Ohio State Buckeyes: Vonn Bell

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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.
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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."

Big Ten's lunch links

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
12:00
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I've been to Storrs. I don't know how UConn keeps doing it.

Big Ten Friday mailblog

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
4:30
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Last mail call before the weekend. Don't forget to follow us on Twitter. Join the 100K strong.

Let's get started ...

Bob from Cary, N.C., writes: How do we measure the competitive strength of East vs. West over time? My hunch is that over the next five to 10 years Maryland/Rutgers will flourish and Iowa/Minnesota/Illinois will flounder. The West teams will be less visible in the media of NYC/DC and recruiting areas of Ohio/Pennsylvania. This very scenario was a factor in Nebraska's decision to leave the B12. Can the B1G avoid the obvious disparity between East and West over time?

Adam Rittenberg: Bob, ultimately you measure the divisions by which teams are winning league titles and which division has more strength at the top. The East Division appears to have an edge, but I don't know if Rutgers or Maryland will flourish simply because of its location. Both programs must invest a lot more into football to keep pace with programs that have more tradition and more resources. Big Ten revenues undoubtedly will help both newcomers, but it's not easy to compete with Ohio State, Michigan and others.

It's important for West Division teams to maintain a presence in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and to recruit well in the new areas. Remember that Illinois had a huge recruiting presence in Washington, D.C., when Mike Locksley was on staff. The Illini didn't need Maryland in the league or the Big Ten TV presence in the market to have success. Do West Division teams have some geographic challenges? Sure. But the right coaches and the right recruiting approaches -- combined with winning -- should keep the divisions balanced enough.


Kenny from Cincinnati writes: Vonn Bell is injured for the spring but as a safety, how important are those practices? I feel like by now they know his abilities. I think watching film and terminology work might actually be more beneficial for a young upstart with a new coach. But then again maybe I am looking for a positive in a suspect secondary.

Adam Rittenberg: Bell is still just a sophomore, Kenny, so he could have benefited from the practices, especially with a new safeties coach -- and co-defensive coordinator -- in Chris Ash. But Ohio State saw what Bell could do in a starting role in the Orange Bowl, where he had an interception and seven tackles. Bell could have locked up a starting safety spot with a strong spring, but he'll still have time to impress Ash in the summer. Ash told me last month that safety Tyvis Powell, along with cornerback Doran Grant, had really stood out in the offseason. I'd be surprised if Powell doesn't start at one safety spot. Bell must earn the other.


Rob from New York writes: I find that one of the underdiscussed factors in the Big Ten's recent, drastic decline has been the improvement of the MAC and, as it's related, the Big Ten's inability to pull in those athletes. There's really no reason why Khalil Mack should be playing for Buffalo instead of any of the Big Ten schools. Jordan Lynch should be playing for Illinois or Northwestern, but he went to NIU. Same story with Eric Fisher, why wasn't he at Michigan or Michigan State? I'd say part of this has to do with the fact that recruiting networks aren't the same in the North as they are in the South, but it's hard not to blame the Big Ten coaches as well.

Adam Rittenberg: Rob, I agree there are some excellent MAC players who could have helped Big Ten teams. Mack, Lynch and Fisher certainly are three of them. But is the MAC really an improved league? I say no. The MAC has declined since the early part of the 2000s, when you had Marshall, Miami (Ohio), Bowling Green and Toledo surging, and Northern Illinois was starting to break through. Sure, the MAC records some upset wins every season, but Northern Illinois was outclassed in the Orange Bowl and no other league squad has reached a BCS bowl. Maybe Bowling Green will change things, but this league isn't the TCU-BYU-Utah Mountain West. I agree that the MAC has some great players overlooked by bigger schools in recruiting. But that always has been true, just as it is in the Sun Belt, Conference USA, etc. As a league, the MAC, much like the Big Ten, leaves something to be desired.


Anthony from Arlington, Va., writes: Great choice on the week 8 trip to College Park for the Iowa/Maryland game. I'm not sure if you're aware, but the Iowa alumni base in the DMV is huge. So huge, in fact, that I anticipate one-third of Byrd Stadium will be Hawkeye fans. I'll even make a bet. If it's less then drinks are on me postgame. If I'm right, you get to shake your rump to the victory polka!

Adam Rittenberg: Anthony, there are several Big Ten fan bases with a sizable presence in the area. Indiana and Penn State are two others. These existing Big Ten pockets contributed to the league's decision to pursue Maryland. OK, you really want to see me dance the polka? I'll tell you what. If my editors actually send me to Iowa-Maryland, you've got a deal. Just make sure there are no cameras around.


Jon from Chicago writes: Any word on if MSU and Oregon will have new uniforms from Nike for their game this fall? It'd be a great idea, right, especially since this will be one of the biggest games of the year.

Adam Rittenberg: Jon, nothing has been finalized yet, but I would fully expect Nike to make a splash for the game. Oregon has a vast array of uniform combinations, and Michigan State has unveiled a few new versions in recent seasons. Maybe instead of the green vs. green pairing, we'll get something like this from the Ducks and something equally wacky/non-traditional from MSU. As long as the recruits like it, right?

Early OSU observations: No. 4

March, 11, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State’s two practices to open camp before taking the week off for spring break gives one a peek at some new faces and a couple changes. While the Buckeyes are gearing up for the sprint to the finish of spring workouts, we’re looking at the early developments and what they mean moving forward for Urban Meyer’s team.

No. 4: Safeties getting squeezed

[+] EnlargeVonn Bell
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMISafety Vonn Bell's knee surgery knocks him out for the spring.
The process was never expected to go smoothly or easily, but Ohio State surely could have done without a setback popping up on the first day of camp as it set out to repair its damaged pass defense.

Urban Meyer made clear that a few coverage breakdowns were to be expected as the Buckeyes installed a more aggressive scheme in the secondary, and so he wasn’t troubled by the big plays that were given up as practice opened with the offense clearly getting the better of the defense. He also recognized that there wasn’t enough depth at safety for his liking, but losing projected starter Vonn Bell to knee surgery for the rest of spring after that first workout might have been more difficult for Meyer to stomach than a few deep balls completed to wide-open receivers.

Bell is expected to be back to full speed by May after the minor procedure for a tear in his medial collateral ligament, more than enough time to allow him to take advantage of the offseason program and get physically ready for his critical role on the back line. But with new co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash installing his new system, reps in March and April would have been invaluable for Bell, particularly because Meyer expressed confidence only in him, Cam Burrows and returning starter Tyvis Powell as options at safety.

The Buckeyes have two newcomers on the way in the fall, but the lack of depth at the position during the spring might be unsettling for a team that was devastated by just one key injury during the season, as everything fell apart after losing Christian Bryant in late September. Bell’s injury isn’t nearly as serious, but it offered a quick reminder that the secondary is going to hit some potholes on the road to rebuilding.
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.
Tags:

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.

Players to watch in spring: No. 2

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The offseason conditioning program is in full swing. Signing day has come and gone. Blink and spring practice will already be here.

[+] EnlargeVonn Bell
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMIThe Buckeyes need safety Vonn Bell to be a game-changer in 2014.
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 title again in the fall. The series flips to the defensive side of the ball today at a spot that will be critical in the secondary.

No. 2: Vonn Bell, safety

  • By the numbers: The debut season for the defensive back was largely spent on special teams as he chipped in 19 tackles, but he ended the season on a high note by earning the start in the Discover Orange Bowl and nabbing his first career interception.
  • What’s at stake: The Buckeyes had all kinds of problems defending the pass a year ago, and that was with a group of experienced veterans who were supposed to make the secondary a team strength. Now they have to replace safeties Christian Bryant, C.J. Barnett and Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown, not to mention cornerback Bradley Roby, and it will be up to a couple of classes stocked with some of the most sought-after recruits in the country at the position to prove the Buckeyes are in good hands moving forward and capable of exceeding the low standard that was set last season. The buzz around Bell that started with his signing-day decision to join Ohio State a year ago has only become louder with his performance in the loss to Clemson, and the defense desperately needs him to be a game-changer in the secondary.
  • Best-case scenario: There’s no question Bell will be lining up with the first team when camp opens in March, and there’s not much doubt that he’ll be staying in that spot for a while. New co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash was brought in to mold the Buckeyes into a more aggressive outfit, and that figures to be well-suited to Bell’s athletic ability given both his reputation and the glimpse of his talents at the end of last season. Ohio State will also be monitoring the partnership with the other expected starter at safety, and developing chemistry between Tyvis Powell and Bell in the spring could go a long way toward repairing the beleaguered defense in the fall.
In the coming days, I'll take a closer look at whether the Big Ten would benefit from having prospects take official visits earlier, such as at the end of their junior years in high school. It's an idea Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo has championed, and one that makes since because of the accelerated recruiting cycle and the far-flung locations of some Big Ten schools.

Some Big Ten teams might not benefit from earlier official visits. They have no trouble getting recruits to campus and piling up early commits. Others must play the waiting game and make strong pushes before national signing day. Coaching changes can make an impact when teams get verbal commits, as Penn State has learned in recent weeks. Recruits also have been more likely to flip pledges leading up to signing day, forcing some teams to scramble to fill spots.

We're a day away from the big day, and while there are a few key undecided recruits who will make their choices Wednesday, most of the hay is in the barn, so to speak.

When did Big Ten teams get their 2014 recruits to verbally commit? Here's a closer look (as of Monday night):

ILLINOIS

Total commits: 18 (four already have signed)

March-May 2013: 4
June-July: 8
August-September: 0
October: 1
November: 0
December: 4
January: 1
February: 0

INDIANA

Total commits: 25 (six have signed)

March-May 2013: 0
June: 5
July: 4
August: 0
September: 1
October: 3
November: 0
December: 2
January: 6
February: 4

IOWA

Total commits: 21

January-April 2013: 2
June: 5
July: 3
August: 2
September: 1
October: 1
November: 2
December: 1
January: 4

MICHIGAN

Total commits: 16 (seven have signed)

August 2012: 1
February 2013: 3
April-May: 7
June: 3
July: 1
August: 1
September-February: 0

MICHIGAN STATE

Total commits: 21 (two have signed)

August 2012: 1
September 2012: 1
April-May 2013: 5
June: 4
July: 1
August: 1
September: 2
October: 0
November: 1
December: 3
January: 1
February: 1

MINNESOTA

Total commits: 19 (two have signed)

February-April 2013: 3
May: 0
June-July: 3
August: 0
September: 1
October: 1
November: 2
December: 1
January: 6
February: 2

NEBRASKA

Total commits: 26 (two have signed)

March 2013: 1
April-May: 0
June: 7
July: 3
August: 1
September: 0
October: 1
November: 2
December: 2
January: 6
February: 3

NORTHWESTERN

Total commits: 16 (one has enrolled)

March-April 2013: 4
May: 5
June: 1
July-November: 0
December: 3
January: 1
February: 2

OHIO STATE

Total commits: 22 (seven have signed)

December 2012: 1
January-February 2013: 3
March-May: 4
June: 5
July: 2
August: 1
September: 1
October-November: 0
December: 2
January: 3
February: 0

PENN STATE

Total commits: 25 (five have enrolled)

October 2012: 1
February-April 2013: 5
May: 2
June-July: 3
August-September: 0
October: 3
November: 1
December: 1
January: 8
February: 1

PURDUE

Total commits: 20 (two have signed)

May 2013: 2
June: 3
July: 1
August-September: 0
October: 1
November: 1
December: 8
January: 3
February: 1

WISCONSIN

Total commits: 27 (four have signed)

April 2012: 1
August 2012: 1
September 2012: 1
May 2013: 2
June-July: 5
August: 0
September: 2
October: 3
November: 5
December: 3
January: 2
February: 2

Notes/comments
  • The James Franklin effect certainly can be seen in Penn State's class, as all nine recruits who committed in January or February did so after Franklin's hiring on Jan. 11. Franklin flipped several prospects from his former team, Vanderbilt, and also brought in some surprises during a furious push down the stretch.
  • Early recruiting has been a hallmark for Brady Hoke at Michigan, and it's no surprise to see the Wolverines basically done with their 2014 class before the season. Michigan had 21 of its 27 recruits in the 2013 class verbally commit before the 2012 season.
  • Iowa's commit pattern was the steadiest in the league, as the Hawkeyes received at least one pledge every month between June 2013 and January 2014.
  • Nebraska has accelerated its recruiting pace in each of the last two years. The Huskers had just five verbal commits before the season in the 2012 class but doubled that total in the 2013 class and have 12 in the 2014 crop. Nebraska is one of the Big Ten schools that seemingly could benefit from earlier official visits because of its location in relation to recruiting hotbeds.
  • Gary Andersen's first full recruiting class at Wisconsin is a huge one, and Andersen and his staff did much of their work both during and after the 2013 season. Seventeen of Wisconsin's 27 pledges came after the games began.
  • Northwestern stockpiled commits early on and would have been done in mid-December after Parrker Westphal's pledge, but two prospects (Noah Westerfield and Jordan Thomas) decommited last month, forcing the Wildcats to make some late additions.
  • Ohio State's recruiting is following a somewhat familiar pattern under Urban Meyer: strong winter and spring, a few summer pickups, relatively quiet during the season and then a nice push from mid-December to early January. The Buckeyes have landed some of their best prospects late in the process, from 2013 recruits Mike Mitchell and Vonn Bell to 2014 standout Raekwon McMillan.
  • Purdue and Minnesota tend to add the bulk of their commits later in the process. The Boilers added 12 commits in the 2013 class following Darrell Hazell's hiring in early December, and 12 of their 20 commits in this year's class came after Dec. 1. Minnesota picked up nine of its 19 commits in the current class after Dec. 1 -- a similar ratio as it had in the 2013 class.
Last week, we took a look at five Big Ten offensive players to watch in 2014. Today, we turn to the defense.

We're limiting ourselves to five players on each side of the ball. We're looking for players who will take that next step into greatness, like Michigan State's Shilique Calhoun (who made this list a year ago). Players who earned first- or second-team All-Big Ten honors from either the coaches or the media were not eligible for this list. We're focusing instead on those who can make a big leap.

Away we go, in alphabetical order ...

[+] EnlargeVonn Bell
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesAfter a big first start in the Orange Bowl, things are looking bright for Ohio State's Vonn Bell (11).
Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State: We could have put Joey Bosa on this list, but that would have been too easy. Bell got his first start in the Discover Orange Bowl and showed off his playmaking ability with a spectacular interception of Clemson's Tajh Boyd near his own end zone. He probably should have played more as a true freshman but has a chance to really break out as a sophomore in a revamped Buckeyes secondary.

Desmond King, CB, Iowa: He played well this season as a rookie starter for the Hawkeyes and stood out in the Outback Bowl against LSU's pair of star receivers. In fact, the Tigers' Odell Beckham Jr. told the Des Moines Register that "I feel as if the sky is the limit for him."

Ifeadi Odenigbo, DE, Northwestern: He was one of the Wildcats' top-rated recruits ever when he signed in 2012, and Odenigbo made his first impact this year as a third-down pass-rushing specialist. He finished second on the team with 5.5 sacks. The redshirt sophomore should have more opportunities for playing time with Tyler Scott graduating, though Northwestern still has Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson at defensive end.

Vincent Valentine, DT, Nebraska: The future is bright for the Huskers' young defense, and we strongly considered linebacker Michael Rose, safety Corey Cooper and others here. But there aren't a lot of 325-pound defensive tackles with major upside floating around, and that's what Valentine is. He showed flashes during his redshirt freshman campaign and could develop into a force on that defensive line for Bo Pelini.

Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State: Waynes is hardly an unknown. He started as a sophomore in the Spartans' No-Fly Zone secondary and was honorable mention All-Big Ten. He still has room to get even better, though, and with Darqueze Dennard moving on to the NFL, he'll become the leader of the cornerbacks group. Heck, the way Michigan State has produced defensive studs, we could have made this entire list out of Spartans, as guys like Lawrence Thomas, Joel Heath, Ed Davis and Riley Bullough all have major potential.

OSU offseason to-do list: Defense

January, 9, 2014
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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

Big Ten's lunch links

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
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Penn State must be cramming a century's worth of silly seasons into one. Welcome to the party.
  • The search for a coach at Penn State is overshadowing another important vacancy at the school, one that will have an impact that's more than just on the football field.
  • An evening flight back to town for Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner drew a crowd, but it didn't bring a resolution just yet for filling the void left by Bill O'Brien's departure.
  • Michigan started a busy day of its own on the coaching front by firing offensive coordinator Al Borges after the Wolverines finished No. 47 in scoring last season.
  • Brady Hoke capped the day by snatching away Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier just a few hours later to quickly move on from Borges.
  • Vonn Bell was given the chance to show his stuff in a meaningful game at the Discover Orange Bowl, and it confirmed how bright the Ohio State safety's future is with the program.
  • The possible hiring of Bobby Petrino at Louisville is another bullet dodged if Michigan State is going to hang on to defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who was once again a prime candidate for an attractive job.
  • The fake Bo Pelini speaks.
  • The projections of his draft stock aren't all that high, but Indiana receiver Cody Latimer felt he was ready for the next level and isn't looking back on his decision.
  • Maryland lost its second assistant since the regular season ended to a head-coaching job after wide receivers coach and ace recruiter Lee Hull left for Morgan State. The Terrapins currently have three vacancies on the staff as they prepare for their first season in the Big Ten.
  • Purdue will have a minor behind-the-scenes shakeup after assistant recruiting coordinator Kevin Maurice, credited by coach Darrell Hazell for his work in the transition a year ago, left for a job at North Dakota.

Freshman focus: Bowl springboard

January, 7, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The outcome wasn't what Ohio State was hoping for last weekend as the season ended with a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl, but the Buckeyes did have a handful of standout performances from freshmen, including what effectively amounted to a debut. Here's a closer look at a handful of young Buckeyes who figure to be playing crucial roles in 2014 and could ride the momentum from strong Orange Bowl performances.

[+] EnlargeVonn Bell
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesVonn Bell celebrates with teammates after his interception of Tajh Boyd in the Discover Orange Bowl.
S Vonn Bell: The Buckeyes had every intention of taking it slow with perhaps the crown jewel of the 2013 signing class, and they stuck with that plan even after the season-ending loss of Christian Bryant cut down on the talent and experience ahead of Bell in the rotation. But after the two-game defensive skid against Michigan and Michigan State highlighted Ohio State's suspect defense, the coaching staff took the training wheels off and plugged Bell into the starting lineup at nickelback to really see what he could do. The Buckeyes certainly weren't disappointed with his willingness to stick his nose in and deliver a hit as Bell finished with seven tackles, and his red-zone interception will ramp up the hype heading into spring practice. The soft throw from Tajh Boyd might have been ill advised, but it might have worked if not for the quick reactions and incredible athleticism of Bell as he jumped, stretched out his right arm and hauled in a crucial turnover. There won't be any more waiting for playing time for the safety, and he's headed toward a full-time role on every down, not just in nickel situations.

DE Joey Bosa: The ability to disrupt an offense with his mix of speed, size and aggressiveness wasn't a new development, as he spent most of the season in the starting lineup, but Bosa still found a way to raise the bar for his potential in the final game of the season. Clearly not at full strength and helped off the field because of injuries on two separate occasions, Bosa fought through the pain to chip in five tackles and tacked on another sack to his resume to give him 7.5 during his freshman season, only adding to the buzz about his future as a cornerstone on what could be a scary defensive front. There wasn't any reason to question his toughness in the first place, but he was given a big stage to show it off in the Orange Bowl and clearly didn't leave any doubt about his competitiveness, which augments his natural ability.

RB Dontre Wilson: The number of chances to make an impact was relatively small, but it was how Wilson used his opportunities that offered a glimpse at how far he's already come. The freshman handled the football plenty for a first-year player, and he demonstrated his explosive capabilities several times in averaging 8.8 yards per touch as a hybrid receiver/running back. But there were times when Wilson seemed to either miss holes or spent too much time trying to reach the corner, looking for a home run instead of turning a play upfield and simply taking the yardage available. That made his three carries against the Tigers stand out as an improvement. Wilson was more than willing to put his foot in the ground, square his pads and head down the field in his final game of the season, and while those 24 yards might not look great on the stats sheet, the way he picked them up indicates a maturing skill player who should be poised for a breakout sophomore season.
Now that the 2013 college football season is officially in the books (thank you, Florida State, for ending our SEC nightmare), it's natural to take an early look toward 2014.

Much will change between now and August. Heck, much will change between now and spring practice. But for right now, the 2014 Big Ten season is shaping up as one that possibly lacks a clear-cut, slam-dunk favorite in either of the new East or West divisions.

In colleague Mark Schlabach's way-too-early Top 25 for next season, Michigan State tops all league teams by checking in at No. 6. Makes plenty of sense, as the Spartans went 13-1, won the Rose Bowl over Stanford and return the vast majority of their offense, along with a solid core on that outstanding defense.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Clemons
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesBrandon Clemons and the Spartans are a likely favorite in the Big Ten East in 2014.
But Michigan State does lose several defensive stars, including Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis. The Spartans also will have to play in the same division, the East, as Ohio State. The Buckeyes check in at No. 9 in Schlabach's rankings, and colleague Travis Haney goes so far as to predict that Urban Meyer's team will make the College Football Playoff next year.

"I have held all along that the Buckeyes, close as they were in 2013, were built for '14," Haney writes. "The talented 2013 freshman class that Urban Meyer brought in [ranked third in the nation according to ESPN's RecruitingNation] had bright spots, such as Joey Bosa at defensive end, but it'll really start to have an impact next season. The defense could quickly go from liability to strength, with young players such as Bosa, safety Vonn Bell and end Noah Spence becoming bigger pieces."

I think there's a lot of truth to that about the defense, which started six freshmen or sophomores against Clemson in the Orange Bowl loss. But Ohio State also loses Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby from a defense that struggled down the stretch, and the offense must replace 80 percent of the offensive line, leading rusher Carlos Hyde and leading receiver Philly Brown. Plus, the Buckeyes have to play at Michigan State.

Those two will headline the new East, and it's up to teams like Michigan and Penn State to get better and make that more than a two-team race. The West Division looks even more wide open.

Schlabach ranks Wisconsin No. 15, which comes as a bit of a surprise considering all of the valuable seniors the Badgers lose on defense, plus receiver Jared Abbrederis. The Badgers also have to open the season against LSU, though the schedule is much more favorable after that with no Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State on the docket.

Iowa checks in at No. 21 in Schlabach's rankings and has to be considered a West contender after going 8-4 in the regular season. The Hawkeyes' offense could make strides in 2014 with most of the key pieces returning, but replacing those three senior starting linebackers won't be easy.

Schlabach does not rank Nebraska, which surprises me. The Huskers finished 9-4, which apparently is an annual federal requirement under Bo Pelini, and bring back just about everybody on defense, plus Ameer Abdullah, Tommy Armstrong Jr., Kenny Bell and several other key players on offense. If forced to choose right now, I'd make Nebraska the West favorite, even though the Huskers have to go to Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State in the fall.

Northwestern figures to bounce back from an incredibly unlucky 2013, and Minnesota won eight games with a lot of young players in major roles this year. Neither can be counted out in the division.

The East looks stronger at the top in 2014 than the West, at least for now. But unlike the 2013 season, when Ohio State was the clear favorite after going 12-0 the previous year, there's no slam-dunk, clear-cut favorite in either division.

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."

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