Ohio State football: Offensive line much more established this season
Twelve months ago, Ohio State’s offensive line might have been the biggest question mark on the team. Now it is the linchpin.
“It feels way different,” left guard Andrew Norwell said. “We’ve settled in and try to be leaders.”
A year ago, Norwell was the only starting lineman in the same spot he had played in 2011. The Buckeyes had to replace three multiyear starters, and a converted tight end was fighting a true freshman at right tackle.
When coach Urban Meyer described the unit as “nonfunctional” at the start of 2012, it wasn’t hyperbole. But with offensive line coach Ed Warinner’s relentless work, the line jelled quickly.
The Buckeyes finished the season ranked 10th nationally in rushing yards per game (242.3), averaging 5.2 per carry. Quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde deserve much of the credit, but so do their blockers.
Against Michigan State and Michigan, the line opened holes to allow the Buckeyes to run out the clock with sustained drives.
Norwell became an all-Big Ten player as selected by the media. Jack Mewhort excelled at left tackle after moving from guard. Career backup Corey Linsley matured rapidly and became the leader at center. Marcus Hall, a part-timer in 2011, was solid at right guard. Reid Fragel’s switch from tight end proved to be a success after edging out freshman Taylor Decker at right tackle.
Now everyone except Fragel is back, and the expectation that the offensive line can become something truly special is palpable.
“It makes it easy to get up at 5:30 in the morning and come in here,” Warinner said.
The first order of business is to find Fragel’s replacement. Coaches are confident that Decker or Chase Farris will step in.
“Decker is obviously a guy who has a lot of ability,” Warinner said.
At 6 feet 7 and 315 pounds, Decker has excellent size. He impressed his linemates last year with his football knowledge and preparedness. Farris, a former guard, was one of the few backup linemen who a year ago impressed Meyer with his improvement.
“It has been a great battle,” Mewhort said. “Both of those guys are working their butts off every day.”
Converted defensive lineman Darryl Baldwin is another candidate who could work his way into the mix at right tackle.
Warinner said he sees progress in the returning starters, and he singled out Hall as the most improved. Hall said he lost 15 to 20 pounds from last season.
“Marcus has improved his footwork a lot,” Warinner said. “His quickness and change of direction and all the little mechanics of playing O-line have improved a lot.”
One challenge Warinner faces is developing depth. The Buckeyes were fortunate that the linemen stayed healthy all of last season. One of the few areas that Ohio State didn’t strike it rich in Meyer’s first two recruiting classes was on the offensive line.
Warinner’s hope is that the success the starters have had will rub off.
“It’s a comforting feeling because we do have some veteran players back who are good players and understand the system,” Warinner said. “They’re really good at working hard and preparing, so they’re teaching the young guys how to be a pro.”