Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Veteran O-line anchors OSU offense
By Brian Bennett
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Several factors usually get mentioned first as reasons for Ohio State's 12-0 season in 2012. Braxton Miller's heroics. Carlos Hyde's emergence. The play of the defense down the stretch, led by John Simon and Ryan Shazier.
But one factor probably doesn't get mentioned enough: the performance of the team's offensive line. A major question mark going into last season, the line shaped up as one of the best in the Big Ten last year under the tutelage of Ed Warriner. And with most of the group back and some better depth, the unit provides a strong reason to believe in the Buckeyes again in 2013.
Left tackle Jack Mewhort, an all-Big Ten-level talent in 2012, could be the Buckeyes' next great leader.
Warriner turned in one of the better coaching jobs in the league last year, rounding into shape a crew that was previously undistinguished and underwhelming. He turned Reid Fragel, a former tight end, into a standout right tackle who should get drafted later this month. Corey Linsley went from playing guard to one of the conference's top centers, while Jack Mewhort developed into a top-flight left tackle. One of the indelible images of the Buckeyes' season was the line pushing around Michigan State's terrific defense to grind out the victory in East Lansing.
About the only thing Warriner had to worry about last season was health, as there was no experience and precious little depth behind the starters. He doesn't have the same worries this spring.
"It's a nice feeling to know you probably have a backup tackle and a backup guard," he told ESPN.com.
Four starters are back, so the real battle this spring is to replace Fragel at that right-tackle spot. Right now, sophomores Chase Farris and Taylor Decker are splitting a lot of first-team reps there, with Darryl Baldwin also in the mix.
"Those two guys have a lot of ability," Warriner said. "The more comfortable they get and the more confidence they get, one of them could take off -- or maybe both will and we'll play by committee. But they have high-level talent and all the traits of really good linemen."
Head coach Urban Meyer said Tuesday that redshirt freshman Pat Elflein has been one of the surprises of the spring, and he could add depth at guard or tackle. Warriner also said Jacoby Boren is making strides at center. While the team suffered a setback when reserve Antonio Underwood tore his anterior cruciate ligament late last week, the Buckeyes should still be able to rotate more guys on the offensive line this fall.
"If the next man in can play a certain amount but the level doesn't drop off enough to hurt our team, we might do that just to keep the unit fresh and hopefully be smart throughout the season," Warriner said.
But Ohio State will want its veterans on the field as much as possible. Mewhort, whom ESPN.com voted as a first-team All-Big Ten performer, has been hailed as one of the team's best leaders and anointed by Meyer as a possible replacement for Simon in that regard.
"He's what you want in terms of an attitude, of work ethic, of being a competitor," Warriner said. "When you're a first-year starter at a new position with a new coaching staff, sometimes you just worry about your own business, and that was him to some degree last year. But now, he's taking kind of a bigger role with his leadership on offense and even the team as a whole."
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Warriner said guards Andrew Norwell, a first All-Big Ten team honoree by the media last season, and Marcus Hall have made maybe the biggest improvements of anyone on the line this offseason. Along with Linsley, whom Warriner said has "elite-level strength," the Buckeyes have the potential to field four all-conference type linemen.
"We think we possibly could, if they play up to their ability level," he said. "The good thing about the group is, they don't really care about that. If we won the Big Ten and none of them made all-conference, they wouldn't care a bit. That's the kind of unselfish players they are."
Warriner said he has challenged the group to help lead a top-five national offensive attack this season. Ohio State led the Big Ten in scoring last year (37.2 points per game) and finished second in rushing yards per game (242.3). The offensive line led the way, though players like Miller and Hall sure helped.
"We know the quality of our skill guys can erase some things and create some big plays," Warriner said. "If you block it for six, you might get 16. At some places, if you block it for six, that's what they'll get -- six yards."
Everything works in concert. But don't forget the Buckeyes' offensive line when talking about reasons for the team's success.