meyer said. "I had a little chat with [OSU athletic director] Gene Smith about that. But it's a great opponent, right off the bat against a team that won nine games last year, and somebody said they have the best quarterback they've ever had there. Really, really good offense with nine starters back, and we're playing them in Baltimore on the road."
Just how challenging is it to prepare for a team like Navy? Meyer got started on it months in advance.
"We've been working on that. Not necessarily practice because we haven't had time, and we had a lot of changes on defense, but we've already addressed [the challenge]," Meyer said. "We'll spend a lot of time in training camp preparing for that."
It will be interesting to see how the Buckeyes divide their time getting ready for Navy and the other 11 opponents on their schedule. With Virginia Tech looming in the second week of the season, Ohio State can hardly afford to devote all of its time to the Midshipmen, adding an interesting wrinkle to fall camp preparations.
Dealing with the Defense
Only adding intrigue to Ohio State's defensive preparations in camp is co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash's overhaul of the unit. After the Buckeyes ranked 110th in the country (out of 123 teams) in passing yards allowed and surrendered 2,059 combined yards in their final four games of the season, Ash was hired away from Arkansas to fix what Meyer deemed a "broken" defense.
"We've completely blown up and started from scratch in an area we weren't very strong with," Meyer said. "Chris Ash has done an admirable job of installing a brand-new pass defense that we're going to test and see how it goes during training camp."
Out is what was formerly a cushy, zone-based coverage scheme, replaced with a quarters system that places an emphasis on press coverage from the cornerbacks. Ash got a head start on installing his new philosophy throughout spring practice, but fall camp will give him even more time and bodies to use with the arrival of a few highly touted freshmen.
With the departures of NFL first-round picks Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, Ash certainly has his work cut out for him heading into his first fall camp in Columbus. Just how improved the Buckeyes defense will be in 2014 remains to be seen, but Meyer knows what he'll be looking for from the unit in camp.
"There's many variables," Meyer admitted. "Chemistry and trust and development of young players are by far number one."
Competition in Columbus
Since Meyer arrived in Columbus nearly three years ago, competition has been a driving force in Ohio State's program, and there may not be a more competitive fall camp in Columbus than the one the Buckeyes are about to endure.
Position battles can be found nearly across the board at Ohio State, with uncertainty surrounding the running back, wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback and safety positions heading into fall camp. But no unit will be more scrutinized than the offensive line, which will replace four experienced starters from a season ago.
At Big Ten media days in Chicago, Meyer listed solidifying the offensive line as one of his top priorities this fall. Spearheading the competition on the unit will be the center position, which has three legitimate contenders in junior Jacoby Boren, Alabama graduate transfer Chad Lindsay and redshirt freshman Billy Price.
"Three guys that are talented," Meyer said of his centers. "It remains to be seen. I kind of like the work ethic. I think they're hungry."
On the defensive side of the ball, all eyes will be on the middle linebacker spot, where incumbent senior Curtis Grant will battle with 247Sports 5-star freshman Raekwon McMillan. And while overtaking Grant's starting status remains a tall task for McMillan, Meyer clearly has high hopes for the true freshman.
"I'm used to hearing about [James] Laurinaitis’s and A.J. Hawks and those guys," Meyer said. “I'll be disappointed if [McMillan's] not one of those big names someday at Ohio State.”
Dominance on the Defensive Line
While questions surround the rest of the Ohio State defense, the Buckeyes seem to know what they'll be getting in their defensive line. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more talented collection off pass-rushers in the country, with Michael Bennett, Joey Bosa, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington all returning to their starting roles.
But that doesn't leave perhaps the most dominate defensive line in country without questions of its own, as Larry Johnson Sr. replaces Mike Vrabel as the unit's position coach. A longtime Penn State assistant, Johnson has already drawn rave reviews from both his players and new boss, who is clearly happy to have him in Columbus.
"We lost a home run," Meyer said of Vrabel's departure to the Houston Texans. "We replaced Mike with a top-shelf coach, a guy that has great respect, very good recruiter, a very good coach, the players love him already. There's an incredible trust and spirit in the D-line room right now. He walked into a good situation."
Having produced six first-round picks during his time with the Nittany Lions, Johnson will likely only add to his list at Ohio State as he attempts to take an already impressive defensive line to the next level. If Johnson can do that, then Ash's overhaul of the Ohio State defense will only run more smoothly, as opposing quarterbacks will be left with much less time to pick apart the Buckeyes, as they did a season ago.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.