Ohio State Buckeyes: Kyle Dodson
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.
Illinois: This is another group that appears to be in significantly better shape now than at the start of coach Tim Beckman's tenure. The Illini lose only one full-time starter in tackle Corey Lewis, as four other linemen who started at least eight games in 2013 return. Senior tandem Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic are two of the Big Ten's most experienced linemen, and guards Ted Karras also has logged plenty of starts. Right tackle appears to be the only vacancy entering the spring, as Austin Schmidt and others will compete.
Indiana: The Hoosiers have somewhat quietly put together one of the Big Ten's best offensive lines, and the same should hold true in 2014. Everybody is back, and because of injuries before and during the 2013 season, Indiana boasts a large group with significant starting experience. Jason Spriggs should contend for first-team All-Big Ten honors as he enters his third season at left tackle. Senior Collin Rahrig solidifies the middle, and Indiana regains the services of guard Dan Feeney, who was sidelined all of 2013 by a foot injury.
Iowa: The return of left tackle Brandon Scherff anchors an Iowa line that could be a team strength this fall. Scherff will enter the fall as a leading candidate for Big Ten offensive lineman of the year. Iowa must replace two starters in right tackle Brett Van Sloten and left guard Conor Boffeli. Andrew Donnal could be the answer in Van Sloten's spot despite playing guard in 2013, while several players will compete at guard, including Tommy Gaul and Eric Simmons. Junior Austin Blythe returns at center.
Maryland: Line play will go a long way toward determining how Maryland fares in the Big Ten, and the Terrapins will make the transition with an experienced group. Four starters are back, led by center Sal Conaboy, who has started games in each of his first three seasons. Tackles Ryan Doyle and Michael Dunn bring versatility to the group, and Maryland should have plenty of options once heralded recruit Damian Prince and junior-college transfer Larry Mazyck arrive this summer. Prince is the top Big Ten offensive line recruit in the 2014 class, according to ESPN RecruitingNation. New line coach Greg Studwara brings a lot of experience to the group.
Michigan: The Wolverines' line is under the microscope this spring after a disappointing 2013 season. Michigan loses both starting tackles, including Taylor Lewan, the Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year and a projected first-round draft choice. The interior line was in flux for much of 2013, and Michigan needs development from a large group of rising sophomores and juniors, including Kyle Kalis, Kyle Bosch, Jack Miller, Graham Glasgow, and Patrick Kugler. Both starting tackle spots are open, although Ben Braden seems likely to slide in on the left side. Erik Magnuson is out for spring practice following shoulder surgery, freeing up opportunities for redshirt freshman David Dawson and others.
Michigan State: The line took a significant step forward in 2013 but loses three starters, including left guard Blake Treadwell, a co-captain. Michigan State used an eight-man rotation in 2013 and will look for development from top reserves such as Travis Jackson (Yes! Yes!) and Connor Kruse. Kodi Kieler backed up Treadwell last season and could contend for a starting job as well. Coach Mark Dantonio said this week that converted defensive linemen James Bodanis, Devyn Salmon and Noah Jones will get a chance to prove themselves this spring. It's important for MSU to show it can reload up front, and the large rotation used in 2013 should help.
Minnesota: For the first time since the Glen Mason era, Minnesota truly established the line of scrimmage and showcased the power run game in 2013. The Gophers return starters at four positions and regain Jon Christenson, the team's top center before suffering a season-ending leg injury in November. Right tackle Josh Campion and left guard Zac Epping are mainstays in the starting lineup, and players such as Tommy Olson and Ben Lauer gained some valuable experience last fall. There should be good leadership with Epping, Olson, Marek Lenkiewicz and Caleb Bak.
Nebraska: Graduation hit the line hard as five seniors depart, including 2012 All-American Spencer Long at guard and Jeremiah Sirles at tackle. Nebraska will lean on guard Jake Cotton, its only returning starter, and experienced players such as Mark Pelini, who steps into the center spot. Senior Mike Moudy is the top candidate at the other guard spot, but there should be plenty of competition at the tackle spots, where Zach Sterup, Matt Finnin and others are in the mix. Definitely a group to watch this spring.
Northwestern: Offensive line struggles undoubtedly contributed to Northwestern's disappointing 2013 season. All five starters are back along with several key reserves, and coach Pat Fitzgerald already has seen a dramatic difference in the position competitions this spring as opposed to last, when many linemen were sidelined following surgeries. Center Brandon Vitabile is the only returning starter who shouldn't have to worry about his job. Paul Jorgensen and Eric Olson opened the spring as the top tackles, and Jack Konopka, who has started at both tackle spots, will have to regain his position.
Ohio State: Like Nebraska, Ohio State enters the spring with a lot to replace up front as four starters depart from the Big Ten's best line. Taylor Decker is the only holdover and will move from right tackle to left tackle. Fifth-year senior Darryl Baldwin could step in at the other tackle spot, while Pat Elflein, who filled in for the suspended Marcus Hall late last season, is a good bet to start at guard. Jacoby Boren and Billy Price will compete at center and Joel Hale, a defensive lineman, will work at guard this spring. Ohio State has recruited well up front, and it will be interesting to see how young players such as Evan Lisle and Kyle Dodson develop.
Penn State: New coach James Franklin admits he's concerned about the depth up front despite the return of veterans Miles Dieffenbach and Donovan Smith on the left side. Guard Angelo Mangiro is the other lineman who logged significant experience in 2013, and guard/center Wendy Laurent and guard Anthony Alosi played a bit. But filling out the second string could be a challenge for Penn State, which could start a redshirt freshman (Andrew Nelson) at right tackle. The Lions have to develop some depth on the edges behind Nelson and Smith.
Purdue: The Boilers reset up front after a miserable season in which they finished 122nd out of 123 FBS teams in rushing offense (67.1 ypg). Three starters return on the interior, led by junior center Robert Kugler, and there's some continuity at guard with Jordan Roos and Justin King, both of whom started as redshirt freshmen. It's a different story on the edges as Purdue loses both starting tackles. Thursday's addition of junior-college tackle David Hedelin could be big, if Hedelin avoids a potential NCAA suspension for playing for a club team. Cameron Cermin and J.J. Prince also are among those in the mix at tackle.
Rutgers: Continuity should be a strength for Rutgers, which returns its entire starting line from 2013. But production has to be better after the Scarlet Knights finished 100th nationally in rushing and tied for 102nd in sacks allowed. Guard Kaleb Johnson considered entering the NFL draft but instead will return for his fourth season as a starter. Rutgers also brings back Betim Bujari, who can play either center or guard, as well as Keith Lumpkin, the likely starter at left tackle. It will be interesting to see if new line coach Mitch Browning stirs up the competition this spring, as younger players Dorian Miller and J.J. Denman could get a longer look.
Wisconsin: There are a lot of familiar names up front for the Badgers, who lose only one starter in guard Ryan Groy. The tackle spots look very solid with Tyler Marz (left) and Rob Havenstein (right), and Kyle Costigan started the final 11 games at right guard. There should be some competition at center, as both Dan Voltz and Dallas Lewallen have battled injuries. Coach Gary Andersen mentioned on national signing day that early enrollee Michael Deiter will enter the mix immediately at center. Another early enrollee, decorated recruit Jaden Gault, should be part of the rotation at tackle. If certain young players develop quickly this spring, Wisconsin should have no depth issues when the season rolls around.
No. 2: Right tackle
- Predecessor: Rising junior Taylor Decker held the starting job throughout last season for the Big Ten's best rushing attack, but he'll swing over to the left side with Jack Mewhort heading off to the NFL.
- Candidates: Senior Darryl Baldwin, junior Tommy Brown and redshirt sophomore Kyle Dodson
- Why to watch: For all the firepower the Buckeyes have returning at the skill positions and, more importantly, at quarterback, that might not mean all that much unless four new starters are able to get close to the level of production the veteran blockers provided over the past two seasons. Replacing all that experience and talent is no small task, but Ohio State has known this moment was coming for a while and has certainly taken steps to make sure it's prepared to move on without its core four up front. Decker's move to the high-profile gig on the left side opens up what could be a competitive battle for the starting job he left behind, particularly if Dodson is able to live up to the recruiting hype from two years ago and become a factor on the practice field during camp. The Buckeyes are likely set with Decker on the left edge, Pat Elflein at one guard spot and Jacoby Boren at center. And right tackle isn't the only battle that will be waged during practice in March and April as they audition guys for the other vacancy at guard. But Ohio State will need somebody to come in and make an instant impact without much experience at right tackle like Decker last season and Reid Fragel before him if it is going to keep the spread offense humming.
- Pre-camp edge: Much of his prior playing time has come on special teams, but Baldwin did see some action off the bench at times last season and has been in the program for years, developing physically and spending plenty of time absorbing the blocking schemes. He'll have the inside track heading into camp, and at 6-foot-6, 310 pounds, he's certainly got the size required to deal with his responsibilities at tackle. So, too, does Dodson, and he's already been publicly challenged by Urban Meyer to "show up and start playing." Those two guys figure to be under intense scrutiny leading up to the spring game, and the Buckeyes would ideally be able to settle on a clear-cut starter by then.
Even while stoking the hype machine one day earlier by talking about his chances to play right away, coach Urban Meyer called Dontre Wilson "not really a receiver."
The true freshman did a pretty good impression with the assembled media watching on Wednesday, putting on a show as a target in the passing game and making it quite clear why the Buckeyes are clearing room for him in the playbook.
Wilson's speed on the track was well documented when he signed with the program in February, and he is certainly a blur in shoulder pads and a helmet. But it was his willingness to make quick, decisive cuts up field and then pull away from defenders that was perhaps the most impressive part of the practice performance, though his reliable hands certainly stood out, too. Whether beating defenders deep on double-move routes or simply jetting through the secondary after a relatively simple out pattern, Wilson was an absolute handful throughout the morning and finished it by lining up in the slot with the first-team offense in a scrimmage setting.
"Dontre, he’s a special player," senior safety Christian Bryant said. "Right now I feel like he has a lot of attributes he can bring to the team, one of those things being one of those elusive guys out there."
The progress made as a leader has generated the most attention early in camp, but the technical strides as a passer and the pinpoint accuracy Braxton Miller showed in another solid workout are much easier to gauge.
The junior quarterback was sharp from start to finish, fitting throws into tight windows, getting the ball out quickly thanks to improved recognition of the defense and delivering it to receivers with plenty of velocity to spare as the aerial attack continues to show signs of becoming as dangerous as Meyer would like it to be.
Miller's ability to communicate with the rest of the offense and his willingness to correct teammates’ mistakes shouldn't be overlooked, either. But adding to his repertoire in the throwing game could really send his statistics to another level and produce one of the most explosive offenses in Ohio State history.
"Just his whole demeanor, his relationship with the receivers, I don’t want to say nonexistent, but I just didn’t see that," Meyer said. "He really didn’t know what he was doing, and it’s hard to lead -- part of being the leader is setting the standard and leading by example. He wasn’t leading by example, because he really didn’t know what he was doing.
"I just see a much better presence about him."
The matchup hardly seemed fair even before the snap, and it only took a couple seconds for Adolphus Washington to prove it once the play finally started.
The sophomore defensive end was easily the most disruptive force lining up on the line Wednesday morning, and when second-team tackle Kyle Dodson faced off with him in the red zone, Washington made quick work of him and a running back who tried to chip him as he bulled around the left edge for an easy sack.
Washington, too, showed a willingness despite his young age to raise his voice to teammates and offer tips to the freshmen during drills early in the workout, and he appears to be well ahead of pace in both his development as a pass-rusher and potential leader for the linemen -- a group that is replacing all four starters from a year ago.
The rigors of camp make it unusual to escape without injury, and the Buckeyes didn't even make it through four days without some issues popping up.
True freshman defensive back Jayme Thompson left practice to have his ankle examined, and the Toledo Blade confirmed through the his father that the bone was broken and he'll be out for three months. Devan Bogard's return from a season-ending injury last year has apparently been slowed by a knee strain, and the Buckeyes still don't have Corey Linsley back to full speed at center following his foot surgery in the offseason.
But the biggest scare for Ohio State might have been the apparent ankle injury for senior left guard Andrew Norwell, an issue that kept him off the field for the latter stages of the workout and pressed redshirt freshman Pat Elflein into the rotation to replace the veteran. Norwell didn't look to be seriously harmed, but at one of the two positions along with linebacker that Meyer is most worried about the lack of depth, the Buckeyes will obviously err on the side of caution to make sure he's fully ready to go before putting him back on the field again.
While Michigan and Ohio State go at the recruiting process differently -- or more to the point, Brady Hoke and Urban Meyer -- both strategies work.
Hoke has the No. 1 2014 recruiting class right now. Michigan held the same distinction at this point last year before falling to No. 6. And no one closes quite like Meyer.
We’ll try to keep to five questions a week to give everyone a chance to get their answers.
We encourage you to send your questions by Twitter at @bbournival, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by posting a question in the Horseshoe Pit forum.
Here’s the latest installment.
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- Who's back: The line as a whole returns almost entirely in one piece, but there is one huge cog missing heading into the second season of the spread offense at Ohio State. Jack Mewhort blossomed into one of the nastiest, stoutest blockers in the Big Ten last year, and the Buckeyes are expecting even more from him both on the field and off as a senior. They'll need that production and stability from him on the left side with Reid Fragel out of eligibility and heading to the NFL after his banner campaign at right tackle, transforming himself from a reserve tight end into one of the most reliable members of the offensive front. After dueling with Fragel nearly all the way through training camp in August, Taylor Decker is primed to take over the starting duties opposite Mewhort as the Buckeyes try to take the offense to an even higher level.
- New face: Despite finishing with the No.3 recruiting class in the country, the Buckeyes didn't land as many signatures from linemen as they wanted, which clearly seemed to bother Urban Meyer as he looks toward the future and sees four seniors who will be gone after next season. That experience is obviously a huge blessing for Ohio State at the moment, but neither Evan Lisle nor Tim Gardner have enrolled yet and won't be able to get a jump on their development in the trenches until the fall.
- Projected depth chart: Mewhort will anchor the line at left tackle again, with Daryl Baldwin likely hanging on to the backup job he held last season. Decker is poised to take over the starting gig at right tackle, with competition for the second-team spot open for guys like Kyle Dodson, Chase Farris or Antonio Underwood as they try to crack the rotation.
- Numbers game: There might not have been enough depth to ever let the coaching staff exhale, but the Buckeyes never had to find out what would happen if one of the starters went down with a significant injury. The first-team line was the most stable group on the team during the perfect season, combining to make every start and provide invaluable continuity for a dominant rushing attack and the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten.
- One to watch: The flipping of Dodson from Wisconsin was cause for a huge celebration for the Buckeyes on signing day a year ago, but a shoulder injury kept him on the shelf during his first year with the team and ended up forcing him to redshirt. Given time to fully recover and dig into the conditioning program, the 6-foot-5, 315-pound athlete should be able to start showing what all the fuss was about. Decker has the edge going into camp after battling Fragel for playing time a year ago, but now it's Dodson's turn to dial up the pressure and fight for work.
- He said it: "Jack Mewhort is already there, he's already a leader. We're asking him to take over a position that maybe a [John] Simon took, the overall heart. I love him, he's a tough guy." -- Meyer in January
While the Buckeyes could get all three or strike out and be done with the class as it sits now, that remains to be seen.
That said a late-day snare -- even as late as national signing day -- isn’t out of the question.
Last year, Ohio State was able to score three commitments at the last second to shore up what became the sixth-ranked class in the nation.
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When outside linebacker Christopher Worley gave his yes to the school on Friday during an official visit, and cornerback Damon Webb did the same Sunday on an unofficial one, many questions were answered.
Vonn Bell didn’t walk away with a commitment, but the news coming out of Columbus, Ohio wasn’t bad as the ESPN 150 safety really liked his visit and has the Buckeyes still in the mix.
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On the job 13 1/2 months with the Buckeyes, the two-time national champion’s early returns show just how strong he is at slamming the door shut on a class.
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- Who: Ohio State was unsettled even midway through training camp as it looked to fill the last available spot on the offensive line, but it clearly found a winner after Reid Fragel nudged ahead in the position battle and never looked back. The converted tight end bulked up his body and soaked up the technique at right tackle, and his nasty blocking in the run game and reliable work in protection provided an invaluable boost for the spread offense in Urban Meyer's first season. It stands to reason that Fragel could have been even more special as a lineman if he'd been able to spend more than one year there, but that development will now come after a likely selection in the NFL draft this spring.
- By the numbers: The Buckeyes featured a power rushing attack before Meyer arrived, but he took it to an even higher level with his spread offense thanks to the physical blocking he got from all five spots up front -- including the somewhat surprising work done by Fragel sealing the edge or pancaking linebackers at the second level. Ohio State averaged 191 yards per game on the ground the season before Meyer arrived, and despite his spread reputation, he backed up his repeated claims that a rushing attack really makes it hum by bumping that number up to 242 behind Fragel and his big buddies.
- Job description: The Buckeyes will be returning four experienced starters on the line, so the new member is going to have plenty of assistance as he breaks into the rotation. With Corey Linsley and Jack Mewhort back, for example, Ohio State certainly isn't going to need somebody to come in and try to be a leader. What it will need is an athletic player capable of keeping Braxton Miller clean in the pocket and displaying enough mobility and strength to keep up with a rushing attack that will essentially return completely intact. The only thing missing is a right tackle, and the spotlight will be on the guy filling Fragel's big shoes.
- Top candidates: The job was nearly Taylor Decker's in training camp, though the true freshman ultimately came up short in his tight battle with the veteran, physically-developed Fragel. The edge Decker did have back in August was that he's a natural lineman who was more technically sound as a blocker, and with another offseason to build his body, the future is bright for the rising sophomore heading into spring practice and a training camp where he's likely to be the clear favorite to join the first unit.
- One to watch: The Buckeyes kept Kyle Dodson stashed away on the bench for a season after his high-profile recruitment and decision to sign with Meyer a year ago, but he'll have a chance to show he's ready to put his considerable athleticism and talent on display after being slowed by a shoulder surgery that set back his growth initially. Decker has a head start, of course, but a healthy and energized Dodson should at least be able to provide some depth up front.
The ESPN 300 wide receiver also made it clear Ohio State is way out in the lead of his list of suitors after taking an unofficial visit on Saturday.
The fact he was the first Buckeyes target to jump the fence and storm the field following Ohio State’s 26-21 win over Michigan was a telling sign about just how much the 5-foot-11, 173-pound senior likes OSU. He ran on the artificial turf to be part of the celebration as Ohio State finished its undefeated season under first-year coach Urban Meyer.
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As the days dwindle until national signing day, attention has turned to which players Urban Meyer and Co. might roll their way in an all-important 2013 recruiting class for Ohio State.
Some look at Tony Stevens (Orlando, Fla./Evans) or Trey Johnson (Lawrenceville, Ga./Central Gwinnett). However, if odds were set, the most likely candidate is one most fans already know about.
Gareon Conley (Massillon, Ohio/Washington) has made it no secret that he wants to take visits -- whether official or unofficial -- before giving Michigan his signature.
A longtime Wolverine pledge, the cornerback has said he chose Michigan because no other big-name schools were really after him.
The Wolverines were the only visit Conley took, but now that he has interest from schools including Oregon and Ohio State he wants to see what they’re all about, even if that means he is no longer committed to Michigan.
The Ducks have shown strong interest, while Ohio State has extended an offer.