OSU Buckeyes: Zach Boren
2012 conference record: 8-0 (first, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1
Top returners: QB Braxton Miller, RB Carlos Hyde, WR Philly Brown, LT Jack Mewhort, C Corey Linsley, CB Bradley Roby, SAF Christian Bryant, SAF C.J. Barnett, LB Ryan Shazier
Key losses: RT Reid Fragel, WR Jake Stoneburner, DE John Simon, DE Nathan Williams, DT Johnathan Hankins, DT Garrett Goebel, FB/LB Zach Boren, LB Etienne Sabino, CB Travis Howard
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Miller* (1,271 yards, 13 TDs)
Passing: Miller* (2,039 yards, 15 TDs, 6 INTs)
Receiving: Brown* (60 catches, 669 yards, 3 TDs)
Tackles: Shazier* (115)
Sacks: Simon (9)
Interceptions: Howard (4)
1. End game: The Buckeyes have to replace all four starters up front, and while the defensive line isn't quite as deep and is far from a finished product, the future looks pretty bright on the edge. Sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were among the top prizes in Urban Meyer's first recruiting class with the Buckeyes, and that talent is already starting to shine through as they slide into first-team roles heading into the fall. Spence is a dynamic force with his ability to use speed to get to the quarterback, and Washington isn't exactly sluggish despite all the strength in his 293-pound frame. The two combined for seven sacks in the spring game, and the Buckeyes are expecting similar performances when it actually counts.
2. Air it out: Miller has proven what he can do with his legs, and Ohio State didn't really need to see him show them off in the spring. The emphasis was on continuing to develop the junior quarterback as a passer, which meant a heavy dose of play calls forcing him to put the ball in the air and a quick whistle if he tried to scramble. The results for Meyer were encouraging. His efficient, 16-for-25, 217-yard performance in the spring game showed a much more accurate delivery and better decision-making that hints at bigger things from the fifth-place finisher in last year's Heisman Trophy race.
3. Backfield stable: One thing that might keep Hyde from giving Meyer a 1,000-yard running back this season is all the teammates fighting to snag a few of his carries. The rising senior is the clear cut No. 1 to partner with Miller in the backfield, and Hyde didn't have to earn that job in the spring after piling up touchdowns last fall and finally tapping into his enormous potential as a rusher. But while he was watching some reps, Rod Smith, Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball all showed their upside this spring, which has the Buckeyes even toying with a diamond formation that gets three tailbacks on the field at the same time.
1. Filling out the front seven: Shazier is certainly a fine place for any defense to start, but the Buckeyes would obviously prefer if there were at least one other returning starter joining him in the front seven. There are high hopes again for junior Curtis Grant at middle linebacker, but he's been tabbed as a first-team guy before coming out of spring only to fizzle in the fall. Ohio State will need Grant and sophomore Joshua Perry to help lead the charge as it tries to add depth and talent at linebacker to stabilize a defense that will feature a lot of new faces.
2. Fresh blood: There wasn't a great option to fill Meyer's vaunted H-back position last fall, so the Buckeyes effectively had to put the hybrid spot, made famous by Percy Harvin at Florida, on the shelf. Jordan Hall's return from injury makes him a candidate to diversify the offense, but a handful of recruits the Buckeyes landed in Meyer's second class would could really take the spread to another level. Speed-burners such as Dontre Wilson or Jalin Marshall will be watched closely in August as they could become factors for the Buckeyes as early as September.
3. Something special: If the Buckeyes score as easily and often as it appears they might, maybe it won't matter who handles the kicking game. But Meyer has always taken pride in his special teams, and at this point there is still some uncertainty as Drew Basil is pressed into action as both a kicker and a punter. In the big picture, the changes on defense are far more critical -- but close games usually pop up along the way for teams trying to win a championship, and Basil might need to pass some tests for the Buckeyes.
There is no shortage of film on what the former Ohio State captain can do at fullback after spending the majority of his career throwing his body around as a blocker and building himself into perhaps the best player at the position in the Big Ten.
While there’s not as much to work with on the defensive side of the ball, Boren also has those six productive games at linebacker to highlight on his resume after his stunningly effective switch in the middle of his senior season.
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If Urban Meyer had placed a banner with the words "The Chase" in Ohio State's indoor practice facility last spring, he might have been asked, "For what?"
Sure, football players are always chasing something, as Meyer noted Tuesday when asked about the big, bold banner now hanging at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. That "something" can be localized: a starting job, a bigger role in the offense or defense, a scholarship, a coach's approval.
But Ohio State couldn't chase many tangible team goals last spring. The Buckeyes couldn't chase a Big Ten championship or a national championship because of NCAA sanctions. They only found out in September that they could chase a Leaders Division title. Undoubtedly their greatest attribute was an ability to chase the grandest goal they could -- a perfect 12-0 regular season, capped by a win against archrival Michigan -- and achieve it.
The banner makes much more sense now. Ohio State has emerged from the shadow of postseason probation and can chase whatever it wants, including the crystal football that has eluded the Scarlet and Gray -- and the rest of the Big Ten -- for more than a decade.
Photo/Ohio State Athletics Communications The above banner is prominently displayed in Ohio State's indoor practice facility.
Meyer and his players can stop there for now. They should, as it's only spring practice. But "The Chase" will be a theme throughout Ohio State's offseason as bigger, broader goals are back on the table.
"Everybody’s got big dreams," Meyer said, "and we as a football team have some dreams."
Ohio State can dream big primarily because of an offense that transformed in 2012, rising from 81st nationally in scoring to 21st and from 107th in total yards to 47th. Quarterback Braxton Miller blossomed in Meyer's system, racking up a team-record 3,310 yards of offense, earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors and finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Miller, who spent part of his winter break working with noted quarterback instructor George Whitfield in California, leads a unit that returns nine starters, including four linemen. Ohio State also regains the services of versatile running back Jordan Hall, who missed most of last season because of injury and turned heads during Tuesday's practice.
After delivering scathing -- and accurate -- critiques of Miller, the receivers and the entire offense last spring, Meyer has a much rosier outlook these days. Tuesday, he called Miller's footwork "outstanding" and praised Hall and several other skill players.
"Last year, who knew what as going to happen," the coach said. "I think the appropriate term was 'clown show' at this time. I don't feel like [it's] a clown show."
If Miller makes strides as a passer, Ohio State should have its most potent offense since the 2006 season, when the Buckeyes played for the national championship (coincidentally against Meyer's Florida Gators). The key to the spring -- and to the season, really -- is whether Ohio State produces a typical Ohio State defense. Otherwise, Meyer says, any discussion about "those two words that we don’t use very often" is pointless.
The spring spotlight shines brightest on the defensive front seven. Ohio State lost all four starting linemen from 2012, including Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year John Simon and massive tackle Johnathan Hankins, a possible first-round draft pick. Talented young linemen such as Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence got a taste last fall, and Meyer's staff has recruited extremely well up front, but others must emerge to fill out the rotation. Meyer on Tuesday challenged players such as Steve Miller and Chris Carter to do so.
All-Big Ten selection Ryan Shazier returns at linebacker, but depth remains a major concern for a group that needed fullback Zach Boren to fill a starting role midway through the 2012 season.
"If we put together a good D-line and linebackers, I think we'll have a good team," Meyer said. "If not, we won’t. It's pretty simple."
There's also a leadership void to fill this spring. Players such as Simon and Boren made sure the Buckeyes kept up the chase in 2012. Meyer expressed concern last spring at how the team would handle its first brush with failure. Thanks to the seniors, it never happened as Ohio State recorded only the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history.
The torch has passed to players like Miller, a quiet kid from a quiet family whose voice must be heard more in 2013.
"He needs to be a better leader," offensive coordinator Tom Herman told reporters last month.
Other likely leaders include Shazier and dynamic cornerback Bradley Roby, a big talker who almost always backs it up on the field. Their challenge differs from that of their predecessors, who kept the team focused in spite of the bowl ban, yet did so under measured expectations.
The expectations are back to Tressel-era levels, and perhaps even higher because of the perfect season and Meyer's recruiting success. Anything less than a celebration Dec. 7 in Indianapolis -- and perhaps another Jan. 6 in Pasadena -- will be considered disappointing.
"The chase," Meyer said, "is on."
- Who's back: Almost as suddenly as he arrived, Zach Boren's run at middle linebacker for the Buckeyes was over. Now they're left once again to find somebody capable of quarterbacking the defense, and as remarkable as Boren's story was at the position, it also underscored just how little depth the program had there at the halfway point of last season. Curtis Grant was supposed to be the answer after winning the starting job in spring practice and keeping it throughout training camp, but the rising junior ultimately wasn't a factor for the second year in a row and was passed on the depth chart twice before finishing as a third-team afterthought. The former elite recruit still has upside, though, and the Buckeyes will be monitoring him closely in a likely battle with sophomore Camren Williams to take over that critical spot in the heart of the defense.
- New face: Trey Johnson drew praise on signing day from the Ohio State coaching staff for his advanced football intelligence, and Mike Mitchell's eye-popping athleticism is hard to ignore. Both of those traits would certainly go a long way in helping them handle a wide range of responsibilities while balancing the often challenging transition to the next level and potentially becoming an answer in the middle. But they won't be around to compete on the practice field with the rest of the linebackers until August, which certainly favors the returners.
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMiddle linebacker Curtis Grant is looking to finally break through in 2014.
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesRyan Shazier's ability to make tackles in the open field might put Ohio State's single-game solo tackles record in jeopardy next season.
- Who owns it: The combination of a one-man wrecking crew and an abundance of chances to deliver hits has popped up a few times in Ohio State's decorated history, though Tom Cousineau's busy afternoon against SMU in 1978 still stands alone in the record books. The relentless, athletic linebacker chased down 28 overall tackles that day, but it was his 16 solo takedowns that established a new standard for the Buckeyes that have followed behind him.
- Who wants it: A season like Cousineau delivered in 1978 with more than 200 tackles might be out of reach, but on a single-game basis, Ryan Shazier might be more than capable of threatening a record that hasn't had anybody come within two tackles of tying it in nearly 20 years. But the rising junior has made it well known that there's no ballcarrier he won't or can't run down with his blend of elite speed and strength, and he broke into double-figures in solo tackles twice as a sophomore. His personal best is 11, set this season against Illinois, but there will plenty of opportunites to top that next season.
- Relevant number: Only one player in the Big Ten worked better alone on defense than Shazier last season, with his 70 solo tackles ranking No. 2 in the conference. The Buckeyes were obviously relying on Shazier to pick up the slack for a thin position group and stay on the field as much as possible, and he emerged as both durable and reliable at the second level -- finishing with at least 10 total tackles in half of the games during the perfect campaign.
With headliners on the front line and in the secondary, all that was missing were some linebackers.
What Ohio State got in Trey Johnson (Lawrenceville, Ga./Central Gwinnett) and Mike Mitchell (Plano, Texas/Prestonwood Christian) could impact the team earlier than many expect.
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According to the Columbus Dispatch on Saturday night, the dynamic athlete is returning to the Buckeyes for one more season after flirting with a potential jump to the NFL after breaking out as a redshirt sophomore and becoming one of the most productive cornerbacks in the country.
After breaking up 19 passes to lead the Big Ten despite missing a game due to a nagging shoulder surgery, Roby was integral in the second-half defensive surge that helped Ohio State finish off its unbeaten season and boosted his own stock as a potential professional in the process. Eligible to leave the program early after redshirting during his first year on campus, Roby admitted having conversations with the coaching staff about his options well before the season was over.
But after spending more than a month deliberating after helping the Buckeyes finish off a perfect season with a win over rival Michigan, Roby ultimately made the choice that was largely expected since he talked openly about his desire to compete for a national title now that the program's postseason sanctions are in the rearview mirror. And he'll also have another full year to impress the scouts who have already taken notice of him by now.
- Who: Within the Ohio State locker room or around the Big Ten, on the field with prolific production or in the weight room with his fanatical work ethic, John Simon's reputation and legendary status was officially secured during a senior season largely played at less than full strength. Battling various ailments without issuing a single complaint, the defensive end still finished the year on top of the conference in sacks. A two-time captain, Simon willed the Buckeyes through a series of other injuries that tested the defense and ultimately helped them finish unbeaten in the face of NCAA sanctions that prevented them from playing in the league title game or a bowl. Replacing everything Simon provided certainly will be no small task, but he's at least done all he could to provide a blueprint for those players coming behind him.
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMiddle linebacker Curtis Grant is someone that OSU would like to step up to help fill the void left by Etienne Sabino and Zach Boren.
- Who: Neither senior was able to give a full season at linebacker, though it was an injury for one that helped open the door for the other to prove he was equally skilled on the defensive side of the ball after establishing himself as perhaps the best fullback in the Big Ten before that. After how much Etienne Sabino and Zach Boren offered the Buckeyes in what amounted to half of a year each, there's no question Urban Meyer would give plenty to have them back for one more run with the program -- particularly given the lingering depth concerns at the position. Boren was a natural at middle linebacker and provided invaluable leadership during a rocky defensive stretch in the middle of the season. Sabino blossomed as his career with the Buckeyes wound down, giving nearly every column on the stats sheet before a broken leg interrupted his last season. Both leave plenty of responsibilities behind, both on and off the field.
But based on the early projections, Johnathan Hankins won't have to wait long to hear his name called.
ESPN.com's Todd McShay unveiled his first mock draft on Wednesday, and the Ohio State defensive tackle figured prominently in it just two days after officially declaring his intentions to forego his senior season. At this point, McShay is forecasting that the massive interior presence up front will come off the board with pick No. 5 overall, a slot that currently would send him to the Carolina Panthers.
Hankins' status with fellow ESPN.com draft expect Mel Kiper dipped a bit late in the season, and his latest rankings have the Ohio State product at No. 17 among all players eligible for selection.
Other notes from Kiper's latest analysis of Buckeyes:
- Zach Boren currently rates at No. 2 among senior fullbacks, though his stock is rising after finishing the season at linebacker.
- Offensive lineman Marcus Hall is evaluated as the fifth-best junior at guard.
- Hankins is currently ranked behind Missouri's Sheldon Richardson, leaving him at No. 2 among juniors at defensive tackle.
- Most valuable player: There's not any question that Ryan Shazier was the most outstanding player at linebacker, and his numbers and various contributions might well give him a case that he was the one defender the Buckeyes couldn't live without. And while Zach Boren didn't play a full season at the position, didn't have anywhere near as much statistical production and still looked more like a fullback for a couple weeks after moving over to the defensive side of the ball, the senior's willingness to make the transition stands out by itself as invaluable to the team dynamic. But on top of that, the way he willed it into a success to stabilize a position that was already thin before getting wiped out by injuries will go down in Ohio State lore.
- By the numbers: The math is pretty easy, given the even split of the season for Boren, who moved over to linebacker during a Tuesday practice just before the seventh game of the year and never went back. It also helps to have a nice round number, and Boren's 50 tackles would have put him on pace to be the only defender aside from Shazier to hit triple digits if he'd spent the entire season chasing the football instead of occasionally carrying it at fullback. Considering how quickly he zoomed through the learning curve and how well he was playing at linebacker by the end of the season, perhaps Boren's stats would have looked even better over a full slate. But at the rate he produced over six games, a 12-game Boren might have looked like this: 100 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles and two recoveries.
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Ohio State and its backers are relegated to just watching other teams from here on out and hoping to get recognized. The good news is, they shouldn't have to worry about that this time next year.
While the Buckeyes' 12-0 season won't end with a BCS national title shot, it does set up next year's team for a run at the crystal football. Urban Meyer's first year couldn't have gone any better, and Ohio State will almost certainly start next season in the Top 5 and possibly the Top 3.
"This sets the standard pretty high," senior tight end/receiver Jake Stoneburner said. "I don't think anyone really expected coach Meyer to come in and turn it around like he did. But for anyone who wants to be a Buckeye or is a Buckeye right now, there's no better place to be."
Ohio State went from a team that Meyer said repeatedly had a lot of holes during the first half of the season to one that had no holes in its résumé. That should frighten the rest of the Big Ten, as Meyer inherited a 6-7 team full of guys he didn't recruit, many of whom didn't really fit his offensive system, and he was still able to go undefeated. What will he do once he starts bringing in game-breaking receivers and running backs who can go the distance?
Even though Meyer said Monday that this team's passing game "is not even in the same hemisphere as what we want," the Buckeyes still led the Big Ten in scoring at 37.2 points per game. And that offense loses only two starters, Stoneburner and right tackle Reid Fragel, while hoping senior running back Jordan Hall gets a medical redshirt. Meyer said after Saturday's win over Michigan that Carlos Hyde has progressed into one of the top running backs in the country. Sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller is a possible Heisman Trophy finalist who still needs to make tremendous strides in his passing accuracy and pocket awareness.
"I don't see the ceiling yet," Meyer said. "He's got that much further to go."
The 2013 Buckeyes will be the heavy Big Ten favorites and their schedule is once again very manageable. They play Buffalo, San Diego State and Florida A&M at home, with only California on the road in the nonconference slate. In league play, they trade Nebraska and Michigan State for Northwestern and Iowa as non-protected crossover opponents from the Legends Division.
That doesn't mean next year's team doesn't have some major areas of concern. The defense could lose its entire front four if junior tackle Johnathan Hankins leaves early for the NFL as expected. Cornerback Bradley Roby, a redshirt sophomore, will have a decision to make on his future. If he goes pro, that would mean both starting corners are gone, since Travis Howard is a senior. And three of the team's top four linebackers -- Etienne Sabino, Zach Boren and Storm Klein -- have used up their eligibility.
"The linebackers, we've got to get that right," Meyer said. "That's the weakest area of our team right now."
Ohio State will be starting a bunch of young players on defense and will need its offensive line to stay healthy again because there is not much depth. But intangibles, not talent, might be the biggest question mark.
Meyer said he wasn't sure the senior class was entirely on board with him until an emotional meeting before the Sept. 29 Michigan State game. He raves about that group's "complete selflessness" which he said might be the best of any team he's been around. He pointed to defensive end John Simon playing through severe shoulder pain, Boren switching from fullback to linebacker midseason and Sabino rushing back from a broken leg to contribute as key examples. Meyer said he will have a wall in the team's training facility dedicated to this year's team, complete with video highlights that feature the team's unselfish nature.
There's no guarantee that next year's team will repeat that. Meyer also worries about the complacency that success can bring. He said he'll try to find ways to motivate the players in the offseason, including using the fact that a bowl game was taken away from them in 2012.
"We've got to make sure that doesn't take place," he said. "We need an angry team next year. If we have to manufacture that, we will. We're going to try to push the right buttons to get an angry team. If they're not angry, [if they're] complacent this team's as good as dirt, just like any team."
This year's team was good enough to go undefeated, something Meyer never accomplished at Florida despite winning two national titles there. It's scary to think how good the Buckeyes can be in the future after the first year he had in Columbus. Buckeyes fans might not have to concern themselves too much with what other teams are doing in late November.
Ohio State also had only one final game to make a move in the weekly power ratings.
No surprise, the top spots stayed the same as the Buckeyes polished off their perfect season, getting big-time passing plays from Braxton Miller, another impressive outing from Ryan Shazier and more hard running from Carlos Hyde.
But the defensive effort in the second half as Ohio State shut down rival Michigan in a 26-21 decision on Saturday at Ohio Stadium allowed for some tinkering after that, and for now, the latest edition of the Ohio State 10 will have to stand for a while.
No. 1: QB Braxton Miller
- Last week: No. 1
- Against Michigan: The sophomore again found rushing room hard to come by, but Miller made up for it with perhaps his most impressive passing performance of the season. Against one of the nation’s best pass defenses, Miller rarely wasted a throw in completing 14 of his 18 attempts and racked up 189 critical yards and a touchdown.
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- The basics: The sophomore running back didn’t hide his frustration with not getting the football more often last week, but the Buckeyes won’t hold it against him. Urban Meyer admitted almost as soon as the victory over Wisconsin was over that Hyde needed more touches to spark the rushing attack, particularly because he only gets more difficult to bring down the deeper a game gets with his unique combination of size and undervalued speed.
- By the numbers: With the benefit of a conference championship game and a bowl appearance, Hyde would be in line to go over 1,000 yards pretty easily -- even after missing two full outings and part of another. He’s still got a shot at hitting that milestone, but he’ll need a steady diet of carries to get the 176 yards necessary to cross that barrier.
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