Ohio State Buckeyes: Antonio Underwood

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- After putting the finishing touches on spring camp, a few visitors caught Urban Meyer’s eye and he made sure to deliver them a message.

It was partly a reflection of the confidence the Ohio State coach has in the freshmen set to enroll in June, but it was also somewhat of a warning that there is a lot of work to do on the offensive line after a shaky performance for a rebuilding unit in the spring game.

But either way, the brief, matter-of-fact statements highlighted just how critical restocking the offensive line is to Meyer after leaning so heavily on it during a pair of record-setting seasons to start his career with the program.

[+] EnlargeDecker
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesTaylor Decker has moved from right tackle and locked down the spot at left tackle.
“I saw Jamarco Jones down there, Demetrius Knox is coming in, Brady Taylor,” Meyer said. “Those are three bodies that are going to be coming in and I went up to them, looked them in the eye and told them, ‘You’re not redshirting; you’re playing.’

“That’s hard for an offensive lineman, but that’s an area where we’ve got to get back to where we [were] -- maybe not where we were, but close.”

Replacing four senior starters with three true freshmen isn’t exactly the kind of formula that would get the Buckeyes back to the level they were at a season ago up front. And while Meyer wasn’t actually suggesting those talented signees are capable of coming in and winning first-team roles right away, based on some issues blocking backup defenders in a spring game that featured five sacks, finding a spot on the two-deep certainly isn’t out of the question.

Ohio State has enough options on hand to fill out the lineup in the fall, but 15 workouts didn’t provide as much clarity as about that unit as Meyer would have liked. He’s officially named Taylor Decker a starter at left tackle and Pat Elflein has won a job at guard, but leaving three vacancies and name-dropping players who have never practiced with the program is a far cry from leaving camp a year ago with a group that was essentially carved in stone and loaded with experience.

“Coach Meyer likes to have the depth chart set leaving spring, but if it’s not there, it’s not there,” Decker said. “That battle will just continue through camp. There’s good and bad to it, but I’d say there’s more good to it.

“It’s good because there’s that competition there, so there’s going to be a sense of urgency. You’re not going to have guys taking days off, taking plays off in practice because you still have to earn that spot.”

The downside is potentially not having a chance to develop the chemistry and familiarity that was such a critical component of the offensive line’s success last season, though tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood both seem like safe bets to keep working with the first-team offense after spending all spring there. The race to start at center remains tight, though Jacoby Boren brings a bit of experience to the mix as he jockeys with Billy Price for that crucial gig in the middle of the spread offense.

But regardless of who wins those jobs, it figures to be imperative for Meyer and the Buckeyes to identify the right fits for those final three spots to get the ball rolling to try to reach the high standard set by the linemen in the last couple seasons. Once those spots are nailed down, Meyer can give his attention to a group of newcomers looking to avoid redshirts and a depth chart that currently has a lot of openings.

“Offensive line is the one,” Meyer said. “We’ve got to really go from here.”

That process doesn’t start until June for a few guys. But even in April, Meyer made sure to include them in the plan.
Head coaches from the Big Ten East Division, along with a player from each team, addressed the media this afternoon on teleconferences. The West Division players and coaches spoke Wednesday.

Here's a closer look at the East:

INDIANA
  • Defense has been a lingering Indiana concern for years, but coach Kevin Wilson believes he's starting to see a change, thanks to new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. The scheme hasn't changed radically, but the Hoosiers return 10 starters there -- and Wilson's seen a promising spring so far with an added focus on competition and communication: "They've for sure held their own on a daily basis -- and, in some ways, probably even better -- against the offense."
  • Wilson believes teams need to invest scholarships into the kicking game, but he thinks it's also too risky to offer recruits straight out of high school. If you look at the NCAA's top 25 kickers, Wilson estimated at least 15 started out as walk-ons. So he's hoping to find some walk-ons who are willing to work for a scholarship, rather than be granted one right away.
  • At 5-foot-7, Shane Wynn is the Hoosiers' leading returning receiver, and he's transitioning to playing the outside. It's been a little different for Wynn, who said he's had to watch more film as a result. He's reading the corners now, instead of the safeties, as just one example.
MARYLAND
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall is confident in his offense and believes the Terrapins have enough options so that opponents can't focus on just one person. If defenses lock on to wideout Stefon Diggs, then quarterback C.J. Brown can take off running or receiver Deon Long can pick up some slack. "The No. 1 thing I do like," Edsall said, "is we can spread the field."
  • Maryland's staff has already started looking at film of Big Ten teams, so they know what to expect when the conference season begins. Edsall said he wants to at least get a feel for their personnel and what kind of schemes he'll face. He's also confident the Terps will be ready: "We fully expect to be able to compete when we get into the Big Ten this year."
  • Brown said one of the main reasons he committed to Maryland was the coach who recruited him at the time, former Terps assistant and current Penn State coach James Franklin. He's looking forward to squaring off against Franklin this season, and Edsall said there's no question he would like to develop a rivalry with the Nittany Lions.
MICHIGAN
  • The quarterback derby will continue, and Brady Hoke included all three of his options in the discussion heading into the offseason. The Wolverines coach did acknowledge, though, that Devin Gardner “probably would be” the starter if there was a game on the schedule this weekend. There isn’t, so Shane Morris and Wilton Speight will continue to be in the conversation.
  • The first opponent on the schedule will always stir emotions for Michigan fans, but Hoke didn’t attach any revenge or sentimentality to his reasons for wanting to take on Appalachian State in the opener this fall. “We needed a game,” Hoke said. “I thought it would be a good game.” Defensive end Frank Clark was certainly aware of the history between the programs, even though he was still years away from joining Michigan and getting a shot at making up for the upset loss in 2007 -- which he called “shocking” and “shows how hard those guys play.”
MICHIGAN STATE
  • Michigan State is coming off a Rose Bowl victory, but coach Mark Dantonio and quarterback Connor Cook would prefer not to think about that any longer. Dantonio said they've talked a lot these last four months about not growing complacent, and Cook only echoed his coach. "A lot of people keep bringing up the Rose Bowl," Cook said. "But we're past that. We're focusing on the now."
  • The offensive line has made some big strides since January, at least according to Cook. He felt like he had no time in the pocket last spring and said the pass rush was getting to him every time. This spring? He doesn't feel rushed in the pocket, and he thinks that's pretty indicative of how far this line has come.
  • Jeremy Langford earned a lot of praise from Cook, who said the running back has become a much bigger part of the passing attack. "He's improved a lot with catching the ball," Cook said, complimenting Langford's versatility. "He's done so many different things for us."
OHIO STATE
  • There is still work to be done in addressing the most glaring weakness on the team last season, but Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s pass defense “drastically improved” and will be watching closely for more signs of progress in Saturday’s spring game. The Buckeyes will play a traditional game, but the emphasis will be on throwing the football and assessing the skill players on both offense and defense -- giving Meyer a chance to evaluate backup quarterback Cardale Jones in a live setting in addition to checking out the secondary.
  • Arguably the strongest part of last season's team is undergoing a transition without four senior starters, and the offensive line is somewhat of a concern for Meyer heading into the offseason. With guard Pat Elflein the only other player to have earned a first-team slot to play alongside junior Taylor Decker at this point, that competition is likely to spill over into preseason camp in August. Both tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood were praised for their work by defensive tackle Michael Bennett, and Billy Price and Jacoby Boren are dueling at center.
PENN STATE
  • Franklin said he knew exactly what he was getting into at Penn State, in terms of the current depth and sanctions. He and former coach Bill O'Brien worked together at Maryland, and he said the two had a lot of honest conversations about the current state of the Nittany Lions. The two have continued to talk since.
  • Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are both making transitions from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and Franklin said he has been pleased with their performances so far: "They're doing a good job for us -- and they have to. We're thin at that position."
  • Franklin said he feels especially comfortable with the talent at running back and defensive line. Middle linebacker Mike Hull was more specific about naming the players who impressed him, pointing to backup linebacker Gary Wooten and cornerback Da'Quan Davis. Hull said Wooten is always around the football and that Davis, who missed part of the spring with a hamstring injury, has come up with several interceptions.
RUTGERS
  • Another open competition at the most critical position on the field -- quarterback -- is still playing out at Rutgers, and coach Kyle Flood isn’t ready to declare a winner in what would seem to be a wide-open battle. Flood indicated that Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano are all “really vying for that first-team job.”
  • The change in conference affiliation has been welcomed with open arms by the Scarlet Knights, who can “feel the energy” as theypractice for their first season in the Big Ten. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said the team was already buzzing with excitement about the opportunity, and Flood called joining the league a “positive in every way.” The move also presents the opportunity for a rivalry to develop with new divisional neighbor Penn State, with both Flood and Hamilton citing the proximity between the schools as a bonus.

Early OSU observations: No. 3

March, 12, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There isn’t much evidence to work with heading into spring break, but Ohio State’s two practices to open camp before taking this week off did give at least a peek at some new faces and a couple of changes. While the Buckeyes are refreshing and gearing up for the sprint to the finish of spring workouts, we’re looking at the early developments and what they mean moving forward for Urban Meyer’s team.

No. 3: Offensive line reloading

Tom Herman smiled, offered a quick reminder that Ohio State hadn’t put on any pads yet and put off making any significant evaluations until later in camp.

[+] EnlargeDarryl Baldwin
AP Photo/David DurochikDarryl Baldwin is among the top candidates to become Ohio State's starting right tackle in 2014.
But even if the Ohio State offensive coordinator hadn’t seen a new-look offensive line block anybody yet, just looking at some of the guys lining up in the trenches when camp opened should have been cause for at least some encouragement.

Antonio Underwood was drawing rave reviews for his development before he tore his ACL last spring and was lost for the season. He’s now fully healed and has emerged as a starting option at left guard.

Darryl Baldwin has waited his turn, developing his body and preparing himself mentally for the chance to finally contribute on a full-time basis. He’s at the head of the line at right tackle trying to become the latest in a string of guys making an impact at the position.

The Buckeyes already know what they have in Taylor Decker at left tackle, and they’ve got a good idea what Pat Elflein can bring at right guard after glimpses of his ability at the end of last season.

They also have healthy competition for playing time, with Billy Price pushing Jacoby Boren at center and converted defensive tackle Joel Hale fighting for a role at guard.

So, even while Herman tries to pump the brakes a bit early in camp until the live hitting actually starts, there doesn’t appear to be much reason for stress to build as the Buckeyes replace four starters on the offensive line. There are more than enough candidates on hand to fill the void, and they look the part even before putting on pads.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The change in Ohio State's offensive line is impossible to ignore this spring, even in regard to the only returning starter.

For one thing, he’s now lining up at left tackle, swapping sides after a breakout sophomore season on the right for one of the best offensive lines in the nation.

And then there’s the haircut, as Taylor Decker trimmed off his long locks as part of a job shadow program, trying to give himself a more “professional” appearance.

[+] EnlargeDecker
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesTaylor Decker is the only returning starter on Ohio State's offensive line, but even he'll be at a new position this season.
Both developments help drive home the completely new look up front for Ohio State, where even the lone holdover has a new position as part of a makeover of a unit that lost four starters, a group that's arguably been the strongest in Urban Meyer's tenure with the Buckeyes.

“It’s definitely a different feeling, but I think our focus needs to be not worrying about who lost, but on who we have,” Decker said. “We have really talented guys; they just need to develop confidence in themselves. They can do everything. They just need to realize they can go out and do it play after play after play and be consistent.

“We’ve got a lot of talented guys. Our only issue is inexperience.”

That certainly wasn’t a problem for the Buckeyes a year ago when Decker was the only fresh face in the lineup. Now the only projected first-teamer on the roster with starting experience is guard Pat Elflein, who filled in for a suspended Marcus Hall in the Big Ten championship game after admirably replacing Hall after he was thrown out of the Michigan game.

That leaves plenty for the Buckeyes to sort through this spring, and the process of nailing down full-time replacements for tackle Jack Mewhort, guards Hall and Andrew Norwell and center Corey Linsley might well spill into August. But offensive line coach Ed Warinner isn’t low on options, and the young guys trying to step into those big shoes aren’t short on confidence, either.

“For us, I think it motivates us a unit,” center Jacoby Boren said. “There is no doubt, those guys were freaking awesome, great guys, great players. But we have a lot of good guys here competing, and we’re working hard.

“We’re not working to be like them. We’re going to work to be the best that we are and keep building on that.”

Their predecessors obviously set the bar pretty high during the last couple seasons, setting the tone for an offense that led the Big Ten in scoring and was fifth in the nation in rushing, averaging more than 300 yards per game on the ground.

The Buckeyes started preparations for replacing them last season, occasionally cutting back on practice reps for the first unit in favor of the backups in an effort to speed through the learning curve and getting them as much game action as possible. Prospective right tackle Darryl Baldwin, Elflein and Boren figure to benefit from that taste of experience, and Antonio Underwood's return from knee surgery has gone smoothly enough that he opened camp as the starter at left guard. Behind that starting group, Ohio State has recruited well and could conceivably have players such as converted defensive lineman Joel Hale or Kyle Dodson make pushes for playing time.

And with all those candidates on hand ready to take over, Warinner isn’t losing much sleep, even though he’s looking at a totally different line.

“I’m pretty confident, yeah,” Warinner said. “Because everything that you want to see at this point, we’re seeing. Great work ethic, tough guys, very well-conditioned, guys who want to learn, guys who come and watch film and work the game. Guys who do extra, guys that are very coachable; they’re sponges. Guys who come with energy to practice.

“You’ve got all these things. The only thing they lack is experience.”

Now there’s nobody in their way to keep them from getting it.
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.

[+] EnlargeJack Mewhort
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsLeft 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."

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.

Spring forward: Guards, center analysis

February, 19, 2013
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Corey LinsleyJim Owens/Icon SMICorey Linsley is expected to continue to add stability on the offensive line.
With national signing day in the books, the next big date on the Ohio State calendar as it continues working toward an encore for an undefeated season in 2013 is spring practice. Before those workouts begin, BuckeyeNation will take a look at each position to see where the roster is at -- and where it's going.

INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

    • Who's back: The central nervous system of the offense returns completely intact, starting with the anchor who will be looking to build off a banner year in the middle of everything. Corey Linsley's transition to center went perhaps more smoothly than anybody at Ohio State could have expected, and in addition to limiting himself to a handful of errant snaps, his ability to handle the mental load was critical for an attack that wants to push the tempo. With both guards returning on either side of him with Marcus Hall and Andrew Norwell also trying to take their games to a higher level, the Buckeyes are loaded in important spots up front and capable of putting up even more points than they did in Urban Meyer's first year with the program.

(Read full post)

Spring forward: OTs breakdown

February, 18, 2013
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With national signing day in the books, the next big date on the Ohio State calendar as it continues working toward an encore for an undefeated season in 2013 is spring practice. Before those workouts begin, BuckeyeNation will take a look at each position to see where the roster is at -- and where it's going.

[+] EnlargeJack Mewhort
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesLeft tackle Jack Mewhort is part of a unit Urban Meyer says is much improved.
OFFENSIVE TACKLES

  • Who's back: The line as a whole returns almost entirely in one piece, but there is one huge cog missing heading into the second season of the spread offense at Ohio State. Jack Mewhort blossomed into one of the nastiest, stoutest blockers in the Big Ten last year, and the Buckeyes are expecting even more from him both on the field and off as a senior. They'll need that production and stability from him on the left side with Reid Fragel out of eligibility and heading to the NFL after his banner campaign at right tackle, transforming himself from a reserve tight end into one of the most reliable members of the offensive front. After dueling with Fragel nearly all the way through training camp in August, Taylor Decker is primed to take over the starting duties opposite Mewhort as the Buckeyes try to take the offense to an even higher level.
  • New face: Despite finishing with the No.3 recruiting class in the country, the Buckeyes didn't land as many signatures from linemen as they wanted, which clearly seemed to bother Urban Meyer as he looks toward the future and sees four seniors who will be gone after next season. That experience is obviously a huge blessing for Ohio State at the moment, but neither Evan Lisle nor Tim Gardner have enrolled yet and won't be able to get a jump on their development in the trenches until the fall.
  • Projected depth chart: Mewhort will anchor the line at left tackle again, with Daryl Baldwin likely hanging on to the backup job he held last season. Decker is poised to take over the starting gig at right tackle, with competition for the second-team spot open for guys like Kyle Dodson, Chase Farris or Antonio Underwood as they try to crack the rotation.
  • Numbers game: There might not have been enough depth to ever let the coaching staff exhale, but the Buckeyes never had to find out what would happen if one of the starters went down with a significant injury. The first-team line was the most stable group on the team during the perfect season, combining to make every start and provide invaluable continuity for a dominant rushing attack and the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten.
  • One to watch: The flipping of Dodson from Wisconsin was cause for a huge celebration for the Buckeyes on signing day a year ago, but a shoulder injury kept him on the shelf during his first year with the team and ended up forcing him to redshirt. Given time to fully recover and dig into the conditioning program, the 6-foot-5, 315-pound athlete should be able to start showing what all the fuss was about. Decker has the edge going into camp after battling Fragel for playing time a year ago, but now it's Dodson's turn to dial up the pressure and fight for work.
  • He said it: "Jack Mewhort is already there, he's already a leader. We're asking him to take over a position that maybe a [John] Simon took, the overall heart. I love him, he's a tough guy." -- Meyer in January
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer comes into the 2014 recruiting season knowing he wants to shore up an offensive line he missed out on in 2013.

Check.

As always, he wants more defensive linemen.

Check.

He also wants a speed running back to add to his spread offense.

Check, check and check.


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