Summer Preview: Ohio State Buckeyes
Photo By Scott Halleran/Getty Images
There are two words on the tip of every Ohio State fan’s tongues. Those two words represent the hope of picking up this storied program that has fallen so far. They help soften the blow of the memorabilia-for-cash scandal that forced out 10-year coach Jim Tressel and quarterback Terrelle Pryor. They help Ohio State fans pretend that their first losing season since 1988 never happened and soothe the pain of having neither a conference championship nor a bowl game to play for.
Those two words: Urban Meyer.
Hiring Urban Meyer as the new coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes football program has turned around the spirits of a dejected fan base. The 47-year-old Ohio native, whose first job was as an Ohio State graduate assistant in the mid-1980s, pronounced himself, “home,” and almost immediately began talking tough and backing it up with aggressive recruiting.
The savior-of-the-program talk is a bit overplayed, but there is a lot to be said for Meyer re-energizing the program. Meyer also has relatively little pressure this season, as the Buckeyes are ineligible for postseason play, meaning that he can spend this year purely instilling his philosophy and scheme. The Buckeyes would love to win now, but their eyes are more focused on winning in 2013 and beyond.
In his first year at the Ohio State helm, Meyer will have an experienced defense and an enthusiastic new offense led by sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller, who should thrive in the new fast-paced spread offense.
But behind Miller, who should be able to showcase his speed and strong arm this season, the Buckeyes are surprisingly thin at the offensive skill positions.
Senior running back Jordan Hall and junior running back Carlos Hyde may compete for carries, though many expect Hall to fill a similar role that Percy Harvin played for Meyer at Florida – more as a receiver in the flats and slot. Hyde is a much more standard run-first back, a bruiser who averaged 5.3 yards a carry while splitting time during the 2011 season.
While the running backs may find success, Ohio State has a serious deficit of playmaking wide receivers. It was a refrain throughout the spring, and understandably so: OSU’s leading receivers in 2011 had just 14 catches each (a tie between then-sophomore Devin Smith, junior Corey Brown and Jake Stoneburner). Smith, Brown and sophomore Evan Spencer figure to be the starting trio, and freshman Michael Thomas has emerged as a name to watch in the spring. But none of these names inspire fear in the hearts of opposing defenses. Spencer, Smith and Thomas are all more possession-style receivers, while Brown has shown questionable hands.
All of this could lead to more work for Stoneburner, a senior who will start at tight end. Stoneburner has been a quietly dependable tight end for OSU throughout his career and Meyer has a track record of utilizing his tight ends in the passing game.
Stoneburner won’t be able to catch any passes without a steady offensive line protecting the quarterback, and this year’s OSU offensive line is basically a mystery. Only two starters return, although that might not be a bad thing considering how much the line underachieved in the 2011 season. The two returnees are Jack Mewhort (moving from right guard to left tackle) and Andrew Norwell (left guard). The other starters are likely to be junior Corey Linsley (center), junior Marcus Hall (right guard) and either senior Reid Fragel or true freshman Taylor Decker (right tackle).
The bad news for Ohio State is that after six years of being ranked as one of the nation’s best defenses, they slipped to 50th in run defense and recorded just 23 sacks in 2011.
But the good news for the Buckeyes is that the entire starting defensive line returns and features two of the team’s best players: senior John Simon and junior Johnathan Hankins.
OSU also has a dynamic player returning on defense in linebacker Ryan Shazier, who was a pleasant surprise for the struggling Buckeyes last year as a true freshman. But Shazier will need some help in the middle of the defense, and it’s not clear who will step up to provide more playmaking ability. Possibilities include senior Etienne Sabino, sophomore Curtis Grant, senior Storm Klein and two freshmen, Luke Roberts and Joshua Perry.
The linebackers may be shaky, but the secondary behind them looks to be poised for a strong season. Sophomore cornerback Bradley Roby impressed during the 2011 season and will likely start opposite senior Travis Howard, though sophomore Doran Grant is challenging both for a starting spot. Three proven safeties are back: starting juniors C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant and backup senior Orhian Johnson.
Ohio State’s special teams unit isn’t particularly strong, but it isn’t particularly weak either. The kick-coverage unit should be interesting to watch, as it’s still recovering from the breakdowns that plagued it in 2010.
Running back Hall and receivers Smith and Chris Fields (junior) could all split time as kick and punt return men, with freshman running back Bri’onte Dunn in the mix as well. Hall averaged 26.3 yards per return on kickoffs, but only 5.8 yards per return on punts last season. Fields scored on a 69-yard punt return.
Junior kicker Drew Basil handles both placekicking and kickoffs, and should be dependable for Ohio State this season. He has connected on 16 of his last 17 tries throughout his college career and the miss came on a 50-yard attempt. He has also had a respectable 14 touchbacks in 63 kickoffs.
Senior punted Ben Buchanan should also be dependable, averaging 41.3 yards per punt and dropping 27 of his 70 punts inside the 20 yard line last season. As a team, OSU improved from 94th in net punting in 2010 to 41st last year, and there’s no reason they can’t continue to improve. The only possible issue is that Buchanan has a relatively low punt release that tends to get blocked – twice in 2011 alone.
2012 Prediction: 8-4
The safe bet here is somewhere from six to eight wins this season. Braxton Miller should take a step forward as a sophomore and the entire defensive unit should improve. Meyer will certainly have an impact, although this season is more to implement his system than to actually see it succeed.
The test of Meyer’s ability this year will be to see if he can coax double-digit wins out of a group that has nothing to play for. Ten wins would prove that the Buckeyes are back on track and ready to command in 2013, but that target might prove difficult to hit. Road games at Michigan State and Wisconsin will be the toughest tests, followed by home games against Nebraska and Michigan. OSU will likely be happy with two or more wins out of these four games, though it seems challenging to say the least.
Reach Cameron Albert-Deitch via email at CameronAlbertDeitch2015@u.northwestern.edu or on Twitter at @c_albertdeitch.