- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A future without four seniors on the offensive line isn't far away, and Urban Meyer is well aware that day is coming.
But when the Ohio State pulls those veterans off the field in a blowout, there's one prominent member of the present plans that stays behind as part of the building of the next wave of blockers in the trenches.
Taylor Decker is the bridge between the physical, road-grating unit that ranks among the best in the country and an uncertain group that may be stocked with potential but obviously has nowhere near the experience of the first-team unit. That leaves a delicate balancing act for Meyer with his sophomore right tackle as he plans for success both at the moment and down the road, and as he watched trainers attend to Decker's injured knee on Saturday at Purdue, the risk was much easier to see than the potential reward.
"It was horrible when I saw that happen," Meyer said. "You should have heard [offensive line coach Ed] Warinner. It was like somebody shot him, 'Oh, my gosh.'
"That's a fine line. But he needs to play. He needs to play."
Decker has been playing a critical role all year as the only new starter on the line, and after a rocky start in his debut to open the season, he's also been living up to Ohio State's high standards and continuing to look like a future star.
The time is fast approaching where Decker will be the elder statesman of the unit, and that has clearly been a factor for Meyer and the coaching staff as they decide how much work he needs when they send in the backups, the guys who will eventually be joining him as full-fledged starters.
Last week in the blowout of Purdue, quarterback Braxton Miller was pulled to start the second half along with most of the senior linemen, but Decker was still involved late in the third quarter when he suffered a knee sprain that brought out the training staff and produced a bit of panic on the Ohio State sidelines.
Decker limped to the locker room shortly after being helped off the field, hobbling and clearly favoring his left leg as he left for further evaluation. But the knee didn't swell, and though he has been held out of practice this week, he's expected to be in the lineup next week against Illinois.
And against another suspect Illini defense that could allow the Buckeyes to get a glimpse of the future once more, Meyer may well need to again toe that fine line between protecting the present and building for next season.
"That's a hard thing," Meyer said. "But I know he is [going to play next week]. He's actually ahead of the schedule."
For the Buckeyes as a whole, that development should keep them right on pace for where they want to go -- both now and later.