On this date a year ago, Ohio State had been away from the football field for a month.
After a Nov. 24, 2012, victory over Michigan, Ohio State’s season was over. The Buckeyes could not play in the Big Ten championship game. They could not play in a bowl game.
Because of that, they couldn’t benefit from the 15 postseason practices the NCAA allows teams headed to bowls, and that might have been as significant a hit as the postseason ban itself.
“That was a big panic point last year,” coach Urban Meyer said.
Which is why, even though Ohio State would much prefer to be playing in the national championship game than heading to the Miami area for the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3 against Clemson, the Buckeyes understand how vital these practices are for their development — for the game against Clemson and beyond.
Ohio State described its quest this season as “The Chase,” and part of that was the result of having to make up for lost time from not having those December practices.
“Part of ‘The Chase’ is that guys had to do it on their own,” Meyer said. “You can’t just say we didn’t practice today or we didn’t practice 15 times (as excuses).”
The Buckeyes have had nine practices before taking a break for Christmas. These practices are particularly useful for young players eager to make an impression for next year. Their development will be crucial because Ohio State will lose a minimum of six starters on offense and three on defense.
The offensive line will lose four starters. Sophomore tackle Taylor Decker will be the only returner, though the way Pat Elflein filled in for Marcus Hall the past two games has erased concerns about him.
“The good thing is that Taylor Decker and Pat Elflein can play right now,” Meyer said. “There are some other ones we’re real anxious to get in there and go. I like the development and culture of that room. Usually, when you see fast development of players, it’s because of the culture in the room.”
Though most starters will return on defense, some might not be secure in retaining their jobs because of the way that unit faded down the stretch. Clemson might pose the stiffest test yet, led by its dynamic quarterback Tajh Boyd.
Young players who stand out in the bowl practices could be in line for extensive playing time in 2014.
“(For younger players) this is 15 more practices of going against the (starters) and scout team and working on technique and a whole month of getting better that if you were just sitting around you wouldn’t get,” junior defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “For them, it’s huge.
“For the older guys it’s about being healthy, getting better technique, getting in shape and just getting ready for the game.”
Already, some players have made an impression. Meyer said that freshman safety Vonn Bell will see more playing time in the Orange Bowl than he has so far. Bennett and center Corey Linsley said that freshman defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis has taken major strides.
“Just looking back at how he was in the spring and summer, he’s a completely different guy,” Bennett said. “I think he’s going to be a playmaker.”
Others mentioned as taking a step forward include freshmen linebackers Darron Lee and Mike Mitchell, freshman cornerback Eli Apple, freshman safety Kevin Niehoff and mammoth junior defensive tackle Chris Carter, who has teased with his potential.
“He’s playing with a lot more energy, a lot better technique,” Bennett said. “His technique has improved in the last couple weeks a tremendous amount. It’s hard to stop a 350-pound lineman with good technique.”
A year ago, a player like Carter wouldn’t have had the chance to make that improvement. Now the key is to maximize the opportunity they have.