- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The scene unfolded like something out of a recurring nightmare.
The classroom was Ohio Stadium. The first day of school was a season opener and a debut as a starter.
And the assignment that showed up on Taylor Decker's desk was a final exam, shutting down a surefire first-round draft pick.
“Obviously,” the Ohio State right tackle said, “the first game I didn’t start as I had wanted.”
That might be expected considering Decker’s inexperience was being matched up with one of the most dangerous defenders in the nation in Buffalo’s Khalil Mack, and there was certainly some carnage as the sophomore was thrown into graduate-level work right away on the offensive line.
But rather than relive that rough outing and allow that disappointment to impact a bright future, Decker instead went right back to work for the No. 4 Buckeyes, making sure there wouldn’t be another one like it as he established himself as the final piece of a puzzle with four senior starters up front.
It certainly helped that Decker had already been welcomed into that group by the veterans and had the full support of the coaching staff after distancing himself in what had been a close race for playing time in spring practice, because contributing to an outing in which Mack made 2.5 sacks and also turned an interception into a 45-yard touchdown could easily have shaken his confidence after just one game.
“That’s the third-ranked linebacker in the country on all the scouting boards,” offensive line coach Ed Warinner said. “And if you assess the game, it wasn't 20 bad plays in the game, it was three. But three bad plays for a cornerback or three bad plays for a tackle, everybody knows about it. They don't know about the other 65 that were pretty decent.
“I didn't have any doubt that at some point he would turn the corner, and he did the next game and played very solid in the second game of the season. It's continued to just get better and better. ... He feels good about himself and so do we. Things are good.”
The Buckeyes haven’t had much to feel bad about offensively since the opener, and they still scored 40 points in that win despite a few missed assignments with Decker under the microscope.
Blessed with both enormous size at 6-foot-7, 315 pounds and technical ability that impressed the coaching staff as soon as he stepped foot on campus, there wasn’t really any doubt that Decker was destined to fill the only vacancy on a decorated offensive line after battling with departed senior Reid Fragel during training camp a year ago. And even in the aftermath of his occasional struggles handling Mack in August, the expectations didn’t change from Warinner, and he never panicked over the results from such a small sample size. That's paying off now for an offense line that is bulldozing holes for a rushing attack averaging nearly 280 yards rushing and playing every bit as well as the unit did last season.
“The coaches kept their trust in me and kept coaching me hard and my teammates picked me up,” Decker said. “I feel like because of that I’ve been able to improve.
“I mean, I knew that wasn’t me, that wasn’t how I’d been playing and performing in camp prior to that game, the weeks leading into it. It was a tough pill to swallow, but I just had to bounce back and recover from it, play the way I know I can play.”
And with each passing week, those memories are increasingly fading away just like a bad dream.