Ohio State Buckeyes: Darron Lee
QB J.T. Barrett
- The redshirt freshman continues to rewrite the record books and rack up individual honors as his rapid development continues for the Buckeyes. Barrett was staggeringly efficient as a passer, completing 18 of his 23 attempts for 267 yards and four more touchdowns while spreading the ball around to nine different receivers in that famed "distributor" role Urban Meyer has been touting behind center. And Barrett is proving he's no slouch on the ground either, adding 71 yards rushing and another score to keep the Terrapins off balance and spark a blowout that has the Buckeyes again looking like a legitimate contender in the Big Ten.
- The Buckeyes have eased him into the rotation behind starter Curtis Grant, but the takeover at middle linebacker is well underway as the true freshman is already starting to live up to the advance billing about his freakish ability. McMillan's interception and 19-yard return for a touchdown will only take the hype to another level, but he was also sure in his tackling with four hits and proved he doesn't give up on plays with a critical fumble recovery after teammate Darron Lee had the ball popped loose following an interception just before halftime. Ohio State had nothing to complain about with Grant, but the future is sneaking up on him.
- The case is building every week that the sophomore might be the nation's most lethal weapon at defensive end. Bosa added another sack to his credit and had 1.5 tackles for loss on top of that, making a living in the offensive backfield and looking downright unstoppable up front in what was actually a better defensive outing for the Buckeyes than the scoreboard might suggest. Bosa isn't even halfway through his second season with the program and he appears to already be the best defensive player in the Big Ten. What else does he have in store this season after Ohio State returns from its bye next weekend?
Who will be the difference-maker at the second level?
And while all of those things are positive developments for a unit that has had its share of struggles since Urban Meyer took over at Ohio State, there is one uncertainty that will loom throughout the summer months, into training camp and probably into the first couple games before an answer emerges. Will anybody at linebacker be able to match the do-it-all production that Ryan Shazier provided before skipping his final season to jump to the NFL?
Joshua Perry was a serviceable starter a year ago opposite Shazier on the outside, and his move to the weak side was widely regarded as a successful transition during March and April. Curtis Grant earned praise from Meyer for having the best set of practices of his career, and Darron Lee was something of a revelation as he emerged as the third starter on the first day of practice and never relinquished the role.
But are any of them capable of giving the Buckeyes the type of consistent individual output and game-changing plays the way Shazier did with his incredible speed, sharp instincts and bottomless supply of energy? Shazier made 249 tackles over the last two seasons, and that loss alone is significant. But it was his 39.5 tackles for loss, his 7 forced fumbles and 11 sacks that made him such an impactful force for Ohio State, and those are big shoes for Perry, Grant and the unproven Lee to try to fill.
Of course, there's a chance that they may not have to do it by themselves. If the overall unit is more solid and the statistics are spread evenly among the linebackers, the Buckeyes obviously won't complain. And unlike last year, there may be more help coming off the bench, particularly if true freshman Raekwon McMillan builds on an impressive spring and pushes for early playing time in the middle and redshirt freshman Chris Worley challenges Lee for reps on the strong side.
But that clarity isn't likely to come for a while. And until then, even if the Buckeyes have somebody to fill Shazier's spot, finding somebody to replace his production will loom throughout the offseason.
We're talking about guys who maybe haven't had big roles yet but displayed enough during the 15 spring practices -- and not just some fluky, spring-game performance against backups -- to factor heavily into their team's plans.
The series rolls along with a look at Ohio State and its rebuilding defense.
Spring breakout player: LB Darron Lee
Filling the void left behind by one of the most productive linebackers in the nation isn’t likely going to be a job Ryan Shazier’s replacement in the lineup can do alone, and technically Lee isn’t going to be playing exactly the same position in Ohio State’s retooled defense.
But with Joshua Perry and Curtis Grant both returning as starters, the spotlight all spring was on the final piece of the puzzle and the fresh face working with the unit. There wasn’t much buzz about the former high school quarterback and defensive back heading into camp, but Lee impressed the staff with his work in the offseason program and was plugged into the first-team role at strongside linebacker on the opening day of practice -- and he never did anything to relinquish the job when all the work on the field was done in the middle of April.
Lee is obviously unproven after appearing in just two games as a true freshman, and he’s still not guaranteed anything heading into training camp with redshirt freshman Chris Worley pushing for playing time as well. But Lee’s ability to stay at the top of the depth chart while the Buckeyes were closely monitoring the position and trying to restore the proud tradition of their linebackers speaks volumes about the potential he has shown on the field as a tackler and in the weight room as he has built his 6-foot-1 frame up to 225 pounds.
The Buckeyes may still not be fully reloaded in terms of depth and experience at linebacker quite yet. But Lee at least appeared to give Ohio State a viable candidate to replace Shazier and fill out the first-team defense, which made the spring a success for both parties.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always trying to find new ways to motivate his players.
Last spring, he had a banner put up in the Ohio State field house reading “The Chase …” in reference to the Buckeyes’ championship pursuits. Meyer said he thought about changing the display for the 2014 offseason. In the end, though, he stuck with the same one.
“We didn’t accomplish it,” Meyer told ESPN.com. “We chased it but didn’t catch it. So the chase is still on.”
Ohio State, of course, nearly made it to its desired finish line. After going 12-0 for the second straight season under Meyer, the Buckeyes just needed to beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game to clinch a date with Florida State for the BCS national title. Instead, they fell 34-24 to the Spartans and closed the year on a two-game losing streak with a 40-35 setback against Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.
Experience is lacking in many key areas, but Meyer is ready to let some talented youngsters loose, including true freshmen. In retrospect, he wishes he had done so last year, when defensive end Joey Bosa and receiver Dontre Wilson were the only first-year players to make a big impact until safety Vonn Bell started in the Orange Bowl.
“We redshirted too many last year, and that was our fault,” he said. “There was a misunderstanding, and we just didn’t do a good job, especially on defense. When they show up on campus, we need to get them ready to play.”
This spring, early enrollees Raekwon McMillan (linebacker), Curtis Samuel (tailback) and Johnnie Dixon (receiver) were all heavily involved and have secured roles in the fall. Redshirt freshman are also at or near the top of the depth chart at strongside linebacker (Darron Lee and Chris Worley) and cornerback (Gareon Conley and Eli Apple), while true sophomores like safety Cam Burrows and tailback Ezekiel Elliott could force their way into the starting lineup.
“When you talk about inexperience, that’s a good thing right now,” said Chris Ash, who was hired from Arkansas as co-defensive coordinator to help fix Ohio State’s pass defense. “There aren’t a lot of habits that we have to change to fit what we’re trying to do. We don’t have older guys that are comfortable with where they’re at in their careers.”
An already young offense became even greener this spring because of injuries to three senior leaders: tight end Jeff Heuerman, receiver Evan Spencer and quarterback Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes will no doubt look a lot different when Miller returns from shoulder surgery. During the 15 spring practices, the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year often stood behind the offense and wore a camera on his head so coaches could go over what he was seeing on the field.
“We're exhausting every avenue and even inventing different avenues to make sure he's engaged and getting mental reps,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “We're doing the best we can with a bad situation. He has embraced it and is working his tail off, making sure he’s getting the most out of it.”
Herman says the Buckeyes should be more explosive on the perimeter this season, with guys like Wilson, Dixon, junior college transfer Corey Smith, sophomore Michael Thomas and freshman Jalin Marshall at receiver and a stable of athletic tailbacks. The safeties are longer and quicker than they have been in the past, and the defensive line -- which could be one of the nation’s best -- will have four starters who all used to be defensive ends.
The objective is clear: more speed. To that end, Meyer has hammered a new mantra in the players' heads: “4 to 6, A to B.” That means play hard for four to six seconds and get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It's hard to interview an Ohio State player these days without hearing the phrase.
“That’s all he’s been preaching this spring.” defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. “He said he’s not really worried about technique and all that stuff. It’s just about playing hard, because if you play hard, effort makes up for mistakes.”
Washington said the defense was greatly simplified this spring, with only about four or five different calls to learn. Aggressiveness trumped scheme.
“The culture of Ohio State is to go hard, not trick you,” Meyer said. “I just felt like there was too much stuff last year, instead of just going hard.”
By moving faster and playing harder, the Buckeyes hope to overcome their youth and track down what they've been hunting. They have been tantalizingly close.
“We’re still on a chase,” Washington said. “We’ve just got to finish it.”
- The sophomore might not have been one of the popular pre-spring picks to claim the third starting job at linebacker and help fill the void left by Ryan Shazier's early entry to the NFL draft, but Lee impressed the coaching staff enough during offseason workouts to earn the first crack at it when camp opened -- and he's done nothing since then to lose the spot. The Buckeyes have tweaked the lineup a bit with Joshua Perry moving over to weak-side linebacker in place of Shazier with Lee taking over on the strong side, and with Curtis Grant in the middle, that unit has shown some signs of getting Ohio State closer to the level it has come to expect on defense. Lee's versatile athleticism as a former high school quarterback and defensive back has blended well with the added strength he's put on at 225 pounds, and the Buckeyes have had little reason to explore other starting options heading into the spring game.
- One of the more touted prospects at the position a year ago, coach Urban Meyer hasn't been shy about expressing some disappointment that Conley wasn't ready to contribute last season and ultimately redshirted. But his skills in coverage are starting to show up more regularly now, and he's pushing Armani Reeves hard for the second starting job opposite Doran Grant in Ohio State's more aggressive man-to-man defense. Even if Conley doesn't claim that gig, the Buckeyes are still likely going to have him heavily involved in the nickel and dime packages, and the rigors of playing more bump-and-run in the secondary will make having reliable, talented depth like he figures to provide invaluable. Assuming the offense again tries to stress the passing game in the closing scrimmage, Conley should have numerous chances to show his stuff on Saturday.
- Now a junior with some proven ability when it counts on his resume, Washington isn't exactly emerging out of nowhere. He's also previously had a breakout spring that ended with a prolific performance in the exhibition game that seemingly announced his arrival as a future star. But injuries and what appeared to be uncertainty about the best way to use Washington kept him from truly becoming the havoc-wreaking force the Buckeyes expected last season, and in some respects that made the 6-foot-4, 288-pounder a bit of an afterthought heading into camp. His move to defensive tackle, though, has provided the stability perhaps needed to allow him to flourish -- and when healthy, there's never been a need to question his physical tools. With Noah Spence and Joey Bosa on the edge and Michael Bennett returning on the inside, a rejuvenated Washington could be the piece that gives Ohio State one of the most relentless pass rushes in the nation.
Several Big Ten squads held scrimmages or open practices, and the defenses had the edge in most of them. The offenses stepped up in a few, and several quarterbacks appear to be separating themselves.
Let's recap the weekend scrimmages. (Note: Scrimmages that were closed to the media and had no available statistics.)
Despite a new-look front seven and several position changes, Wisconsin's defense dominated Saturday's scrimmage. Cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary both had good days against an undermanned receiving corps, and coach Gary Andersen called the quarterback play very average. "We have a long way to go in the throw game, and that's disappointing," Andersen said. "If we want to be a good team, we have to figure that out." The defense also shined against the run, even against top backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement.
Technically, the Boilers' offense won Saturday's jersey scrimmage at Ross-Ade Stadium. But the defense looked stronger for much of the day, recording seven sacks and two takeaways. Unofficially, five Boilers recorded sacks, including two from tackle Michael Rouse III, who finished with three tackles for loss. Coach Darrell Hazell said of the defensive line, "They played in the [offensive] backfield."
Top quarterbacks Danny Etling and Austin Appleby struggled, combining to complete 21 of 42 passes for 205 yards with a touchdown (Etling) and an interception (Appleby). Running back Raheem Mostert highlighted the offense with 134 yards and two touchdowns on only nine carries. Mostert is making a strong push this spring to be Purdue's No. 1 running back.
The Gophers' defense loses top performers Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen from last fall's unit, but it controlled play on Saturday. Minnesota's D held the offense without a point on its first seven possessions in the scrimmage. Safety Cedric Thompson had an excellent interception off a deflection on the first drive. The offense picked it up later in the scrimmage, as quarterback Mitch Leidner found KJ Maye for a 50-yard touchdown strike, and both Leidner and Berkley Edwards had long touchdown runs.
Here's one offense that flexed its muscles on Saturday after being subdued earlier in the week. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. had an "efficient" performance, according to coach Bo Pelini, as he continues to look like the team's top signal-caller. Armstrong ran for two touchdowns. Sophomore Terrell Newby received a lot of work at running back as Ameer Abdullah sat out, and receiver Jordan Westerkamp turned a short pass into a long gain. Defensive tackle Aaron Curry left the field with a neck injury, but Pelini thinks he'll be fine.
The offense recorded a 27-25 win against the defense in MSU's first spring jersey scrimmage, as quarterback Connor Cook completed 15 of 21 passes for 187 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett, who has been relatively quiet since transferring from Tennessee, had five receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown. Tyler O'Connor, competing for the backup quarterback job, had a good day (10-for-15 passing, 132 yards, TD).
After allowing a touchdown on the opening possession, the defense forced four consecutive stops. Standouts included safety Kurtis Drummond (six tackles, 1 TFL, interception), end Shilique Calhoun (two sacks) and linebacker Chris Frey, an early enrollee, who had two sacks and three tackles for loss.
The Illini had their second off-site practice of the spring, traveling to Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield for a controlled scrimmage on Friday night. Quarterback Wes Lunt continues to look like Illinois' starter. According to Rivals.com's Doug Buchson, Lunt completed his first 14 pass attempts against the second-string defense for about 250 yards and two touchdowns. Freshman wideout Mike Dudek continues his strong spring, and receiver Geronimo Allison had a 45-yard touchdown catch from Lunt.
Defensive linemen Kenny Nelson and DeJazz Woods stood out against the second-team offensive line, consistently penetrating the backfield. Cornerback Caleb Day also looked good.
The most important thing coming out of Rutgers' first spring scrimmage was some clarity at quarterback, as Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano all worked with the first-team offense. Although a rash of injuries made it tough to get a true gauge, Bimonte had the best day, leading two touchdown drives. Coach Kyle Flood said all three signal-callers will continue to work with the top offense. Flood singled out defensive linemen Darius Hamilton and Kemoko Turay for their play during the scrimmage.
Like several other Big Ten teams, Northwestern can't have full-blown scrimmages because of its injury situation. But the Wildcats had their top units match up for stretches of Saturday's practice on the lakefront. Trevor Siemian entered the spring as the No. 1 quarterback and appears to be ending it the same way. Siemian looked sharp on his first series, completing all three of his attempts. Dropped passes were a problem for much of the day, but wide receiver Kyle Prater, a USC transfer who has battled injuries for much of his career, had a one-handed grab on a pass from Zack Oliver. Cornerback Matt Harris and safety Kyle Queiro both made plays for the defense.
The Buckeyes invited students inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for Saturday's practice, creating some cool scenes. Several young players stood out, namely cornerback Eli Apple, who had two interceptions and a big hit. Running back Curtis Samuel, an early enrollee, also sparked the crowd with a 50-yard touchdown run. Linebacker has been an area of concern for Ohio State, but Darron Lee and Chris Worley both made some plays on the outside. Ezekiel Elliott is looking more like Ohio State's top running back, as he showed his size and versatility during the practice.
No. 1: Darron Lee emerging at linebacker
Finding the right position that would best allow a versatile athlete like Darron Lee to thrive is a win. The fact that it also happens to be at a position where Ohio State has perhaps its most pressing need might make it the most critical victory of the preseason, even after just one week without contact.
There is certainly plenty left for Lee to prove, starting with putting on pads and actually tackling people to show that he might really be the answer OSU desperately needs to fill out the rotation in the depth-challenged linebacker unit. But based on the way he turned heads during the offseason program and his appearance with the first-team defense in the spot formerly held by do-it-all dynamo Ryan Shazier, Ohio State might have already found a solution. It's one that wouldn’t require leaning heavily on incoming freshmen making an overnight transition to life in the Big Ten.
Lee played in two games last fall so he doesn’t have all that much experience to offer. But after settling in at linebacker following a high school career that included time at quarterback, wide receiver and safety, the sophomore has had time to get acclimated to the position. He also bulked up to 225 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame without losing the speed that allowed him to be a playmaker in the secondary at the previous level.
Considering how valuable Shazier’s mobility was both in pass coverage and, more importantly, as a disruptive force blitzing the quarterback and diagnosing running plays in the backfield, Lee’s athleticism could make him the perfect fit.
There’s still a long way to go, even just before spring camp ends in April. But Lee’s early appearance in the starting lineup could pay significant dividends by August.
Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).
Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.
Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.
Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.
Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.
Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.
Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.
Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.
Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.
Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.
Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.
Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.
Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.
Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The slogan on the banner hanging outside Mickey Marotti’s office was no longer delivering exactly the right message, so the Ohio State strength coach decided to update it himself.
The last word left some room for ambiguity, so Marotti pulled out some athletic tape to cover it up, got out a marker and made his expectations much more clear for a team coming off consecutive losses to end last season.
The sign that greeted the Buckeyes used to demand that “the BEST players have to be the BEST workers,” but that bar was too low for Marotti and necessitated some editing and minor redecorating during offseason conditioning ahead of Tuesday’s first practice of spring.
“Anybody can be a worker,” Marotti said. “Anybody can punch a clock and get a paycheck. I want grinders.”
The Buckeyes can now find that word scribbled in all caps on the white tape just above the door to Marotti’s office. And that hard-working mentality has clearly emerged early in the year as a driving force for a team that came up short of a couple of its most important goals after its 24-game winning streak came to an end, giving way to a two-game losing streak.
Ohio State still had plenty to feel good about last season after winning its division again, knocking off rival Michigan to cap another perfect regular season and piling up some individual honors along the way. But the loss in the conference title game that kept the Buckeyes from claiming the top prize in the Big Ten and likely from playing for the national championship, and the defeat in the Discover Orange Bowl that followed it, still sting in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
And part of the process in erasing that pain and reaching a higher level in 2014 started with tweaking their vocabulary along with their mindsets.
“Last year, I don’t want to say the word entitled,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “ … Last year it was kind of, well, you were 12-0, you’re preseason this, you’re this, and I haven’t had many people ask about our preseason [ranking]. Right now we’re just trying to find out who’s going to play for us in some spots.
“I don’t want to diminish what happened because we came back and took the lead in the fourth quarter and lost a couple [leads] in those last two games, and that happens. If I felt like there was a lack of fight, then we’d blow the whole thing up. There was certainly not lack of fight.”
There were, perhaps, a few critical pieces missing in terms of personnel and maybe a defensive philosophy that didn’t quite match up with what Meyer ideally wants from his program. Those were obviously at the top of his list when he reported for practice on the indoor field Tuesday.
Ohio State still has some questions to answer at linebacker, but it attacked that weakness on the recruiting trail by signing four guys in the most recent class and appears like it might have a somewhat unexpected solution to replace Ryan Shazier on the weakside with Darron Lee emerging with the first-team unit to start camp.
The process of installing a more aggressive secondary under new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash has only just begun, but his approach appears to be more in line with what Meyer is expecting even in the early stages.
But again establishing Meyer’s standard for work ethic and reinforcing his emphasis on “4-to-6 seconds of relentless effort” on every play was just as important in shaping his team to compete for a title, and Marotti did his part to help cut down on any wiggle room.
“We just have to improve, we’ve got to finish and I like where we’re at as a team,” Meyer said. “I want an angry, blue-collar team, and I’m hoping that’s what we have.”
The key for the Buckeyes is apparently making sure those blue-collar workers are showing up to do more than punch a clock.
After landing ESPN 300 offensive guard Demetrius Knox (Fort Worth, Texas/All Saints Episcopal) on Sunday, the Buckeyes hauled in four-star athlete Malik Hooker (New Castle, Pa./New Castle) on Monday. He is their 16th pledge in 2014 and picked Ohio State over Pittsburgh and Penn State.
We’ll give you five things to watch with the campers at Friday Night Lights on the day of the event, but for now, here are five things to expect when the star-studded event gets underway at 6:30 p.m. Friday:
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This week’s targets: BuckeyeNation as well as RecruitingNation headed to Columbus, Ohio, for the Elite 11 and Nike Football Training Camp. Seven Buckeyes commitments -- the only pledges missing were Marcelys Jones (Cleveland/Glenville) and Sam Hubbard (Cincinnati/Moeller) -- made their way to the Ohio State campus and didn’t disappoint as Kyle Berger (Cleveland/St. Ignatius), Kyle Trout (Lancaster, Ohio/Lancaster), Damon Webb (Detroit/Cass Tech), Dylan Thompson (Lombard, Ill./Montini Catholic) and teammates Dante Booker and Parris Campbell Jr. of Akron (Ohio) St. Vincent-St. Mary each earned trips to The Opening.
Detroit rock city: Assistant coach Kerry Coombs spent a good portion of the evaluation period in Detroit, and for good reason. He went after two-time Michigan commit David Dawson from Cass Tech High School last season, but missed. Coombs and the Buckeyes didn’t this time around as Webb committed back in January. Malik McDowell of Detroit Loyola is also on the Ohio State radar. Before he said yes to Michigan, Lawrence Marshall was an Ohio State pledge, even if it was only for three days. Marshall lives in Southfield, Mich. a suburb 19 minutes away from Detroit.
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While official visits are important in landing pledges, summer camps on university campuses are almost as vital in the recruiting scene.
The summer months are a quiet period for coaches, and that means face-to-face contact can only be made on a campus.
Ohio State will have a number of camps, but the big ones on June 9, June 21 and July 26 will likely produce commitments. That is if those three dates pan out like in years past.
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We’ll give as much detail as we can and go behind the scenes to see why these Class of 2014 standouts are so attractive to the Buckeyes.
Next on the list of safety is standout Quincy Wilson, who led his school to a Class 3A state championship in Florida.
Vitals: Wilson (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla./University School) is 6-foot-1 and 197 pounds.
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