Ohio State Buckeyes: Doran Grant

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer seemed to be guarding a secret, and it couldn’t be deciphered by reading between the lines.

The Ohio State coach joked about being a little bored by his spring game, expressed some frustration about the lack of offensive execution and stressed that there was plenty of work to do at a few key positions heading into the offseason.

But the truth about how good his third team at Ohio State might be was tucked away on the sidelines, leaving little to truly evaluate between them as the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday at the Horseshoe. And based on the number of players he held out of the spring-closing scrimmage, it might be a safe bet that Meyer is actually feeling pretty good about what he has returning in the fall.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe spring game didn't say much about Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. And he seems fine with that.
“There were guys out there who will either never play or they’re not ready to play now,” Meyer said. “Like, [Ohio State sports information director] Jerry [Emig] hands me stats, I’m not sure what to do with these. I don’t care.

“... We all know what we saw out there. It’s not the Ohio State Buckeyes.”

Exhibition games rarely provide much of a reliable gauge for how good a team might truly be, and in the case of the Buckeyes, that might have been by design.

Braxton Miller was already on the shelf as he finishes up his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Having the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year and a three-year starter at quarterback out of the equation obviously changes the complexion of the Ohio State offense. Cardale Jones was productive enough throughout camp to win the backup job, but his 14-of-31 passing performance Saturday was yet another reminder of the importance of having a healthy Miller to lead the attack.

Meyer indicated there was some uncertainty about his receiving corps after the spring game, but he had enough faith in Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson that he didn’t feel the need to press either of them into action over the weekend -- aside from a cameo appearance by the latter in a race against students at halftime.

And after watching what could be one of the most talented defensive lines in the country terrorize a rebuilding offensive line throughout camp over the last month, Meyer certainly didn’t need to see any more from Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett or Adolphus Washington to boost his confidence heading into the summer, adding to the list of starters who effectively were allowed to take the day off.

Cornerback Doran Grant was largely an observer as well, though he did make an appearance to win the halftime derby and became the “fastest student” on campus. Projected first-team guard Pat Elflein was a scratch, and presumptive starting running back Ezekiel Elliott only touched the football three times. Tight end Jeff Heuerman was on crutches after foot surgery, but he’ll be back in time for the conditioning program next month.

So while the game itself left little worth remembering aside from what appeared to be marked improvement and depth in the secondary and another handful of mesmerizing catches from Michael Thomas, there were actually clues littered around Ohio Stadium that Meyer is poised to unleash his most talented team since taking over the program in 2012 and rattling off 24 consecutive wins.

The trick was knowing where to look.

“[The spring game] was a chance to see some young guys [who] really haven’t played, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how much they will play,” Meyer said. “This is a chance for a lot of guys in our program who work very hard, and to be able to get some guys play or catch a pass in Ohio Stadium or whatever, in the big picture it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s a great thrill for a lot of people.”

The real thrills, of course, don’t come for a few months. And based on the amount of players who didn’t get to actually step between the lines on Saturday, Meyer might not-so-secretly have plenty to be excited about by fall.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The entire roster wasn't on display, leaving some uncertainty about what Ohio State will look like at full strength. But heading into the offseason, there were still some lessons to be learned by the Gray's 17-7 victory over the Scarlet on Saturday at Ohio Stadium.

The secondary has improved

  • The offense was short-handed, starting with the absence of a certain two-time defending Big Ten Player of the Year at quarterback and including short or nonexistent workloads for key receivers. But the defensive backs showed the kind of improvement Urban Meyer demanded since last season's unit finished No. 110 in the country against the pass. In holding Cardale Jones to a 14-for-31 performance through the air without a touchdown, even with top returning cornerback Doran Grant on the sideline, the Buckeyes' defensive backs will head into the summer feeling good about their progress. Armani Reeves and Gareon Conley are both solid options at cornerback, with the former making a statement early in the game with a nice breakup on a deep ball down the sideline. And once Grant and injured safety Vonn Bell are back in the mix to play Ohio State's more aggressive man coverage this fall, the statistics should look drastically better.
Braxton Miller is still the key
[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteCardale Jones is likely to enter the fall as the backup quarterback for Ohio State.

  • Jones made progress in several areas throughout the spring, and he's earned the right to head into training camp as the second-string quarterback. But Miller remains the most critical component in Ohio State's spread attack, and his absence was a major factor in what was largely a disappointing afternoon for the offense. Miller will be back from his shoulder surgery shortly and is cleared to resume throwing and working out in time for the offseason conditioning program. It is still obvious that the Buckeyes need him on the field if they're going to make a run at a championship this fall. He'll also need some better work from the offensive line than what the Buckeyes put on display in the exhibition, though not having guard Pat Elflein in pads and limiting tackle Taylor Decker's role didn't do the unit any favors Saturday.
Michael Thomas is still a spring star

  • By now it should come as no surprise, but redshirt sophomore Michael Thomas again led the Buckeyes in receptions in the spring game, turned heads with some eye-popping grabs and looked like a future star on the perimeter. That's a familiar story with Thomas, who has dominated the spotlight during spring camp three years running and capped off the latest one with six catches for 64 yards, including a diving reception for a first down and a one-handed snag along the sideline that highlighted his athleticism and ability to haul in even balls thrown off target. The Buckeyes haven't settled on a true pecking order at receiver yet, though Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith are sure bets to take two top spots. One more time, it appears Ohio State should make room for Thomas in the rotation leaving spring, but obviously he'll need to follow it up with more standout work when practice begins again this summer.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Spring weather has just now finally arrived for Ohio State, but its camp is already about to come to a close. Ahead of Saturday's exhibition game to wrap up the 15 workouts spread through March and April, the final look at things to watch will breakd own some intriguing matchups now that the official rosters have been unveiled.

[+] EnlargeDarryl Baldwin
AP Photo/David DurochikWith a tough matchup in Ohio State's spring game, Darryl Baldwin could prove he can lockdown the starting RT job.
Scarlet QB Cardale Jones vs. Gray secondary

  • The redshirt sophomore has strengthened his case to fill the backup role at quarterback behind Braxton Miller with strong practice performances throughout camp, but he's shown some signs of nerves at times during scrimmages and could benefit from a productive outing in a live setting in front of a big crowd. Urban Meyer typically focuses his attention and play-calling on the passing attack during spring games, and with the Gray having what appears to be the full starting secondary with Tyvis Powell and Cam Burrows at safety and Doran Grant, Armani Reeves and Gareon Conley at cornerback, Jones will be tested.
Gray LB Raekwon McMillan vs. Scarlet RB Ezekiel Elliott

  • The hype is only building for the touted early enrollee on defense, and McMillan might be the most closely watched player in the Horseshoe as he's thrown into a lineup that includes two projected starters next to him at the outside linebacker spots. The true freshman has impressed the coaching staff during the 14 workouts so far, looking the part physically and embracing the culture Meyer is working so hard to reestablish. Even if finishing camp with some solid work against Ohio State's front-runner at tailback and three first-team offensive linemen doesn't help McMillan reel in senior Curtis Grant on the depth chart, it could still bode well for his chances to help provide depth in the fall -- and start building even more buzz for next season.
Scarlet RT Darryl Baldwin vs. Gray DE Noah Spence

  • Tougher spring game assignments than what Baldwin will face on Saturday are hard to come by, and really, the redshirt senior isn't likely to take on many pass rushers better than Spence when the real season arrives. So if Baldwin can hold his own against one of the fastest, most tenacious players off the edge in the Big Ten this weekend, that would go a long way toward solidifying a starting job and easing some of the uncertainty still swirling around an offensive line that must replace four starters. The Scarlet line as a whole caught a bit of a break with the first-team defensive line being split up, but Spence still has Adolphus Washington alongside him and ready to wreak the kind of havoc that stole the show in last year's edition of the spring showcase.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas primarily to fix Ohio State's problems in its pass defense.

What Ash found is that the biggest area of need might have been from the shoulder pads up rather than any scheme or philosophy.

"You talk about Ohio State and the history, and there have been some really good defenses and some really good defensive backs," the Buckeyes' first-year co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach told ESPN.com. "You knew what you were going to get when you lined up against Ohio State -- you were going to get hit in the mouth.

[+] EnlargeChris Ash
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsChris Ash says instilling a new attitude in the secondary is as important as any scheme he is bringing to Ohio State.
"From my observations, some of that confidence and swagger has been lost in the last couple of years. And that mental psyche is probably as big as anything for us to regain."

It's understandable why the secondary might have felt shell-shocked by the way last season ended. The last three games of the season saw Ohio State surrender 451 passing yards to Michigan in a one-point win, allow Michigan State's Connor Cook to register his first career 300-yard passing day in a Big Ten championship game loss and serve up five passing touchdowns to Clemson in the Orange Bowl defeat. That led to withering criticism from fans and media about the pass defense.

"It’s been everywhere about how bad our back end was," senior cornerback Doran Grant said.

Ash said he hasn't looked much at the past and doesn't really care about it. But he does want the defensive backfield to play with an attitude and confidence, a task that's not made easier by the loss of three starters from last season.

One way Ash has tried to instill those traits is by showing his players clips from the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks' secondary. Seattle's hard-hitting, long cornerbacks and safeties set a tone for its entire defense.

"We made lot of cutups of them and said, 'Guys, this is how the best in the business play the game of football,’'' Ash said. "Are we going to be that? No, but we can be in our own way, and this is the way we need to play."

Ash wants his players showing energy and excitement on the field. So whenever a defensive back gives a great effort or celebrate a big play in practice this spring, you'll hear Ohio State coaches say, "Locker it." That's jargon for saving the video clip, which Ash will later show to his players in meetings.

Ohio State needed more change than just the mental side of the game, of course. Ash will help give the Buckeyes a more consistent and aggressive approach in its pass coverage, utilizing the Cover 4, or quarters, scheme. That will also feature some man-to-man, press coverage at times. It's kind of a combination of what Ash ran at Wisconsin, mixed in with some principals that Michigan State has had so much success with.

"We're taking the same approach that we take to stopping the run and putting it in the back end," Meyer said. "The feeling around here was as long as we stop the run and give up some passing yards, that’s OK. That’s not the case anymore. There are too many good throwing teams out there."

Grant is by far the most experienced player in the secondary and looks to take over the role of No. 1 cornerback after Bradley Roby's departure to the NFL. Working opposite him are junior Armani Reeves and redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple. The latter two were both big-time recruits, and Ash said Apple is probably the defense's most improved player over the latter half of spring ball.

Sophomore Vonn Bell, who made his first career start at safety in the Orange Bowl, tore his MCL early in spring practice. In his absence, the 6-foot-3 Tyvis Powell and the 6-foot Cam Burrows are taking first-team reps at safety. Both are former cornerbacks and are what Ash calls "the model of what we want to recruit here" at safety because of their speed and size.

They've got a long way to go to match the Seahawks, but the Buckeyes have very promising, if somewhat raw, athletes to work with. They hope that leads to a much better and more confident secondary this season.

"It’s not about the size or anything like that," Grant said. "It’s about going hard and being coachable. [The Seahawks are] a high standard, but Ohio State, we’re also a high standard."
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Spring weather has just now finally arrived for Ohio State, but its camp is already about to come to a close. Ahead of Saturday's exhibition game to wrap up the 15 workouts spread through March and April, we're taking a look at players who have helped themselves and could put on a show over the weekend, switching over today to defense.

[+] EnlargeAdolphus Washington
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMoving inside will help both Adolphus Washington and the Buckeyes' defensive line.
LB Darron Lee

  • 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.
CB Gareon Conley

  • 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.
DT Adolphus Washington

  • 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.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The cushions are gone in the Ohio State secondary.

For the spring, that figuratively applies to a group of defensive backs being challenged and pushed to the limit on a daily basis, removing their personal comfort zone in order to to improve on the disaster that was last season’s pass coverage.

By the fall, it will literally mean the spaces that used to be open to opposing wide receivers at the line of scrimmage will no longer exist, replaced instead by a relentless barrage of nonstop press coverage.

The goal both now and later is for the Buckeyes to make an opponent uncomfortable when the ball is in the air, and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs is more than willing to do his part to take out the buffer and dial up the pressure to make sure that happens.

“We’re playing a style of defense that is very appealing to me as a corners coach,” Coombs said. “Every single snap of spring football we have lined up in press coverage, and that’s the way we’re going to learn it. Then we’ll find out how we stack up when the fall comes around.”

[+] EnlargeArmani Reeves
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsArmani Reeves and the Buckeyes will be in press coverage more often in 2014.
The Buckeyes came up woefully short on the measuring stick last fall, and its beleaguered pass coverage was arguably at the top of the list of reasons they fell short of their goal of playing for the national championship as the secondary unraveled down the stretch.

Ohio State survived a shootout against rival Michigan despite allowing 451 passing yards, but even its high-powered offense wasn’t able to keep trading punches against Michigan State and Clemson as those teams combined for 682 yards and eight touchdowns through the air in those two losses. Collectively the Buckeyes allowed 250 yards or more eight times as they sank to No. 110 in the nation in pass defense, and coach Urban Meyer has made it well known that he believed the defense was too conservative.

That message has clearly been delivered to returning assistants such as Coombs, and a fresh voice in co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash has echoed it as he helps install a much more aggressive system that will bring the cornerbacks up to the line of scrimmage to force the issue in man-to-man coverage.

“It takes practice to play that way,” Coombs said. “Football is made up of a myriad of different schemes. There are lots of different things, and it’s not like you can just say, ‘Hey, go put those guys up on the line of scrimmage and go play.’ It’s the scheme; it’s how everything fits together.

“I’m not blaming that on anybody, but that was not what we were doing. We did it at times, but it wasn’t our base concept -- it was an adjustment. Now it is our base alignment, and we will adjust off of that. So, in order to do that, you’ve got to do it.”

That alone doesn’t guarantee improvement, and the Buckeyes are certainly aware that it will take more than tweaking the playbook to get results.

For starters, three veterans from the secondary must be replaced, including cornerback Bradley Roby, after he elected to skip his final season of eligibility and enter the NFL draft. The Buckeyes do still have senior Doran Grant around to fill that void at the boundary position in the secondary, and he has all the tools to become a shutdown defender, the role Roby filled during the last couple seasons.

The new scheme also presents some personnel challenges, as the demanding nature of press coverage will force the Buckeyes to rotate cornerbacks more frequently to keep them fresh. That will make it imperative to bring along an inexperienced, but talented, group of players, including former elite recruits such as Gareon Conley and Eli Apple to supplement Grant and projected starter Armani Reeves without much drop-off in production or effort.

But there is still time left in spring practice to work on that, plus an entire offseason this summer and training camp in August until the Buckeyes feel comfortable dealing with the pressure.

Then it will be their turn to put it on somebody else.

“I actually like it,” Grant said. “Our whole team is liking it. We’re buying into it and we appreciate this defense. We’re going to work our butts off to get [it right].”

After all, the Buckeyes know they can’t get it fixed sitting on cushions, either.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with every Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive backs.

Illinois: The secondary returns mostly intact from 2013, as Illinois returns starters at both cornerback spots (V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence), as well as Zane Petty, who started the final seven games at free safety. Taylor Barton, who opened last season as a starting free safety, also is back. Building safety depth is important this spring as Illinois must replace Earnest Thomas III. Barton will compete with Jevaris Little and others for playing time. The depth is much better at corner as Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap both saw significant action as freshmen last fall.

Indiana: Like Illinois, Indiana returns a lot in the defensive backfield but must improve after struggling to stop opponents in 2013. The Hoosiers also lose only one starter in safety Greg Heban, a mainstay during the past four seasons. There's a lot of experience at cornerback with returning starters Tim Bennett (senior) and Michael Hunter (junior), along with reserve Kenny Mullen (senior). Decorated recruit Rashard Fant, who redshirted in 2013, will compete for significant playing time. Senior safety Mark Murphy will lead the secondary, and sophomore Antonio Allen could fill the other safety spot when he returns from an ACL tear. Building depth here always is a priority at IU.

Iowa: The situation isn't as dramatic as the linebacker spot, but Iowa still must replace two productive players in cornerback B.J. Lowery and safety Tanner Miller, who combined for six interceptions in 2013. Lowery is the more significant loss, as he had 19 passes defended and three forced fumbles. The good news is Desmond King looks like a budding star and he will move into the featured role Lowery occupied. Jordan Lomax, Sean Draper and others will compete to start opposite King. Strong safety John Lowdermilk returns after a solid junior season. Lomax also could play free safety and will compete there with Anthony Gair and Nico Law, who both appeared in all 13 games last fall as reserves.

Maryland: The back four aims for better results on the injury front and on the field in 2013. Maryland returns both starters at safety in Sean Davis, the team's leading tackler with 102 last fall, and Anthony Nixon, but there should be competition behind them with A.J. Hendy and Zach Dancel. The cornerback position is worth watching this spring as Dexter McDougle departs and Jeremiah Johnson remains limited by a toe injury. Will Likely has opened the spring as a starter, and Alvin Hill could rise up after recording 24 tackles last season.

Michigan: The secondary took a step back in 2013 and all jobs are open even though Michigan returns two veteran cornerbacks -- Blake Countess and Raymon Taylor -- and some experience at safety. Jabrill Peppers, the nation's No. 2 overall recruit according to ESPN Recruiting Nation, will play a major role for the Wolverines this fall, whether it's at corner, safety or nickel. Junior Jarrod Wilson started the first seven games of last season at free safety, and Dymonte Thomas is a good candidate to start at one of the safety spots. Michigan should expect more from this group in 2014.

Michigan State: Will opposing offenses invade the No Fly Zone in 2014? Not if Michigan State can fill several spots, none bigger than Darqueze Dennard's at cornerback. Dennard, a unanimous All-American and the Jim Thorpe Award winner, departs to the NFL, and junior Trae Waynes slides into the featured corner role after a promising sophomore season. The competition opposite Waynes heats up this spring as Ezra Robinson, Darian Hicks, Jermaine Edmondson and Arjen Colquhoun compete. Free safety Kurtis Drummond boasts 21 career starts and enters 2014 as one of the league's top safeties. RJ Williamson likely will fill Isaiah Lewis' spot at strong safety, and Demetrious Cox provides depth.

Minnesota: Like the Gophers' defensive line, the secondary loses a huge piece in Brock Vereen, who played both safety and cornerback last season. But there might be enough returning pieces to fill the void. Cornerback Eric Murray had a very solid first season as a starter, and Minnesota also brings back Derrick Wells and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both of whom have starting experience. Leading tackler Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson finished last season as the starting safeties, and both are back. Senior Grayson Levine provides some experience in a reserve safety role.

Nebraska: An important spring awaits new defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, who must identify new starters at cornerback, safety and nickel. The Huskers are replacing Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who combined for eight interceptions, 18 passes defended and 15 tackles for loss in 2013. Safety Andrew Green, who made 10 starts in 2013, also leaves. The good news is cornerback Josh Mitchell had an excellent bowl game and will fill a starting spot. Leading tackler Corey Cooper also returns at safety. There's not much experience at corner other than Mitchell, and Daniel Davie, Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose and others will compete. Nebraska brings back more at safety with Harvey Jackson, who made three starts in 2013, and junior Charles Jackson.

Northwestern: That the Wildcats' secondary could be one of the team's biggest strengths seemed laughable three years ago, but it could be true this fall. All four starters return, led by safety Ibraheim Campbell, one of the Big Ten's most productive defenders (262 career tackles). The depth at cornerback looks strong as starters Nick VanHoose and Matt Harris return, along with Dwight White and Daniel Jones, who opened 2013 as a starter and is coming back from an ACL tear. Traveon Henry should start alongside Campbell, and there are some promising young safeties like Godwin Igwebuike.

Ohio State: Pass defense proved to be Ohio State's downfall in 2013, and the Buckeyes' secondary will be under the microscope this spring as new assistant Chris Ash steps in. Ohio State loses All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby and will lean more on Doran Grant, who started opposite Roby in 2013. Ash also expects big things from Tyvis Powell, who will start at one of the safety spots. Safety Vonn Bell finally logged significant playing time in the Orange Bowl and could become a permanent starter as a sophomore. Veteran Ron Tanner and Cam Burrows also are in the mix at safety. There should be good competition to start opposite Grant, as Armani Reeves tries to hold off redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple.

Penn State: After a season of moving parts and inconsistent plays, Penn State hopes for a more settled secondary. Adrian Amos, who alternated between cornerback and safety last season, will lead the group and brings plenty of experience. Jordan Lucas likely will start opposite Amos at cornerback after making strides toward the end of his sophomore season. PSU loses some leadership at safety with Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong departing and will lean on Ryan Keiser and Jesse Della Valle, both of whom have starting experience. Converted wideouts Trevor Williams and Malik Golden provide depth at cornerback and safety, respectively.

Purdue: The rotation from 2013 returns almost completely intact, but Purdue loses a very big piece in cornerback Ricardo Allen, a four-year starter. Cornerback Frankie Williams enters his third year as a starter and will slide into Allen's featured role, while the competition for the other top corner spot will feature Antoine Lewis and Leroy Clark, among others. Purdue has plenty of experience at safety with Taylor Richards, who started every game in 2013, and Anthony Brown, who replaced the injured Landon Feichter and had 69 tackles. Feichter also is back from a broken leg.

Rutgers: This group is anxious to turn the page after a season filled with personnel issues and poor performance (Rutgers finished 120th nationally in pass defense). Senior safety Lorenzo Waters leads the group after recording 62 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2013. Johnathan Aiken will try to start opposite Waters at free safety, although he'll be pushed by Delon Stephenson and Tejay Johnson, who started three games last fall. Gareef Glashen started six games last season and seems likely to retain one of the top cornerback spots. There will be competition at the other between Anthony Cioffi and Nadir Barnwell, both of whom started games as true freshmen in 2013. The most intriguing player to watch is cornerback Ian Thomas, who returns to the team after quitting midway through last season, one that he began as a starter.

Wisconsin: The Badgers are relatively young at both secondary positions but boast far more experience at cornerback than safety. Junior Darius Hillary and sophomore Sojourn Shelton started all 13 games at cornerback last season. Peniel Jean adds even more experience at the position. Safety is much less settled as Dezmen Southward graduates, Michael Caputo shifts to linebacker and Tanner McEvoy returns to quarterback. Nate Hammon and Leo Musso both played in all 13 games last fall as reserves. Newcomers like Serge Trezy and Austin Hudson could compete for time when they arrive this summer.
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Ohio State Buckeyes, Illinois Fighting Illini, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Indiana Hoosiers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Iowa Hawkeyes, Maryland Terrapins, Big Ten Conference, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Vonn Bell, cam burrows, Armani Reeves, Blake Countess, Doran Grant, Jarrod Wilson, Darian Hicks, Gareon Conley, sojourn shelton, Jabrill Peppers, Nick VanHoose, Chris Ash, Eli Apple, Rashard Fant, Godwin Igwebuike, Tyvis Powell, Darius Hillary, Mark Murphy, Michael Caputo, Peniel Jean, Dymonte thomas, Ron Tanner, Landon Feichter, Dezmen Southward, Adrian Amos, Daniel Jones, Ibraheim Campbell, Kurtis Drummond, V'Angelo Bentley, Dwight White, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Tim Bennett, Matt Harris, Taylor Richards, Antonio Allen, B.J. Lowery, Ryan Keiser, Derrick Wells, Nate Hammon, Austin Hudson, Jesse Della Valle, Michael Hunter, Trae Waynes, Eaton Spence, Jaylen Dunlap, Raymon Taylor, Zane Petty, Cedric Thompson, John Lowdermilk, Josh Mitchell, Charlton Warren, B1G spring positions 14, A.J. Hendy, Alvin Hill, Andrew Green, Anthony Cioffi, Anthony Gair, Anthony Nixon, Antoine Lewis, Antonio Johnson, Arjen Colquhoun, Charles Jackson, Corey Cooper, Daniel Davie, Darius Mosely, Delon Stephenson, Demetrious Cox, Dexter McDougle, Eric Murray, Ezra Robinson, Frankie Williams, Gareef Glashen, Grayson Levine, Harvey Jackson, Ian Thomas, Jeremiah Johnson, Jermaine Edmonson, Jevaris Little, Johnathan Aiken, Jonathan Rose, Jordan Lomax, Kenny Mullen, Leo Musso, Leroy Clark, Lorenzo Waters, Malik Golden, Nadir Barnwell, Nico Law, RJ Williamson, Sean Davis, Sean Draper, Serge Trezy, Tanner Miller, Taylor Barton, Tejay Johnson, Traveon Henry, Trevor Williams, Will Likely, Zach Dancel

Ohio State spring predictions: No. 1

February, 28, 2014
Feb 28
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Preparations to end a two-game losing streak have already started for Ohio State, but the chance to make them with the pads on again after a two-month wait isn't over yet.

There's less than a week left on that wait for spring practice, and given the disappointing end to the 2013 season and the rigorous offseason conditioning program the Buckeyes have been going through, that time surely can't fly by quickly enough for the players. We've already looked at players facing critical springs and key position battles, and to count down these final few days before camp opens, we'll make a handful of predictions for what should happen in March and April as Ohio State reloads for another run at a title in the fall.

[+] EnlargeTyvis Powell
Jason Mowry/Icon SMITyvis Powell played well for the Buckeyes in 2013, but he will have a bigger role next season.
No. 1: The secondary earns rave reviews

No unit will be under closer inspection this spring than the secondary with a new coach, three new starters and huge task in front of it after the Buckeyes struggled so mightily to stop the pass last season.

But all those fresh faces and all that room to grow also allows for the defensive backs to make the biggest impression in the spring, and the Buckeyes are in position to turn a few heads and get back to the level the program is accustomed to defensively by the fall.

With Bradley Roby off to the NFL a year early, Christian Bryant's appeals for a medical redshirt denied and C.J. Barnett out of eligibility, there are critical holes to fill. Few teams in the nation, though, can match the talent the Buckeyes have acquired in the secondary in the last couple recruiting cycles, and all that work is poised to pay off as the youngsters move into the starting lineup.

Tyvis Powell already did that as a redshirt freshman last fall, and he proved he can be counted on after spending his first season as a regular playing in nickel and dime packages before starting at safety in the Discover Orange Bowl. He was joined on the back line in that game by heralded recruit Vonn Bell, who flashed the athleticism that made him one of the nation's most sought-after recruits last year with a leaping, one-handed interception that restarted the hype for his sophomore campaign.

At cornerback, Doran Grant played better and more reliably than perhaps he received credit for, and there will be a spirited battle to land the job on the other side of the formation during camp. Armani Reeves might have the inside track when practice opens given his experience, but Gareon Conley and Eli Apple will be legitimate threats after watching from the sideline during their first seasons on campus.

And all of those guys will be getting watched by a fresh set of eyes with new secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash taking over and implementing his more aggressive approach to shutting down passing attacks. He might be getting monitored just as closely as the players as Urban Meyer takes a more hands-on approach to getting his defense fixed and ready to contend for at least a Big Ten title.

That job probably won't be done by the time the spring game rolls around in April. But it seems like a safe bet the Buckeyes will be able to see plenty of progress by then, regardless of how much further they might still have to go.

Top spring position battles: No. 1

February, 21, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Nobody is walking into a stress-free environment when Ohio State returns to the practice field this spring as long as national-title aspirations hang in the air and Urban Meyer prowls the sideline.

But the pressure isn't the same for all the Buckeyes since a healthy handful have their names etched at the top of the depth chart and won't be sweating a competition for a starting job -- obviously beginning with a quarterback who has finished in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy voting two years running. But determining the backup to Braxton Miller is just one of the intriguing positional battles that will be waged in March and April, and after already tackling that topic and three others, the countdown concludes with what figures to be the hottest, most critical competition in camp.

[+] EnlargeArmani Reeves
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsArmani Reeves had 26 tackles and an interception as a sophomore in 2013.
No. 1: Cornerback

  • Predecessor: Bradley Roby (69 tackles, 16 passes defended, three interceptions, two blocked kicks, two touchdowns; declared early for the NFL draft)
  • Candidates: Junior Armani Reeves, redshirt freshmen Eli Apple and Gareon Conley
  • Why to watch: The weakness of the Ohio State defense last season was obviously no secret, and removing the supremely talented Roby from the equation in pass coverage only adds to the degree of difficulty in trying to fix it for co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash. Thanks to a recruiting haul in the secondary during the last two seasons that might be the best in the nation, though, the new assistant coach is inheriting a roster with enough skill and athleticism to make those improvements and turn the Buckeyes back into an aggressive, lockdown defense. Doran Grant didn't receive nearly as much acclaim for his work in coverage last year as Roby, but he left little room to doubt that he's capable of taking over as the top dog at cornerback, leaving at least three guys to fight for the other spot. The battle is only going to become more heated when Damon Webb and Marshon Lattimore arrive on campus in the fall, but the Buckeyes definitely won't be short on options during the spring.
  • Pre-camp edge: Grant parlayed some action off the bench two years ago into a springboard to a starting job last spring, and Reeves appears to be in line for the same type of jump after being pressed into a fair amount of action as a sophomore. Reeves finished the season with 26 tackles, eight passes defended, an interception and a forced fumble, and while he didn't quite seem ready for a full-time role yet, he has had a taste of success and what it takes to succeed at this level, which should give him an early advantage over Apple and Conley. Both of those young guys, though, were highly coveted recruits a year ago for a reason, and their athleticism could help them close the gap and make a legitimate push for a starting spot as the Buckeyes try to address their biggest defensive shortcoming from 2013.

Big Ten Wednesday mailbag

January, 29, 2014
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Coming at you from the United Mailbaggers Local 40205 …

David from Nashville writes: All Players United! Well except walk-ons, that is. I'm sorry, but Kain Colter is losing me. Personally, I completely understand wanting medical coverage for football injuries sustained while representing the university. But excluding walk-ons from having a ”'voice at the table,” as Colter calls it? Do they not sustain injuries, get concussions or have medical bills? And they don't even get the free education from a very prestigious, and expensive, school like Northwestern! Or perhaps, just like the NCAA, Kain Colter just wants “his,” and including your walk-on teammates will hurt his legal argument to get “his.”

Brian Bennett: Clearly, there are more questions than answers right now about the Northwestern labor union movement. Can students at a university really be classified as "employees?" How would such a union arrangement work with Title IX? How long would medical benefits last, and who would decide whether a former player's injury was football-related?

The issue of walk-ons is another one, although a minor point, in my opinion. Only those who are receiving scholarships can really argue that they are being compensated like an employee, and any walk-on who plays enough to merit post-career benefits would likely be put on scholarship at some point. It's also not fair to say Colter is looking to "get his" when he has already completed his eligibility and likely would not see any personal gain from leading this movement. On the contrary, he's risking a lot by agreeing to become the public face of this movement.

I question whether a labor union is the right way for the players to go, and it certainly was odd to see college football players standing alongside steelworkers' union members at Tuesday's news conference. But I also think it's way past time for players to organize in some way and make sure their rights and concerns are being considered. College football is a multibillion-dollar industry that's only going to get richer with the new playoff system, and everybody from head coaches to assistants to athletic directors are getting rich off the sport. Everybody except the players, who put their bodies at risk for our enjoyment, that is.

Yes, the players receive scholarships, and at a place like Northwestern, the value of that can exceed $250,000 over the course of a player's career. But the players in this movement aren't asking for cash. They're asking for things such as medical treatment beyond their playing days, better concussion prevention and care and a trust fund that can allow players to continue their schooling following their careers. (Many of their demands, by the way, are not that different from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany's own collegiate reform plan). Mostly, they are asking for a larger voice and a seat at the table in a system that too often treats them like disposable indentured servants. That seems a highly reasonable request to me.


[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsNebraska's Ameer Abdullah is a good role model for running backs looking to improve next season.
Zach from Southgate, Mich., writes: Brian, who will be 2014's Carlos Hyde in the B1G? By that, I mean a player who showed flashes of talent early in his career but blossoms into an all-conference type of performer his final season. Guys like Ohio State CB Doran Grant, PSU RB Bill Belton, and Northwestern LB Chi Chi Ariguzo come to my mind as possibilities.

Brian Bennett: I'm not sure Hyde blossomed as much as he was healthier in 2013 and got plenty of opportunities after his early-season suspension. He did run for 995 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2012 despite some injury problems, after all. I think a better example of someone who went from very good player to all-out beast in 2013 is Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah. Belton could be a guy who takes a similar path, though he has some competition for carries with Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch around. Indiana's Tevin Coleman is another running back who could take it to the next level after running for 958 yards in his first season starting. Maybe Iowa's Jordan Canzeri, if he can get more reps (and stay healthy).

On defense, I'd say Michigan State cornerback Trae Waynes could follow Darqueze Dennard's path into superstardom. And Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa could go bonkers on the league.


Dane from Akron, Penn., writes: Really, Brian? PSU/Michigan, 4-OT game at No. 6? This game had it all. A freshman QB drives 60-plus yards in like 40 seconds (two unbelievable catches on that drive), a clutch kicker missing three field goals... I repeat, 4 OTs!

Brian Bennett: The game had it all except quality of play, as I explained in my post. Just because a game goes long does not mean that it was well-played. You mentioned the missed field goals. The two teams each failed to score in two of the overtimes and there was only one touchdown in all four of the extra periods, which led to a lot of national writers poking fun at the Big Ten on Twitter during the game. There were also seven combined turnovers. It was exciting, no doubt, and a great win for Penn State after a tremendous regulation comeback. But it was also very sloppy.


John R. from Dubuque, Iowa, writes: Brian, am I the only Illini fan that's thrilled to see a new QB take the reins in Illinois? Sure the numbers were great, but the predictable interception always happened! I can't wait for Wes Lunt to play. The way the defense talked about his skills when he ran the scout team's offense is enough make any humbled Illini fan excited of something. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: You're definitely not alone, John. There's a big buzz about Lunt taking over and running Bill Cubit's spread offense. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, he looks more like a classic quarterback than Nathan Scheelhaase did, and Lunt was a blue-chip stud coming out of high school. I'd caution you not to view him as the savior yet; remember that Lunt struggled a bit as a freshman at Oklahoma State, a program that usually makes quarterbacks look great. There are also questions at receiver for Illinois, and don't discount what Scheelhaase did last year in passing for more than 3,000 yards. Still, the talent is definitely there, and I'm also excited to see what Lunt can do in that offense.


Brutus from The Ninth Circle writes: I don't know about other people, but I've long held the opinion that Penn State underachieves. By this I mean that they are a national power in terms of fan base, facilities, revenue and name brand appeal. Just not a national power on the field. I felt this was certainly true for the last 10-15 years under Paterno. Under O'Brien, you had the sense that the game and team were being upgraded, but he himself didn't have a catchy personality. And I didn't even think it was important until I'm seeing Franklin and his recruiting. It's way too early to tell if that translates to success on the field. But it appears that the foundation is (hopefully) being laid for better results in the future. What I see is someone putting energy into the whole program. It certainly would seem like the program might actually start taking advantage of its assets and capability. Thoughts?

Brian Bennett: I think you can make some parallels between Penn State and Florida State. Both programs were probably held back a little because their legendary coaches stayed on too long. Remember when Joe Paterno was doing his recruiting via Skype from his office? Now you have the almost manic energy of James Franklin, who along with his aggressive assistants will likely kill it on the recruiting trail. Of course, the toll of the NCAA sanctions can't be overstated, and Franklin has to prove that A) he's a championship-caliber head coach; and B) that he's willing to stick around Penn State for a long time. But you're right in that the marriage of Penn State's resources and Franklin's particular skills should prove very fruitful for the Nittany Lions.


Michael B. from East Lansing, Mich., writes: The East Division next season seems to be Michigan State's to lose. I understand that Ohio State will be in the picture, but can we really place Michigan in that race with their lackluster performances over the past few years? Seems to me that Penn State would be the next best in the division going into the season.

Brian Bennett: Michigan State and Ohio State appear to be the clear co-favorites for the East next season. While I expect Michigan to improve on its 2013 showing, the Wolverines still have a lot more question marks in my view than the Spartans or Buckeyes, and they have to play both those teams on the road in '14. Penn State is an intriguing contender because it gets both Ohio State and Michigan State at home, where the Nittany Lions played much better than on the road last year. But I think the Buckeyes and Spartans still have the commanding edge in talent and depth, and we should see one of those two in Indianapolis in December.

A record number of underclassmen elected to take the NFL plunge this year, but the Big Ten barely made a splash. Only four Big Ten juniors are entering the draft, continuing a recent downturn after just six left early a year ago. Several stars certainly could have entered the draft, so this is good news for fans who enjoy seeing the league's top players stay for a fourth year. But it also underscores a lack of top talent, especially when compared to the SEC and Pac-12.

Despite a small contingent of early entries, Big Ten teams have some significant holes to fill. As spring ball approaches, here's a look at who's gone and who might replace them.

Leaving: Indiana WR Cody Latimer

[+] EnlargeShane Wynn
AJ Mast/Icon SMIShane Wynn averaged 13.8 ypc this season and scored 11 TDs. His stock and those numbers should soar higher as he takes on a bigger role next season.
The replacement: Shane Wynn

Wynn and Latimer obviously have different body frames, but both produce at a high level, particularly when it comes to touchdowns. Latimer led Indiana by wide margins in both receptions (72, next highest: 47) and receiving yards (1,096, next highest total: 739), but Wynn had more touchdowns with 11 (Latimer at nine). The departures of Latimer, Kofi Hughes and tight end Ted Bolser make Wynn the team's only returning receiver with more than 15 receptions in 2013.

Indiana certainly could use a bigger receiver to play on the outside where Latimer roamed, and perhaps Nick Stoner or incoming recruit Dominique Booth fills that role. But the Hoosiers undoubtedly will rely more on Wynn, a 5-foot-7 dynamo who averaged 13.8 yards per reception last season. Of the Big Ten's early entries, Latimer is the most surprising, given the strength in the draft at wide receiver, but Indiana has had little trouble developing strong pass-catchers.

Leaving: Penn State WR Allen Robinson

The replacement: Geno Lewis

Latimer's departure raised a few eyebrows, but Robinson's had been expected for some time, especially after coach Bill O'Brien left Penn State for the NFL's Houston Texans. Robinson earned the Big Ten's Richter-Howard Receiver of the Year award in both 2012 and 2013 after recording back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to lead the league each year. The Penn State standout had 97 catches for 1,432 yards last season, topping the Big Ten charts in both categories despite not playing in the postseason.

Lewis likely will move into the No. 1 spot, in part because Penn State doesn't much experience at receiver. In addition to Robinson, the Lions lose No. 2 wideout Brandon Felder. Although Penn State returns a wealth of talent at tight end, Lewis is the leading returning wide receiver with 18 catches for 234 yards and three touchdowns in 2013. Lewis showed potential during his redshirt freshman season, especially with a 91-yard performance in the finale at Wisconsin. After struggling midway through the fall, Lewis' strong finish sets him up well to be quarterback Christian Hackenberg's top option in 2014.

Leaving: Ohio State CB Bradley Roby

The replacement: Doran Grant. Grant played opposite Roby throughout last season and recorded 58 tackles, 3 interceptions, 10 pass breakups, a forced fumble and a blocked kick. He endured some ups and downs in a secondary that struggled for much of the season, especially after losing safety Christian Bryant to injury, but the experience should prove valuable going forward. Not surprisingly, Grant was challenged more than Roby, but as these numbers show, he held his own despite some mistakes here and there.

Roby's early departure is the least surprising of the group, as he announced before the season that it would be his last at Ohio State. His presence will be missed, especially on special teams, but Grant could develop into a top corner. Ohio State certainly has bigger problems to address in the back four as it welcomes in new coordinator/secondary coach Chris Ash from Arkansas.

Leaving: Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier

The replacement: Trey Johnson. Ohio State returns starters at the other two linebacker spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, and it's possible Perry could slide over into the role where Shazier excelled. But Johnson served as Shazier's backup in 2013 and boasts the athleticism to step in and perform. Johnson played sparingly last fall, recording 11 tackles in six games, but his role undoubtedly will expand with Shazier moving onto the NFL.

There should be plenty of competition at linebacker, a spot where depth has been a concern for head coach Urban Meyer. Like Johnson, Mike Mitchell came to Ohio State as an extremely decorated recruit and should push for playing time this spring after a redshirt season. Camren Williams and converted safety Devan Bogard also are possibilities, although Bogard will be coming off of a second ACL tear.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Another 12-win season is in the books, though the second one under Urban Meyer did come with a pair of losses at the end that took a bit of the shine off the record for Ohio State. As the Buckeyes turn the page to Year 3 under Meyer, they'll certainly be looking to top that victory total, clinch a spot in the first edition of the College Football Playoff and again compete for a national title. To do so, all three phases will have issues to address, and the final checklist hits on the special teams.

[+] EnlargeDontre Wilson
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesFreshman Dontre Wilson returned 21 kickoffs for 523 yards this season.
Find some explosion in the return game: Considering the influx of speed on the kickoff return unit and the presence of a veteran to field punts, Ohio State has to be disappointed in the lack of spark it had when the ball was kicked its way. Even before the second-half lead in the Discover Orange Bowl started to slip away thanks to a punt that Philly Brown muffed for a costly turnover, the Buckeyes were merely average in that phase ranking No. 60 in the country and weren't much better with Dontre Wilson pacing a kickoff unit that finished No. 42 in the nation. Meyer undoubtedly has much higher expectations for his returners and has long placed an emphasis on creating game-changing plays in that phase of the game, something he'll only harp on more heading into spring practice. Not only is Brown gone, but every player who fielded more than one punt last season has departed along with him, so there will be open auditions for at least one role when practice resumes for the Buckeyes.

Replace the kicker: Meyer at times seems allergic to kicking field goals, but he could at least feel somewhat comfortable when he did settle for a 3-point try with veteran Drew Basil around and hitting 90 percent of his attempts. But that security blanket is gone now, and while that might make Meyer even less inclined to kick a field goal moving forward, in the short term he'll have his attention focused on the candidates to fill the void. Walk-on Kyle Clinton will have a crack at the job, though his current experience is limited to 3 extra points and a handful of kickoffs in his career. Incoming freshman Sean Nuernberger, the No. 9 player in the country at the position, could wind up being the solution for Ohio State.

Dial up the FreakShow: The loss of Bradley Roby at cornerback is obviously pressing, but not having him around to lead the FreakShow punt-block unit could be just as significant given how dramatic an impact he had during his career attacking the football on special teams. Few things in a game mean more to Meyer than coming up with a momentum-swinging block in the kicking game, and Roby had the instincts and athleticism to do it perhaps as well or better than anybody the coach has ever had at his disposal. Doran Grant has shown a flash of that ability, but the Buckeyes will be looking hard at the young talent it has been stacking up in the secondary to find another guy or two capable of blazing deep into the backfield, getting a hand on the football and then potentially turning a block directly into points the way Roby did with the program.

Previous to-do lists: Offense | Defense

OSU offseason to-do list: Defense

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Another 12-win season is in the books, though the second one under Urban Meyer did come with a pair of losses at the end that took a bit of the shine for Ohio State.

As the Buckeyes turn the page to Year 3 under Meyer, they'll certainly be looking to top that victory total, clinch a spot in the first edition of the playoffs and again compete for a national title. To do so, all three phases will have issues to address, and the checklist today tackles the defense.

Chart a course: Meyer promised an all-inclusive look at what plagued his defense at the end of the season, and first tweaks were already made when he switched out some personnel in the secondary to try to find an answer for both the Discover Orange Bowl and the future. But it will be the next two areas that figure to be more critical moving forward, and they'll likely go hand in hand as Ohio State tries to establish a schematic identity and looks to hire somebody to replace former co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers. The Buckeyes didn't have much depth to speak of and injuries perhaps limited what they could do at times, but often they looked torn between playing conservatively against the pass and dialing up pressure with blitzes and bump-and-run coverage.

[+] EnlargeBradley Roby
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesBradley Roby is one of three starters Ohio State will need to replace in its secondary in 2014.
Meyer has made his preference quite well known, and how he handles the vacancy on his staff and how much responsibility that new hire is given could go a long way in ensuring that he gets what he wants.

Reload in the secondary: There might not be a program in the country which can match the roll Ohio State has been on while stockpiling talent in the defensive backfield. But it can't afford to wait any longer for those young guys to contribute as it tries to replace three starters in the secondary, including star cornerback Bradley Roby. There is one holdover in Doran Grant, and Tyvis Powell might qualify as another even though he's headed to a higher-profile gig at safety after spending nearly all of the season at nickelback. Vonn Bell showed what he can bring to the table in the Orange Bowl, and he'll be counted on heavily to live up to his immense potential as a likely starter along with Powell. That would leave what figures to be a heated competition for the other cornerback job, and while Armani Reeves has experience, former elite recruits like Eli Apple and Gareon Conley are going to push him hard.

Replace Shazier: A year ago Ryan Shazier was the only returner in the front seven. Now, his spot is the only one in the starting lineup that needs to be filled. Of those two scenarios, the Buckeyes would almost certainly prefer the latter, though Shazier's production is going to be incredibly difficult to match, as he moves on to the NFL with a year of eligibility left on the table. The lack of depth and experience was more glaring at linebacker than anywhere else for the Buckeyes last season, and in that regard, even losing one starter can present a significant challenge. But Trey Johnson and Mike Mitchell were both meaningful additions in the 2013 class and should be ready for larger roles, Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry can provide stability after solid seasons in the starting lineup and top-shelf commit Raekwon McMillan may be the rare breed of linebacker who can make an impact early. The Buckeyes may still not have an many options on hand at the position as they're used to, but the cupboard is beginning to be restocked.

Previous to-do list: Offense

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Ohio State has no reason to apologize for its 12-2 season, even if the Buckeyes did fall short of their goals by losing in the Big Ten title game and in Friday’s Discover Orange Bowl to Clemson.

Still, the Buckeyes are a program that expects to win championships.

“This would be an unbelievable season for some people,” center Corey Linsley said after the 40-35 loss to Clemson. “They would be building statues about it at other universities. This is just another year gone by for us.”

Ohio State should enter next season in or near the top 10, especially with Braxton Miller expected to return for his senior season at quarterback. But as Urban Meyer’s team found out after winning 24 straight games and then losing its final two, that last step toward winning a championship is often the hardest. And significant challenges await in 2014.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer's Buckeyes will need to replace some key players on both sides of the ball in 2014.
The offseason focus will center around fixing a defense that was dreadful in its final three games of the season. That job won’t include the services of star linebacker Ryan Shazier, who announced on Saturday that he’ll be leaving for the NFL, or cornerback Bradley Roby, who is also bolting Columbus for the pros.

Meyer has given every indication that he intends to keep Luke Fickell on as defensive coordinator, but the departure of co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Everett Withers opens the possibility of bringing in a veteran defensive coach who can offer strong input at the very least.

“We’ve just got to go out and recruit out tails off,” Meyer said. “Got to develop players and work real hard with scheme. We’ll get there.”

The Orange Bowl offered an early look at the future, especially with Roby sidelined by a knee injury. The Buckeyes started six freshmen or sophomores on defense versus the Tigers. While the overall numbers weren’t good, there were encouraging signs of potential.

Sophomore Jamal Marcus got his first career start in place of the suspended Noah Spence and was very active, finishing with six tackles. With Spence also sitting out the first two games of 2014, Marcus could play early next season and, at the very least, create some excellent depth along a still-young defensive line.

“I’m really proud of what Jamal did stepping in for Noah,” fellow defensive end Joey Bosa said. “He had a great week of practice, we had a lot of confidence in him, and he went in there and played his heart out.”

The same could be said of Bosa, who turned in a terrific true freshman campaign and showed loads of toughness in the Orange Bowl despite a sprained ankle. Limping noticeably in the second half, he remained in the game and finished with a sack and a forced safety. He has super stardom written all over him.

“It was rough,” he said of the injury. “It was really hard to plant off it. I was just doing what I could do.”

Meyer called sophomore linebacker Joshua Perry one of the most improved players on the team during bowl practice, and if he can continue to develop, it could lessen the loss of Shazier. But Ohio State’s linebacker play needs to get better.

The secondary was depleted by the end of the season but has some promising prospects. True freshman Vonn Bell made his first start at nickel, and though he got burned early on a difficult one-on-one matchup against Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, he also made a one-handed interception near his own end zone that should be the first of many highlight plays for him. Sophomore Tyvis Powell also made his first start at safety, while sophomore Armani Reeves filled in for Roby.

“We’ve got a lot to build on,” cornerback Doran Grant said. “We’ve got some guys who can really play. I’m excited to see them play next season and see what they’ve got in the spring.”

The offense has its own question marks even with Miller back in the fold. Start with the offensive line, which was the engine of the Buckeyes' attack. It loses four senior starters, with only sophomore right tackle Taylor Decker returning. Senior Carlos Hyde, who ran for more than 1,500 yards in just 11 games, also will be gone. Same goes for the team’s leading receiver, Philly Brown.

The schedule finally toughens up, with nonconference games against Navy, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati and the new East Division that will include reigning Big Ten champion Michigan State. The Spartans, who play host to Ohio State on Nov. 8, may begin the fall as favorites to win the division.

Meyer has talked repeatedly about wanting to field an angry and hungry team. The master motivator shouldn’t need many slogans this spring to push a team that suffered two crushing losses on its biggest stages.

“I hope there’s hunger,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman. “I hope that the guys who are coming back feel the knot in their stomach that I do right now and want to fix the things we need to fix to make sure we don’t feel like this again.”

Ohio State will still have plenty of talent in 2014 and a coach who knows how to use it. The Buckeyes weren’t far off from winning a championship this season and expect to be in position again next fall. This isn't a rebuilding job by any sense. But some repairs are needed.

“I think we’re extremely close,” Linsley said. “Everybody will say the O-line is down, that if Shazier is gone, if Roby is gone, those guys are going to slack [on defense]. But I’m telling you, some of these guys haven't gone through an offseason here before. I’m excited to see what these guys will do next year."

MIAMI -- Ohio State offensive line coach Ed Warinner huddled with his position group in a corner of the team's locker room following a 40-35 loss to Clemson in Friday's Discover Orange Bowl.

Warinner's voice started to crack as he told the players what they'd meant to him and what they'd accomplished. Warinner wrapped it up by saying, "You all are champions in my heart."

Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, they'll have to settle for those kinds of fond memories from their supporters. They've won 24 games the past two seasons, but it's the "And-2" that will haunt them. As in, 24-2.

Those two losses came at the worst possible times, first in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State with a BCS title-game berth at stake, and then on the wrong end of a wild South Florida shootout. A program that went 12-0 the past two regular seasons managed to end up feeling disappointed at the end an otherwise magical run.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyBraxton Miller was on his back as much as he was on his feet at times, but his gutty performance almost got Ohio State a win Friday.
"It's bittersweet," linebacker Ryan Shazier said. "We had a great year, and the year before was great. But at the end of day, the last two seasons we haven’t won anything."

It's not hard to pinpoint why Ohio State fell short of earning a championship: a defense that literally limped to the finish line and a still-too-inconsistent passing game.

All of the pregame fears about Clemson's passing attack shredding the Buckeyes proved valid as the Tigers tandem of Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins abused a makeshift secondary. With star cornerback Bradley Roby sidelined by a knee injury and two players starting at their defensive backfield positions for the first time, Ohio State surrendered 378 passing yards and five touchdowns through the air, while Watkins set Orange Bowl records with 16 catches for 227 yards.

Even when they applied solid coverage, the Buckeyes' corners and safeties found themselves almost helpless against the best receivers they'd faced in three years. At one point, Armani Reeves was called for pass interference and tipped the ball out of the hands of the 6-foot-5 Martavis Bryant in the end zone. Bryant still caught the ball for a touchdown.

"I can’t get any closer than that," Reeves said. "That’s what happens when you play great players."

Then again, Ohio State's defense made a lot of people look great down the stretch this season, giving up averages of 38.3 points and 539 total yards (Clemson piled up 576) in its final three games. If there's any optimism to be found there, it's that six players who were either freshman or sophomores started on defense Friday, and the future for guys such as Joey Bosa, Jamal Marcus and Vonn Bell looks bright.

Despite the defensive problems, the Buckeyes still had plenty of chances to win the game. They somehow led at halftime even after yielding 362 yards in the first two quarters. They were up 29-20 and were getting the ball back late in the third quarter when Philly Brown muffed a punt return to give the Tigers new life. That would be the first of four second-half turnovers that would ultimately doom Ohio State, the next three coughed up by quarterback Braxton Miller.

No one could fault Miller's effort. He accounted for four touchdowns while absorbing a severe beating most of the night. He injured his shoulder early in the game. He lay on the turf for a few minutes after taking a late hit on a touchdown pass to Carlos Hyde. Miller said he probably had a cracked rib to go along with his throbbing shoulder.

"That's probably one of the toughest games I’ve played in, as far as being hit-wise and being banged up," Miller said. "Probably the toughest one all year."

Ohio State coach Urban Meyer rightly called Miller "a warrior" for his performance. But Miller also turned the ball over twice in the final 3 minutes, 12 seconds and didn't see linebacker Stephone Anthony slide underneath a post route on the game-sealing interception near midfield. Miller was non-committal after the game about whether he'd go to the NFL or return to Columbus. Friday's game made it clear he still has a lot to work on in college as a quarterback, though he might want to save his body from more punishment with a nearly brand-new offensive line next season.

Miller had come through at the end of big games so many times before in his career that it was shocking to see him not do so against Michigan State and Clemson. Same goes for Meyer. Ohio State had made a habit out of choking out opponents in the fourth quarter in his tenure, and before Friday he was 4-0 in BCS games.

"That's what we train for," center Corey Linsley said. "We train to finish. It's definitely disappointing, because that was our M.O."

Ohio State was not far away from its championship goals this season. Another play or two against Michigan State, and maybe the Buckeyes are in Pasadena, Calif., right now getting ready to play Florida State, an admittedly frightening prospect given the tattered state of their defense. Friday's game went back and forth and could have ended differently if not for the untimely turnovers.

But a team's record tells the story. Ohio State won its first 12 games again this season. Then came the "And-2."

"Those were championship games," cornerback Doran Grant said. "And we didn’t win 'em. Plain and simple."

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New ESPN 300 Top 10 Revealed
National recruiting analysts Tom Luginbill and Craig Haubert count down the top 10 recruits in the latest ESPN 300 player rankings update. The complete ESPN 300 will be released April 16.Tags: Tim Settle, CeCe Jefferson, Torrance Gibson, Mitch Hyatt, Terry Beckner Jr., Byron Cowart, Josh Sweat, Kevin Toliver II, Martez Ivey, Trevon Thompson, ESPN 300, RecruitingNation, high school football recruiting, Tom Luginbill, Craig Haubert
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