The disappointment over the way their 2013 season ended has faded, if not disappeared.
It is a new season, with a new pot of gold potentially awaiting them — the College Football Playoff. For the Ohio State Buckeyes, it starts in earnest today. Players report for preseason camp this afternoon, and practice starts on Monday morning for freshmen and in the afternoon for the rest of the team.
“My anticipation is that we will be very hungry,” coach Urban Meyer said last week.
They should be. Ohio State was denied a chance for postseason glory after an undefeated 2012 season because of NCAA sanctions. The Buckeyes again went unbeaten in the regular season in 2013, only to lose to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game and to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
With Heisman Trophy candidate Braxton Miller back for his senior year and a defense led by a talented and deep line, most analysts expect Ohio State to contend for one of the four playoff spots.
Meyer downplayed that topic at the Big Ten media gathering last week, sticking to his standard line that the goal is for the Buckeyes to be in position for a championship in November. For that to happen, Ohio State will have to answer several questions.
For Meyer, the top three issues are getting a mostly new offensive line up to speed quickly, continuing the progress he believes the pass defense has made since co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash’s arrival, and the need for running backs and receivers to emerge and seize roles.
The line is the top priority.
“If our offensive line develops, we’ll be very good,” Meyer said. “I’m confident (it will), but I have a little apprehension because spring ball was not good.”
Four multiyear starters graduated, and lone holdover Taylor Decker has moved from right tackle to left tackle. Pat Elflein, who played well late in the season when pressed into action, is assured of a spot at right guard. Darryl Baldwin, a fifth-year senior, is penciled in at right tackle.
Center and left guard are wide open. Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay, Jacoby Boren and Billy Price are in competition at center. Lindsay also could factor in at left guard, where Antonio Underwood and converted defensive lineman Joel Hale are among the candidates. Meyer also mentions another former defensive lineman, junior Chase Farris, as a contender for a starting spot.
“There’s a common theme,” Meyer said. “They’re all nice people that have been around for a while and haven’t played (much). We have to get something out of them.”
Some of the returning offensive linemen have played more than most suspect. Baldwin played 236 snaps in 2013. Tommy Brown had 208 and Boren 198. But those came primarily in mop-up situations.
A talented freshman class of linemen might also factor in.
Meyer feels much better about the pass defense, which was torched in the final three games of last season.
“We completely blew it up,” he said. “Anything associated with that is completely changed, and it had to change.”
Doran Grant returns at one cornerback, with Armani Reeves the front-runner at the other. At safety, sophomores Vonn Bell, Tyvis Powell and Cam Burrows will compete for the two spots. As is the case with the offensive linemen, several freshmen are poised to challenge for playing time.
“The secondary is unproven, but I have a lot of faith in our secondary,” senior defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “From spring ball and every single workout we’ve had in the offseason, those guys have shown they’re a different secondary than last year.
“They fly to the ball a lot more. This might be a shot at (those) positions, but a lot of defensive backs are kind of all about themselves and ‘Let me get mine.’ Our secondary is the furthest thing from that. They’re complete team players and will go the extra mile for the team.”
Meyer seems at least mildly concerned about the running backs and receivers. Sophomore Ezekiel Elliott might have the inside track to succeed Carlos Hyde as the main running back. Senior Rod Smith, Bri’onte Dunn, freshman Curtis Samuel and Warren Ball are also in the mix.
At receiver, Devin Smith needs to gain consistency in his fourth year as a starter. Speedy sophomore hybrid Dontre Wilson has gained weight and could be poised for a breakout year. Evan Spencer returns, and the Buckeyes hope that players such as Corey Smith, Michael Thomas and freshman Johnnie Dixon are ready for larger roles.
One area of concern that has abated in Meyer’s mind is the linebackers. Even with the loss of NFL first-round pick Ryan Shazier, Meyer feels good about that unit, praising its development and camaraderie.
Curtis Grant returns for his senior year hoping to live up to his billing as a recruit. Prized freshman Raekwon McMillan will push Grant hard at middle linebacker. Joshua Perry will play one outside linebacker spot, and Darron Lee has the inside track at the other.
“I don’t want to shortchange Ryan because I love Ryan, but for two years that’s not been (up to the standard of) Ohio State linebackers,” Meyer said. “They didn’t act like it. They didn’t play like it. The great thing is that’s been addressed.”
OHIO STATE SCHEDULE
|Aug. 30||vs. Navy (at Baltimore)||Noon||CBSSN|
|Sept. 6||Virginia Tech||8 p.m.||ESPN|
|Sept. 13||Kent State||Noon||ABC/ESPN/2|
|Sept. 27||Cincinnati||6 p.m.||BTN|
|Oct. 4||at Maryland||TBA||TBA|
|Oct. 18||Rutgers||3:30 p.m.||ABC/ESPN/BTN|
|Oct. 25||at Penn State||8 p.m.||ABC/ESPN/2|
|Nov. 1||Illinois||8 p.m.||ABC/ESPN/2|
|Nov. 8||at Michigan State||8 p.m.||ABC|
|Nov. 15||at Minnesota||TBA||TBA|