Ohio State Buckeyes: Ed Warinner
For one thing, he’s now lining up at left tackle, swapping sides after a breakout sophomore season on the right for one of the best offensive lines in the nation.
And then there’s the haircut, as Taylor Decker trimmed off his long locks as part of a job shadow program, trying to give himself a more “professional” appearance.
“It’s definitely a different feeling, but I think our focus needs to be not worrying about who lost, but on who we have,” Decker said. “We have really talented guys; they just need to develop confidence in themselves. They can do everything. They just need to realize they can go out and do it play after play after play and be consistent.
“We’ve got a lot of talented guys. Our only issue is inexperience.”
That certainly wasn’t a problem for the Buckeyes a year ago when Decker was the only fresh face in the lineup. Now the only projected first-teamer on the roster with starting experience is guard Pat Elflein, who filled in for a suspended Marcus Hall in the Big Ten championship game after admirably replacing Hall after he was thrown out of the Michigan game.
That leaves plenty for the Buckeyes to sort through this spring, and the process of nailing down full-time replacements for tackle Jack Mewhort, guards Hall and Andrew Norwell and center Corey Linsley might well spill into August. But offensive line coach Ed Warinner isn’t low on options, and the young guys trying to step into those big shoes aren’t short on confidence, either.
“For us, I think it motivates us a unit,” center Jacoby Boren said. “There is no doubt, those guys were freaking awesome, great guys, great players. But we have a lot of good guys here competing, and we’re working hard.
“We’re not working to be like them. We’re going to work to be the best that we are and keep building on that.”
Their predecessors obviously set the bar pretty high during the last couple seasons, setting the tone for an offense that led the Big Ten in scoring and was fifth in the nation in rushing, averaging more than 300 yards per game on the ground.
The Buckeyes started preparations for replacing them last season, occasionally cutting back on practice reps for the first unit in favor of the backups in an effort to speed through the learning curve and getting them as much game action as possible. Prospective right tackle Darryl Baldwin, Elflein and Boren figure to benefit from that taste of experience, and Antonio Underwood's return from knee surgery has gone smoothly enough that he opened camp as the starter at left guard. Behind that starting group, Ohio State has recruited well and could conceivably have players such as converted defensive lineman Joel Hale or Kyle Dodson make pushes for playing time.
And with all those candidates on hand ready to take over, Warinner isn’t losing much sleep, even though he’s looking at a totally different line.
“I’m pretty confident, yeah,” Warinner said. “Because everything that you want to see at this point, we’re seeing. Great work ethic, tough guys, very well-conditioned, guys who want to learn, guys who come and watch film and work the game. Guys who do extra, guys that are very coachable; they’re sponges. Guys who come with energy to practice.
“You’ve got all these things. The only thing they lack is experience.”
Now there’s nobody in their way to keep them from getting it.
Ohio State is less than a month away from getting back on the field and starting preparations for the 2014 season, and those days probably can't go by fast enough for a program coming off consecutive losses after a 24-game winning streak. To help pass the time, we're counting down the top five players who are facing critical springs, either because it's a turning point in their careers or the Buckeyes are counting heavily on them to fill vacant jobs as they try to get back in contention for a national championship again in the fall. The journey starts today on the offensive line.
- By the numbers: The converted defensive lineman, who had a sack in 2011 before moving to the other side of the ball, has been credited with appearances in 21 games for the Buckeyes, largely in a reserve role and on special teams.
- What's at stake: The Buckeyes are losing four senior starters off the offensive line, and with Taylor Decker moving to left tackle, all five positions will have a new look up front when camp opens in March. Baldwin is currently tabbed to fill Decker's spot on the right side, and the reviews have largely been positive for his work on the practice field in the past as the backup to Jack Mewhort at tackle. He certainly has the size, at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, to get the job done, and offensive line coach Ed Warinner has proven more than capable of maximizing the talent and fine-tuning the technique of his position group.
- Best-case scenario: Baldwin is already in position to win a starting job, and he'll be running with the first unit when the Buckeyes get back to work. But given the high standard the offensive line has set since Urban Meyer took over, it likely won't be enough for Baldwin to simply prove capable of filling out the lineup. The Ohio State coaching staff will be hoping for a Reid Fragel-like development, turning a guy without many notable contributions elsewhere, who has been around the program for years, into a ferocious, dependable right tackle.
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.
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."
The four seniors heading for the exit and about to usher in a new era are now every bit as aware that the end is near, leaving them two different legacies to attend to at once before they leave behind all of those starting jobs.
The ramifications on their own careers with the No. 7 Buckeyes are obvious as they look to cap a banner two-year run in the Discover Orange Bowl against No. 12 Clemson on Friday. But looking beyond that, the veterans have balanced their preparations for one final game with the need to get some younger guys ready for what comes after it at a position that has become the backbone of the program thanks to that core group of four.
“I think as you start to look around and it’s coming to an end for us, you realize that you do have a lot of responsibility to make sure this place is OK when you’re gone,” left tackle Jack Mewhort said. “I think us as seniors, I’ve been trying to coach guys more than I ever have and making sure that guys are getting ready.”
The sophomore right tackle more than held his own with his senior teammates on the close-knit offensive line, and his experience playing alongside them could be invaluable as he suddenly becomes the elder statesman in the meeting room. The Buckeyes have also had a recent glimpse at Pat Elflein in competitive situations as he was pressed into duty at right guard following Marcus Hall's ejection against Michigan and subsequent discipline in the Big Ten title game, and the right side of the line appears to be in good hands if that’s where both he and Decker end up staying.
Jacoby Boren has also impressed on the practice field and in limited opportunities to play in games at center, though plugging him into the starting lineup would still leave a couple more holes to fill heading into spring practice. And since Mewhort, Hall, Andrew Norwell and Corey Linsley won’t be around then to offer any advice to potential candidates to fill those spots, they’re getting all the pointers they can in now.
“Just from a teaching standpoint, it’s just all about helping them out, where we see their weaknesses are,” Linsley said. “If we can point out, like, I don’t know, Billy Price needs to learn to keep his pressure on the inside of his feet and not lose his balance by keeping it all over the place. That’s one area that I’m helping him.
"Jacoby, Pat and Taylor are definitely the ones who have progressed the most, and they’re doing a heck of a job leading in terms of off the field, intangibles. We don’t really need to do a lot from a motivational standpoint. [Offensive line coach Ed] Warinner does all the work there, because he’s grinding them day in and day out.”
Warinner is probably the most important holdover for the linemen, though the rebuilding job almost became even more challenging with the highly respected assistant in the mix for head-coaching jobs again this winter. If more dominoes fall this offseason, he could still get back in the mix for a position elsewhere, which would really cloud up the crystal ball for the Buckeyes on the offensive line.
But at least for one more week, Ohio State knows exactly what it has.
“I know people talk a lot about us leaving and the shape of the offensive line, but I’m not worried,” Mewhort said. “I know there are a lot of hard workers in there and a lot of guys who are going to be very good players in the future.”
The chance to prove it is creeping up quickly.
Dontre Wilson is ready to be unleashed: The Buckeyes have brought their freshman speedster along relatively slowly, but they appear ready to turn him loose with three critical games left to play. Wilson turned his seven offensive touches into 58 yards and a touchdown. It was a relatively modest total, but the mere threat of him on the field opened up space elsewhere for his teammates as the Hoosiers paid attention to his every step. Wilson might not have the entire playbook down yet, his hands let him down once and he isn't really that effective between the tackles yet. But get him in space, and he's quite clearly got the jets needed to burn a defense and put up points.
The senior linemen are going to be missed: The moment hasn't arrived yet, but the Buckeyes obviously know it's coming. Jack Mewhort, Corey Linsley, Marcus Hall and Andrew Norwell carved out a couple quick minutes in the end zone to snap a picture together with position coach Ed Warinner, and the coaching staff is clearly going to miss those four seniors on the offensive line. The Buckeyes bulled their way to 311 rushing yards, averaging a robust 8 yards per attempt, taking full advantage of the gaping holes the veterans provided up front while they still can. It's perhaps no real secret how important replacing those linemen next season is going to be, but they provided one more lesson on their value as the Buckeyes shoved around the Hoosiers and left Ohio Stadium with one more win.
But when the Ohio State pulls those veterans off the field in a blowout, there's one prominent member of the present plans that stays behind as part of the building of the next wave of blockers in the trenches.
Taylor Decker is the bridge between the physical, road-grating unit that ranks among the best in the country and an uncertain group that may be stocked with potential but obviously has nowhere near the experience of the first-team unit. That leaves a delicate balancing act for Meyer with his sophomore right tackle as he plans for success both at the moment and down the road, and as he watched trainers attend to Decker's injured knee on Saturday at Purdue, the risk was much easier to see than the potential reward.
"It was horrible when I saw that happen," Meyer said. "You should have heard [offensive line coach Ed] Warinner. It was like somebody shot him, 'Oh, my gosh.'
"That's a fine line. But he needs to play. He needs to play."
Decker has been playing a critical role all year as the only new starter on the line, and after a rocky start in his debut to open the season, he's also been living up to Ohio State's high standards and continuing to look like a future star.
The time is fast approaching where Decker will be the elder statesman of the unit, and that has clearly been a factor for Meyer and the coaching staff as they decide how much work he needs when they send in the backups, the guys who will eventually be joining him as full-fledged starters.
Last week in the blowout of Purdue, quarterback Braxton Miller was pulled to start the second half along with most of the senior linemen, but Decker was still involved late in the third quarter when he suffered a knee sprain that brought out the training staff and produced a bit of panic on the Ohio State sidelines.
Decker limped to the locker room shortly after being helped off the field, hobbling and clearly favoring his left leg as he left for further evaluation. But the knee didn't swell, and though he has been held out of practice this week, he's expected to be in the lineup next week against Illinois.
And against another suspect Illini defense that could allow the Buckeyes to get a glimpse of the future once more, Meyer may well need to again toe that fine line between protecting the present and building for next season.
"That's a hard thing," Meyer said. "But I know he is [going to play next week]. He's actually ahead of the schedule."
For the Buckeyes as a whole, that development should keep them right on pace for where they want to go -- both now and later.
The two-year commitments Urban Meyer asked of his first coaching staff at Ohio State will soon be filled. The assistants have all added 21 wins without a loss to their most current résumés. The No. 4 Buckeyes are on pace for another division title, in line for a spot in the Big Ten title game and still jockeying for a bid to compete for the crystal football.
So, as the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported on Tuesday that Florida Atlantic is targeting defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, it’s a safe bet that some of the hottest coaching toys on the market are at Ohio State. And after keeping them all to himself after last season's undefeated campaign, the signs are already there that Meyer will need to restock his shelves this offseason.
“We had four guys that had some people trying to discuss head-coaching opportunities for them,” Meyer said in the spring. “And I hope that happens for some of them, but I’m kind of glad it doesn’t happen after just one year.
“I always ask for just a two-year commitment. I think that’s fair.”
Across the board, Meyer’s first staff has provided just about everything he could have hoped for when he took over the program, including sticking around and turning down a few offers a year ago.
As the team appears to be getting stronger every week, the benefits for the Buckeyes are obvious. OSU is thriving on the continuity and familiarity that comes with the opportunity to spend more than one season with a position coach, coordinator or simply a playbook. They’ve proven more than capable of making successful in-game adjustments -- whether it was altering the approach defensively against Iowa after seeing a new formation or tweaking an offensive game plan to feature the brutal running style of Carlos Hyde more as the passing attack struggled at Northwestern -- there are trademarks of a group of coaches and players all on the same page.
Returning for another season with the Buckeyes wasn’t solely a perk for the program, of course. For all the attention Ohio State got in 2012 while going unbeaten, it didn’t win a national title and couldn’t even play for the conference crown. Adding those to a list of accomplishments can certainly help a potential candidate stand out when business really picks up for athletic directors in the coming months.
And the Buckeyes will have no shortage of options depending on what a potential suitor is looking for, from innovative offensive minds to a pair of defensive guys with previous experience as interim coaches.
Tom Herman’s work with quarterback Braxton Miller and Ohio State’s eye-popping offensive numbers will surely make him one of the top targets among coordinators. Ed Warinner’s results with the offensive line while serving as the co-offensive coordinator and his background in multiple styles of attacks could be appealing as well.
Fickell has interviewed for at least one major program in the past, and Ohio State’s surging defense may well get him cracks at jobs bigger than the one Florida Atlantic might offer. Everett Withers has long been respected around the country for his ball-hawking defenses, and the Buckeyes have only helped him add to that reputation.
The rest of the assistants have enhanced their profiles as well, with Mike Vrabel’s young defensive line zipping through the learning curve and Zach Smith’s receivers operating at a much higher level this fall, just to name two.
It may turn out that keeping most of his assistants around becomes an even bigger priority for Meyer if the inquiries start flooding in for his coordinators. But, for now, two-year engagement isn’t over, and there’s still plenty of work to be done.
But if the Buckeyes end up doing what they planned on by the end of the season, Meyer will surely have no problem passing on a glowing recommendation.
“The one negative thing about success and hiring good coaches is that they’re hot items,” Meyer said after last season. “If I had five guys that people never call me and want to hire them, that means I’ve probably got bad coaches.”
With the shopping season apparently underway and the Buckeyes still rolling, Meyer had better make sure his phone is fully charged.
The classroom was Ohio Stadium. The first day of school was a season opener and a debut as a starter.
And the assignment that showed up on Taylor Decker's desk was a final exam, shutting down a surefire first-round draft pick.
“Obviously,” the Ohio State right tackle said, “the first game I didn’t start as I had wanted.”
That might be expected considering Decker’s inexperience was being matched up with one of the most dangerous defenders in the nation in Buffalo’s Khalil Mack, and there was certainly some carnage as the sophomore was thrown into graduate-level work right away on the offensive line.
But rather than relive that rough outing and allow that disappointment to impact a bright future, Decker instead went right back to work for the No. 4 Buckeyes, making sure there wouldn’t be another one like it as he established himself as the final piece of a puzzle with four senior starters up front.
It certainly helped that Decker had already been welcomed into that group by the veterans and had the full support of the coaching staff after distancing himself in what had been a close race for playing time in spring practice, because contributing to an outing in which Mack made 2.5 sacks and also turned an interception into a 45-yard touchdown could easily have shaken his confidence after just one game.
“That’s the third-ranked linebacker in the country on all the scouting boards,” offensive line coach Ed Warinner said. “And if you assess the game, it wasn't 20 bad plays in the game, it was three. But three bad plays for a cornerback or three bad plays for a tackle, everybody knows about it. They don't know about the other 65 that were pretty decent.
“I didn't have any doubt that at some point he would turn the corner, and he did the next game and played very solid in the second game of the season. It's continued to just get better and better. ... He feels good about himself and so do we. Things are good.”
The Buckeyes haven’t had much to feel bad about offensively since the opener, and they still scored 40 points in that win despite a few missed assignments with Decker under the microscope.
Blessed with both enormous size at 6-foot-7, 315 pounds and technical ability that impressed the coaching staff as soon as he stepped foot on campus, there wasn’t really any doubt that Decker was destined to fill the only vacancy on a decorated offensive line after battling with departed senior Reid Fragel during training camp a year ago. And even in the aftermath of his occasional struggles handling Mack in August, the expectations didn’t change from Warinner, and he never panicked over the results from such a small sample size. That's paying off now for an offense line that is bulldozing holes for a rushing attack averaging nearly 280 yards rushing and playing every bit as well as the unit did last season.
“The coaches kept their trust in me and kept coaching me hard and my teammates picked me up,” Decker said. “I feel like because of that I’ve been able to improve.
“I mean, I knew that wasn’t me, that wasn’t how I’d been playing and performing in camp prior to that game, the weeks leading into it. It was a tough pill to swallow, but I just had to bounce back and recover from it, play the way I know I can play.”
And with each passing week, those memories are increasingly fading away just like a bad dream.
Carlos Hyde had the wrong idea about Urban Meyer's offense when Meyer came to Ohio State.
Like many others, Hyde couldn't get past the S-word -- spread. He envisioned five-wide formations, a hastened pace and a system tailored to track stars, not bruising ball-carriers north of 220 pounds like himself.
Hyde soon found out that he would have a home in Meyer's offense, as long as he earned the right to carry the ball. The scheme didn't simply tolerate his talents; it celebrated them.
Ohio State's offense isn't Oregon's or Baylor's or Arizona's or Auburn's. Aesthetically, the Buckeyes might be a spread team. But at their core, they're all about power.
"People see me back there and they see our offensive line back there, and they’re like, 'These are some big dudes, they've got a big running back,'" Hyde said. "This is not really a spread. It's more like a power team."
Need evidence? Study the second halves of Ohio State's past two wins against Northwestern and Iowa. After some sloppiness in the first 30 minutes of both contests, Ohio State methodically chipped away at the Wildcats and Hawkeyes. The Buckeyes racked up 142 rush yards and three touchdowns in the second half against Northwestern and 194 rush yards and two touchdowns in the second half against Iowa.
An offense with a knack for big plays -- Ohio State has 34 plays of 20 yards or longer this season -- had just one chunk play in each second half. Instead, the Buckeyes mounted long, sustained drives, swinging away with the Big Ten's best offensive line and a 235-pound hammer in Hyde. After running a meager 25 first-half plays against Iowa, Ohio State opened the second half with touchdown drives of 13, 11, 10 and 11 plays. Hyde's 1-yard scoring run early in the third quarter marked the first rushing touchdown Iowa had allowed all season. He tacked on a 19-yard scoring dash in the fourth quarter.
"Offensive linemen in general, after they look up at the scoreboard and see that you've won the game, the first question out of their mouths is how many yards did we rush for?" Buckeyes offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. "Then it's, how many sacks did we give up? And then, where do we eat?"
The Buckeyes are feasting on opposing defenses to the tune of 279.6 rush yards per game, ahead of last year's pace (242.3 ypg), which ranked 10th nationally. Their run focus has helped older players recruited by the previous coaching staff transition to the current regime.From Woody Hayes to John Cooper to Jim Tressel, Ohio State's identity has been closely tied to the power run game. It remains that way under Meyer, despite his ties to the spread.
"That's Ohio State," Hyde said. "When Beanie Wells, Eddie George, Archie Griffin and all the great running backs who came through here, that's what Ohio State has been: traditional, a power I offense. That's basically what this spread offense still is, it’s power.
"That’s pretty cool that the tradition is still going."
The only prerequisites for a spread offense, according to Warinner, are at least three detached wide receivers and the shotgun formation. Other than that, the canvas is blank. Some teams will spread out five receivers and throw 80 passes per game; others will run the ball 60 times.
"A lot like the West Coast offense, there’s many different versions," Meyer said. "I have our version of the spread offense, which is a very physical, power run offense. And it's always really been that way. At Utah, we had the bigger backs. At Florida, the biggest back we had was Tim [Tebow], and Tim became our power guy to offset and complement the speed that we had in the backfield. Here, our speed guy is really our quarterback [Braxton Miller] and some other skilled athletes, and we've got the big, power backs."
When Meyer coached Utah to an undefeated season in 2004, he leaned on two bigger backs in Marty Johnson and Quinton Ganther. The 6-3, 235-pound Tebow rushed for 2,478 yards and 49 touchdowns in his final three seasons as Florida's starting quarterback.
Despite his track record in the power run, Meyer never has produced a 1,000-yard rusher, a fact often used against him on the recruiting trail.
"You hear it, but you just have to be armed and ready to go," he said. "And then they see the yards per carry, they see the opportunities you get."
Hyde feels fully prepared for the NFL, not only as a runner but as a pass blocker. Warinner notes that Ohio State's top three run plays are often called on Sundays, and that Meyer's system has produced plenty of pro linemen.
Four of Meyer's linemen at Florida were selected the 2010 or 2011 NFL drafts, including first-rounders in the Pouncey brothers (Maurkice and Mike). Ohio State has had a surprisingly low number of linemen drafted the past five years but produced a seventh-rounder this past April in tackle Reid Fragel, a converted tight end. Warinner expects all four returning starters from last year's line to be drafted.
"We feel that our offense is as close to a pro spread as can be," Warinner said. "So when you watch people play on Sundays, how they run the ball and how they protect, those things have a lot of carryover to what we do. Most players at this level want to play at that level. Their learning curve is very small leaving Oho State with what we do.
"We sell that pretty hard in recruiting, and it's factual. Plus, it wins games."
Ohio State has won 19 straight, the nation's longest win streak. If the power surge continues, the Buckeyes could be playing for a crystal football Jan. 7 in Pasadena.
Once again, the senior center wasn’t needed for an entire game, though he at least got to work more than the single quarter he was allotted in the season opener the week before.
As he opened the door and headed out for one of his first interview sessions since undergoing foot surgery after spring practice, somebody from behind him asked when he’d finally get a chance to go the distance on a Saturday afternoon again.
“That’s up to the doctors,” a smiling Linsley said. “Thanks for asking.”
If it were up to the veteran lineman, or if it were necessary, there would be no need for the question, and he would already be turning in complete shifts in the heart of the Ohio State offense.
The stinging pain in his foot is gone by now, repaired by the insertion of a screw to address a bone issue that was described as similar to a Lisfranc injury. And while the injury wasn’t quite that serious and Linsley had played through discomfort at the end of last season, the Buckeyes made a decision and a plan months ago that would require some patience both from the coaching staff and the player not to rush him back too quickly to open the season.
Linsley has started both nonconference games, and the Buckeyes have clearly been more productive with him in the lineup than on the sideline. Over 17 plays against Buffalo, Ohio State scored 23 points -- and put up just 17 more over the final three quarters. Last week against San Diego State, the attack rolled up 35 points in the first half before again sticking to its cautious approach down the stretch in a 42-7 win.
Had the score been closer, the rehab plan apparently allowed for Linsley to play as much as needed against the Aztecs. And assuming the doctors agree with his own assessment, the chance to once again finish what Linsley has still been starting is coming on Saturday against Cal.
“The problem is fixed,” Linsley said. “Before it was a sharp pain, like I couldn’t really push off of it and I didn’t really have a lot of strength in my foot. Now it’s just a soreness. I’ve got the strength, I’ve got the stability, and it doesn’t feel like it’s going to break.
“They say it’s kind of hard to get back in the swing of things, but the most difficult part is you see guys working out there and you want to be a part of that. You see guys getting better, you want to be a part of that. ... I trust the plan they’ve got. But you do want to be out there, too.”
The blueprint was designed to have Linsley back to full strength by the time the schedule really started heating up in Big Ten play, and from that perspective Linsley is right on pace.
He was slowed throughout training camp and had to focus largely on mental reps, and there’s always the threat of rust after a long layoff due to injury. But Linsley has still been afforded the chance to chip away in meaningful action through two weeks, the nagging issue in his foot is effectively in the rearview mirror -- and Ohio State has also been able to develop some depth with Jacoby Boren benefitting from the playing time in place of the starter.
“Yeah, [Linsley] wanted to play more in the opener,” offensive line coach Ed Warinner said. “He wanted to play more in the last game, but circumstances were such that we were in a good situation where we didn’t have to do that.
“Everything has progressed there fine, and he’s 100 percent. ... But we also had kind of pitch count for him -- when he got to that number, we got him out of the game. Had we needed to play him more than that in the first two games, we could have.”
Now heading into the third, Linsley and the doctors might finally be ready to ditch the pitch count and turn him loose.
Next in line: The backup spots don’t have to be quite as precise given the flexibility of some reserves capable of playing multiple spots, with Chase Farris likely the first man up if injuries strike at either guard or tackle. Darryl Baldwin has impressed during training camp and provides depth on the edge, and Pat Elflein has emerged as a viable option on the interior. Jacoby Boren spent time filling in for Linsley when he was injured during spring practice and early this month, and the sophomore’s work ethic and family history with the program is well documented.
New faces: The Buckeyes didn’t do much to restock the cupboards with the most recent signing class, and a class of blockers that only included two names dropped to one this season when Tim Gardner was sent home following an off-the-field incident. That leaves just Evan Lisle, who has shown some potential but would likely benefit from a year to develop on the sideline before getting thrown in the mix.
Recruiting trail: With four seniors set to move on from the program after this season, coach Urban Meyer made it clear since signing day in February that he has to bring in a strong class of linemen to pave the way for the future. He would have liked to have done that in 2012, obviously, but he’s off to a strong start with the next group after getting pledges from ESPN300 picks Jamarco Jones (Chicago/De La Salle) and Demetrius Knox (Fort Worth, Texas/All Saints Episcopal). The Buckeyes also have commitments from tackles Kyle Trout (Lancaster, Ohio/Lancaster) and Marcelys Jones (Cleveland/Glenville), reinforcing the importance of targeting the line in the 2013 class.
Flexibility: Returning four senior starters doesn’t leave much room for movement on the first unit, and the strong start to camp for sophomore Taylor Decker erased the only real question mark heading into the opener. Farris and Baldwin have each been able to push for work at times at right tackle, but Decker’s brute strength and knowledge of the game has given him a leg up and given line coach Ed Warinner little to worry about with his starting unit.
• The work hasn’t all come at one spot, but one way or another, the Buckeyes have been able to count on inking Mewhort’s name in the starting lineup for quite some time now. The season opener against Buffalo will mark his 26th consecutive start, a string that has included appearances at left guard, right guard and the position he locked down for all of last fall, left tackle.
• For all the hype about the spread offense and what it would do for the passing attack in 2012, the Buckeyes ultimately relied much more on power and a smash-mouth ground game thanks to the nasty attitude and physical approach up front in Meyer’s first season. Ohio State rushed twice as often as it passed, turning those 559 total carries into an average of 242 yards per game and finishing the season as one of the top running teams in the nation.
• The offensive line wasn’t necessarily on the hook for all the sacks on Braxton Miller last season, but given the quarterback’s mobility and the experience returning, they should be able to cut down dramatically on the 30 takedowns they allowed in 2012. Miller is a better decision-maker moving into his junior season and that should get the ball out quicker and provide some help for the line. But the big guys also appear capable of establishing a more comfortable pocket.
Big question: Is Taylor Decker ready?
The Buckeyes weren’t ready to pronounce the sophomore a starter leaving spring practice, and Decker himself admitted that he hadn’t earned the right after 15 workouts in March and April. The coaching staff has already seen enough in August to trust him with that responsibility, though, and it comes with expectations that could hardly be higher. From a broad perspective, the Buckeyes are planning to contend for a national title. From a position-specific angle, Meyer has made it well known that everything starts in the trenches, and he wants nothing less than the best offensive line in the Big Ten -- for starters. With four proven commodities from an unbeaten team returning, the focus will be on the new guy to meet the standard.
Surviving the hazing process of becoming a sophomore starter for an Ohio State offensive line stocked with four seniors may be the bigger hurdle the talented right tackle will face during training camp this month.
There are the nicknames Decker can’t reveal publicly. And then there are jokes about his long hair and questions about whether he’s got the right sense of humor to fit in with the veterans. And as guard Andrew Norwell reminded him with one raucous wrestling match outside the locker room during the offseason, there are also some physical tests, including those off the field, that must be passed during the rite of passage into the starting lineup.
“It’s like the little brother thing for us,” left tackle Jack Mewhort said. “He definitely gets his fair share of garbage from the older guys.
“He’s kind of like the baby brother. He’s bigger than all of us, but he’s the baby -- but we love him.”
The wise cracks and good-natured ribbing actually help make it clear that Decker is welcomed with open arms by the closest position group on the roster.
The Buckeyes bring back more experience and skill than just about any unit in the country up front, though the one hole at right tackle after the graduation of Reid Fragel left some uncertainty and caused some hand-wringing during spring practice for offensive line coach Ed Warinner.
Decker was always the heir apparent for the job after pushing Fragel for it during training camp a year ago as a true freshman, but by his own admission, he didn’t make a convincing enough case when practice ended in April to lock down that role heading into the summer. But as he integrated himself with the tight-knit veterans while continuing to develop a 6-foot-7, 315-pound frame that makes the little brother the tallest and stoutest of the bunch, Decker steadily won over the seniors in building his case as the final piece of the puzzle.
And while still not definitively a starter or finished product, the Buckeyes are already seeing how some of the tests Decker faced over the summer are paying off in August.
“It’s not really been anything too bad,” Decker said. “Honestly, a lot of the times they’re really helpful and just bringing me up the ranks and teaching me how to be an Ohio State lineman. They’re great guys, and since I’ve been here, they’ve been great to me. I’m like a little brother to them, and they joke around with me, but to be said in the same sentence with them would be a huge honor.
“I don’t want to be the right tackle just because I’m the only one there. I want to earn coach’s trust, earn the trust of the guys on the line because they’re great players and I don’t want to be detrimental to their season. I want to help them, because they’re great players and they deserve a great season.”
That’s obviously the expectation in general for a team that will enter the season ranked No. 2 in the nation, but the line specifically is being counted on to be the top unit in at least the Big Ten, charged with protecting quarterback Braxton Miller and building on a year ago, when it was wildly productive in opening holes for the rushing attack.
The Buckeyes already know what they’re getting with four guys who started every game a year ago and have accomplished résumés to show for it. The next step is figuring out who could handle the responsibility of being the fifth member of the band, and the veterans apparently handled some of the auditions themselves.
“Oh yeah, we do that on purpose,” Warinner said. “But it’s all loving. ... There’s an age gap in there, and at the end of the day, he is an offensive lineman and he’s really starting to grow into that unit.
“Those older guys, they pick on him like he’s their little brother. But if anybody else messed with him, they’d jump all over it.”
Official starter at this point or not, that bond might be the surest sign yet Decker is part of the family.
But the Buckeyes aren't all the way back to where they want to be yet, at least not until there's some company for the last crystal football that was claimed more than a decade ago now.
Meyer's quick work a year ago in guiding Ohio State to a perfect record has put his team directly in the middle of any conversation about national title favorites this fall, and the momentum is seemingly only building after signing two banner recruiting classes to lay the groundwork for the coming years. The combination of facilities, existing talent, the coaches around him and a relatively manageable path to the BCS or the four-team playoff that is on the way all point to the Buckeyes remaining in the hunt for trophies with Meyer around.
For now, though, they check in just shy of the top spot in ESPN.com's Future Power Rankings -- but No. 1 is squarely in their sights.
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It's rare when a defensive line coach steps on the practice field and doesn't see a single starter from the previous season. How rare? According to Ohio State's athletics communications staff, the Buckeyes haven't had a complete overhaul of their starting defensive line since the 1985 season, when all three top spots had to be filled. Although Ohio State ended up starting four new linemen in 1998, it had a returning starter from 1997 (end Matt LaVrar) on the roster.
All four starters from the 2012 team -- ends John Simon and Nathan Williams, and tackles Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel -- have moved on. The effort to replace them is arguably Ohio State's top offseason story line, as the Buckeyes could be a defensive line away from contending for a national title in 2013.
Vrabel is stressing three areas for the linemen this spring -- attitude, effort and toughness. If all three are achieved, Vrabel thinks the players can "let their God-given ability to take over."
The Buckeyes' linemen boast plenty of ability. Ohio State had arguably the nation's top defensive-line haul in the 2012 recruiting class, signing four ESPN 150 defensive linemen, three of whom -- Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt -- saw the field as true freshmen. More help is on the way from the 2013 class with standouts like tackle Joey Bosa, an ESPN 150 selection. Two incoming line recruits, Tyquan Lewis and Tracy Sprinkle, enrolled early and are participating in spring ball.
But the group has only nine combined career starts, five from junior end J.T. Moore. Its career tackles leader, junior tackle Michael Bennett, has a whopping 28 stops in 21 games.
"The guys we've got have a little bit of experience with Adolphus and Noah and Tommy," Vrabel said. "Michael Bennett and Joel Hale, Steve Miller, those guys have been here, contributing and giving us some leadership. And Tracy and Tyquan are just trying to figure their way through this thing.
"We're learning every day."
Although Ohio State's defensive line undoubtedly will be younger, Vrabel also thinks it will be faster with players like Spence and Washington, who finished third on the team with three sacks in 2012. Again, talent isn't a problem, but the line needs leadership after losing two-time captain John Simon.
Head coach Urban Meyer challenged several of the older linemen at the start of the spring, saying, "Steve Miller's been here for a while. It's time to go play. Chris Carter, how long has he been here? At some point you can't redshirt anymore." At the very least, Ohio State needs the veterans to fill out the line rotation.
Ideally, they can take the reins.
"No one's going to replace what John Simon provided for this program," Vrabel said. "We can only hope that we find guys who are willing to lead, be the same person every day, be competitive, play with some toughness and play with some effort. We'll have guys step up."
Vrabel should get an accurate gauge on his group this spring because of the men they'll be lining up against. What the Buckeyes lack in defensive-line experience, they make up for on their offensive line, which returns four starters with 81 combined career starts.
"If we can compete against them," Vrabel said, "we feel like we're going to be OK."
Spence evidently has been competing well, impressing Buckeyes offensive line coach Ed Warinner with his edge-rushing speed.
Vrabel's return to his alma mater in 2011 generated tremendous excitement, and he made an immediate impact on the recruiting trail. But his coaching skills will be under the microscope as he works with a group that, for now, is Ohio State's biggest question mark.
"I'm a young coach, I'm new to this, so every day is a challenge," he said. "I enjoy it, I embrace the challenge and try to do my best."
Orlando Brown Jr. (Duluth, Ga./Peachtree Ridge) made a trip up to Columbus to meet with Warinner in the summer.
While he missed the opportunity to rub elbows with the co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, Brown said he hoped to make a trip back to Ohio.
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Braxton Miller, Ohio State Begin Spring Drills
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35