Ohio State Buckeyes: Jacoby Boren

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Almost as soon as it arrived, spring camp at Ohio State wrapped up. Time isn't likely to fly by quite as quickly in the offseason with the summer months sure to drag by until the 2014 campaign finally opens in August. The Buckeyes have plenty of work to do to get ready for their debut against Navy on Aug. 30, and to help pass the time, we're looking at some of the most pressing positional questions they'll have to answer to make another run at a championship.

[+] EnlargeChad Lindsay
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesFormer Alabama center Chad Lindsay could anchor the Buckeyes' offensive in 2014.
Is Chad Lindsay the final piece of the puzzle?

Only two linemen left spring practice with Urban Meyer's seal of approval as starters. There were two more waiting in the on-deck circle after working throughout camp with the first-team offense.

But Ohio State never seemed to give anybody much of an edge as a two-man battle was waged between Billy Price and Jacoby Boren at center, with neither doing enough to pull away and establish himself as a worthy heir to Corey Linsley in the heart of the line. And by the time practice resumes in August, a third guy will be jockeying for position in the middle -- and based on his résumé and decision to transfer with one year of eligibility left, he could easily be the one who ultimately wins it.

Technically Chad Lindsay will have a chance to get to work with the Buckeyes when he enrolls in June and dives into the offseason conditioning program, though there won't be any pads on or coaches around to evaluate his ability to replace one of the most respected, valued contributors in the program over the last two seasons. Lindsay's starting experience at Alabama was rather limited with just four games to his credit, but that's more than either Boren or Price bring to the table and neither have spent as much time on the practice field or in the weight room with national title-winning teams as the newest addition to the Ohio State roster.

The Buckeyes will still likely be patient and see exactly what they have to work with at center, and both Price and Boren have shown enough promise in the past to believe they could carve out roles down the line even if a first-team gig doesn't come their way this fall. But at some point Ohio State will need to settle on the best five guys and start building chemistry up front as it rebuilds the unit almost entirely. And the sooner the better.

Meyer already knows the group will include Taylor Decker at left tackle and Pat Elflein at guard. Based on the open practices during spring, Antonio Underwood is capable of filling the other void on the inside and Darryl Baldwin can man the right edge.

But the top priority when training camp rolls around will be making sure the Buckeyes have the ball in capable hands at the start of every play. And that position will quite literally be the center of attention.

Arrival date set for Chad Lindsay

April, 29, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Help is now officially on the way for Ohio State at center.

The anticipated transfer of a former starter at Alabama with instant eligibility -- thanks to his status as a graduate -- is all set, with Chad Lindsay confirming via email that he will be on campus in time for summer workouts and ready to compete right away for a position that was something of a trouble spot during spring practice for the Buckeyes.

“I will always be a proud graduate of the University of Alabama and I will always be appreciative to the coaching staff for the privilege of playing for the Crimson Tide,” Lindsay wrote in a statement to ESPN.com. “I was fortunate to have had great teammates and to have been a part of an incredible four-year run of success.

[+] EnlargeChad Lindsay
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesChad Lindsay should figure into the mix at center immediately for the Buckeyes.
“And now I am looking forward to enrolling at The Ohio State University in June to play for the Buckeyes and to pursue a master’s degree. My goals are to compete hard, to be a productive member of the team and to do whatever I can to help Ohio State win championships.”

If the Buckeyes are going to compete for championships again this season, finding replacements almost entirely across the offensive line has been at the top of the priority list for coach Urban Meyer since losing four starters to graduation off last year’s wildly productive unit.

After naming just two OL starters after the spring game and without much experience to choose from between Jacoby Boren and Billy Price at center, a veteran option somewhat unexpectedly materialized in Lindsay.

Lindsay spent two seasons in a reserve role before moving into the starting lineup in the middle of his final campaign with the Crimson Tide, starting three games in a row and also running with the first string in the regular-season finale against Auburn. That game experience and his time competing on the practice field with a team that won a pair of national championships could be invaluable for the Buckeyes as they retool the offensive line, and it figures to give Lindsay an edge over Boren and Price when practice resumes in August.

That doesn’t completely solve the puzzle for the Buckeyes as they head into the offseason conditioning program with just tackle Taylor Decker and guard Pat Elflein currently tabbed for starting jobs. But if nothing else, the addition of another experienced blocker and a product of a program that has been the most successful in the country over the last five years will certainly provide more depth and competition at a crucial spot.

“Coach Meyer likes to have the depth chart set leaving spring, but if it’s not there, it’s not there,” Decker said after the spring game. “That battle will just continue through camp. There’s good and bad to it, but I’d say there’s more good to it.

“It’s good because there’s that competition there, so there’s going to be a sense of urgency. You’re not going to have guys taking days off, taking plays off in practice because you still have to earn that spot.”

Another guy is on the way to fight for one.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- After putting the finishing touches on spring camp, a few visitors caught Urban Meyer’s eye and he made sure to deliver them a message.

It was partly a reflection of the confidence the Ohio State coach has in the freshmen set to enroll in June, but it was also somewhat of a warning that there is a lot of work to do on the offensive line after a shaky performance for a rebuilding unit in the spring game.

But either way, the brief, matter-of-fact statements highlighted just how critical restocking the offensive line is to Meyer after leaning so heavily on it during a pair of record-setting seasons to start his career with the program.

[+] EnlargeDecker
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesTaylor Decker has moved from right tackle and locked down the spot at left tackle.
“I saw Jamarco Jones down there, Demetrius Knox is coming in, Brady Taylor,” Meyer said. “Those are three bodies that are going to be coming in and I went up to them, looked them in the eye and told them, ‘You’re not redshirting; you’re playing.’

“That’s hard for an offensive lineman, but that’s an area where we’ve got to get back to where we [were] -- maybe not where we were, but close.”

Replacing four senior starters with three true freshmen isn’t exactly the kind of formula that would get the Buckeyes back to the level they were at a season ago up front. And while Meyer wasn’t actually suggesting those talented signees are capable of coming in and winning first-team roles right away, based on some issues blocking backup defenders in a spring game that featured five sacks, finding a spot on the two-deep certainly isn’t out of the question.

Ohio State has enough options on hand to fill out the lineup in the fall, but 15 workouts didn’t provide as much clarity as about that unit as Meyer would have liked. He’s officially named Taylor Decker a starter at left tackle and Pat Elflein has won a job at guard, but leaving three vacancies and name-dropping players who have never practiced with the program is a far cry from leaving camp a year ago with a group that was essentially carved in stone and loaded with experience.

“Coach Meyer likes to have the depth chart set leaving spring, but if it’s not there, it’s not there,” Decker said. “That battle will just continue through camp. There’s good and bad to it, but I’d say there’s more good to it.

“It’s good because there’s that competition there, so there’s going to be a sense of urgency. You’re not going to have guys taking days off, taking plays off in practice because you still have to earn that spot.”

The downside is potentially not having a chance to develop the chemistry and familiarity that was such a critical component of the offensive line’s success last season, though tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood both seem like safe bets to keep working with the first-team offense after spending all spring there. The race to start at center remains tight, though Jacoby Boren brings a bit of experience to the mix as he jockeys with Billy Price for that crucial gig in the middle of the spread offense.

But regardless of who wins those jobs, it figures to be imperative for Meyer and the Buckeyes to identify the right fits for those final three spots to get the ball rolling to try to reach the high standard set by the linemen in the last couple seasons. Once those spots are nailed down, Meyer can give his attention to a group of newcomers looking to avoid redshirts and a depth chart that currently has a lot of openings.

“Offensive line is the one,” Meyer said. “We’ve got to really go from here.”

That process doesn’t start until June for a few guys. But even in April, Meyer made sure to include them in the plan.
Head coaches from the Big Ten East Division, along with a player from each team, addressed the media this afternoon on teleconferences. The West Division players and coaches spoke Wednesday.

Here's a closer look at the East:

INDIANA
  • Defense has been a lingering Indiana concern for years, but coach Kevin Wilson believes he's starting to see a change, thanks to new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. The scheme hasn't changed radically, but the Hoosiers return 10 starters there -- and Wilson's seen a promising spring so far with an added focus on competition and communication: "They've for sure held their own on a daily basis -- and, in some ways, probably even better -- against the offense."
  • Wilson believes teams need to invest scholarships into the kicking game, but he thinks it's also too risky to offer recruits straight out of high school. If you look at the NCAA's top 25 kickers, Wilson estimated at least 15 started out as walk-ons. So he's hoping to find some walk-ons who are willing to work for a scholarship, rather than be granted one right away.
  • At 5-foot-7, Shane Wynn is the Hoosiers' leading returning receiver, and he's transitioning to playing the outside. It's been a little different for Wynn, who said he's had to watch more film as a result. He's reading the corners now, instead of the safeties, as just one example.
MARYLAND
  • Maryland coach Randy Edsall is confident in his offense and believes the Terrapins have enough options so that opponents can't focus on just one person. If defenses lock on to wideout Stefon Diggs, then quarterback C.J. Brown can take off running or receiver Deon Long can pick up some slack. "The No. 1 thing I do like," Edsall said, "is we can spread the field."
  • Maryland's staff has already started looking at film of Big Ten teams, so they know what to expect when the conference season begins. Edsall said he wants to at least get a feel for their personnel and what kind of schemes he'll face. He's also confident the Terps will be ready: "We fully expect to be able to compete when we get into the Big Ten this year."
  • Brown said one of the main reasons he committed to Maryland was the coach who recruited him at the time, former Terps assistant and current Penn State coach James Franklin. He's looking forward to squaring off against Franklin this season, and Edsall said there's no question he would like to develop a rivalry with the Nittany Lions.
MICHIGAN
  • The quarterback derby will continue, and Brady Hoke included all three of his options in the discussion heading into the offseason. The Wolverines coach did acknowledge, though, that Devin Gardner “probably would be” the starter if there was a game on the schedule this weekend. There isn’t, so Shane Morris and Wilton Speight will continue to be in the conversation.
  • The first opponent on the schedule will always stir emotions for Michigan fans, but Hoke didn’t attach any revenge or sentimentality to his reasons for wanting to take on Appalachian State in the opener this fall. “We needed a game,” Hoke said. “I thought it would be a good game.” Defensive end Frank Clark was certainly aware of the history between the programs, even though he was still years away from joining Michigan and getting a shot at making up for the upset loss in 2007 -- which he called “shocking” and “shows how hard those guys play.”
MICHIGAN STATE
  • Michigan State is coming off a Rose Bowl victory, but coach Mark Dantonio and quarterback Connor Cook would prefer not to think about that any longer. Dantonio said they've talked a lot these last four months about not growing complacent, and Cook only echoed his coach. "A lot of people keep bringing up the Rose Bowl," Cook said. "But we're past that. We're focusing on the now."
  • The offensive line has made some big strides since January, at least according to Cook. He felt like he had no time in the pocket last spring and said the pass rush was getting to him every time. This spring? He doesn't feel rushed in the pocket, and he thinks that's pretty indicative of how far this line has come.
  • Jeremy Langford earned a lot of praise from Cook, who said the running back has become a much bigger part of the passing attack. "He's improved a lot with catching the ball," Cook said, complimenting Langford's versatility. "He's done so many different things for us."
OHIO STATE
  • There is still work to be done in addressing the most glaring weakness on the team last season, but Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s pass defense “drastically improved” and will be watching closely for more signs of progress in Saturday’s spring game. The Buckeyes will play a traditional game, but the emphasis will be on throwing the football and assessing the skill players on both offense and defense -- giving Meyer a chance to evaluate backup quarterback Cardale Jones in a live setting in addition to checking out the secondary.
  • Arguably the strongest part of last season's team is undergoing a transition without four senior starters, and the offensive line is somewhat of a concern for Meyer heading into the offseason. With guard Pat Elflein the only other player to have earned a first-team slot to play alongside junior Taylor Decker at this point, that competition is likely to spill over into preseason camp in August. Both tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood were praised for their work by defensive tackle Michael Bennett, and Billy Price and Jacoby Boren are dueling at center.
PENN STATE
  • Franklin said he knew exactly what he was getting into at Penn State, in terms of the current depth and sanctions. He and former coach Bill O'Brien worked together at Maryland, and he said the two had a lot of honest conversations about the current state of the Nittany Lions. The two have continued to talk since.
  • Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are both making transitions from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and Franklin said he has been pleased with their performances so far: "They're doing a good job for us -- and they have to. We're thin at that position."
  • Franklin said he feels especially comfortable with the talent at running back and defensive line. Middle linebacker Mike Hull was more specific about naming the players who impressed him, pointing to backup linebacker Gary Wooten and cornerback Da'Quan Davis. Hull said Wooten is always around the football and that Davis, who missed part of the spring with a hamstring injury, has come up with several interceptions.
RUTGERS
  • Another open competition at the most critical position on the field -- quarterback -- is still playing out at Rutgers, and coach Kyle Flood isn’t ready to declare a winner in what would seem to be a wide-open battle. Flood indicated that Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano are all “really vying for that first-team job.”
  • The change in conference affiliation has been welcomed with open arms by the Scarlet Knights, who can “feel the energy” as theypractice for their first season in the Big Ten. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said the team was already buzzing with excitement about the opportunity, and Flood called joining the league a “positive in every way.” The move also presents the opportunity for a rivalry to develop with new divisional neighbor Penn State, with both Flood and Hamilton citing the proximity between the schools as a bonus.

Early OSU observations: No. 3

March, 12, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There isn’t much evidence to work with heading into spring break, but Ohio State’s two practices to open camp before taking this week off did give at least a peek at some new faces and a couple of changes. While the Buckeyes are refreshing and 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. 3: Offensive line reloading

Tom Herman smiled, offered a quick reminder that Ohio State hadn’t put on any pads yet and put off making any significant evaluations until later in camp.

[+] EnlargeDarryl Baldwin
AP Photo/David DurochikDarryl Baldwin is among the top candidates to become Ohio State's starting right tackle in 2014.
But even if the Ohio State offensive coordinator hadn’t seen a new-look offensive line block anybody yet, just looking at some of the guys lining up in the trenches when camp opened should have been cause for at least some encouragement.

Antonio Underwood was drawing rave reviews for his development before he tore his ACL last spring and was lost for the season. He’s now fully healed and has emerged as a starting option at left guard.

Darryl Baldwin has waited his turn, developing his body and preparing himself mentally for the chance to finally contribute on a full-time basis. He’s at the head of the line at right tackle trying to become the latest in a string of guys making an impact at the position.

The Buckeyes already know what they have in Taylor Decker at left tackle, and they’ve got a good idea what Pat Elflein can bring at right guard after glimpses of his ability at the end of last season.

They also have healthy competition for playing time, with Billy Price pushing Jacoby Boren at center and converted defensive tackle Joel Hale fighting for a role at guard.

So, even while Herman tries to pump the brakes a bit early in camp until the live hitting actually starts, there doesn’t appear to be much reason for stress to build as the Buckeyes replace four starters on the offensive line. There are more than enough candidates on hand to fill the void, and they look the part even before putting on pads.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The change in Ohio State's offensive line is impossible to ignore this spring, even in regard to the only returning starter.

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.

[+] EnlargeDecker
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesTaylor Decker is the only returning starter on Ohio State's offensive line, but even he'll be at a new position this season.
Both developments help drive home the completely new look up front for Ohio State, where even the lone holdover has a new position as part of a makeover of a unit that lost four starters, a group that's arguably been the strongest in Urban Meyer's tenure with the Buckeyes.

“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.

Top spring position battles: No. 2

February, 20, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Nobody is walking into a stress-free environment when Ohio State returns to the practice field in spring as long as national-title aspirations hang in the air and Urban Meyer prowls the sideline.

[+] EnlargeDarryl Baldwin
AP Photo/David DurochikDarryl Baldwin has the inside track to winning Ohio State's starting right tackle job.
But the pressure isn't the same for all the Buckeyes since a healthy handful have their names etched at the top of the depth chart and won't be sweating a competition for a starting job -- obviously beginning with a quarterback who has finished in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy voting two years running. But who will back up Braxton Miller is just one of the intriguing positional battles that will be waged in March and April, and after already tackling that topic and a critical spot on defense, the series focuses on a potential anchor up front.

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.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer is always chasing the sizzle. What the Ohio State coach needed more than anything this time, though, was some steak.

Like usual, Meyer had skill players with speed in his recruiting class, a prerequisite for his spread offense and perhaps the type of target he annually covets above all else. But on the heels of a class that was light on linemen and with four senior starters walking out the door after last season, Meyer had no choice but to load up on big guys with his third class since taking over the Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer and Braxton Miller
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesWith four senior starters on the O-line leaving, Urban Meyer knew he had to sign some linemen to help protect Braxton Miller.
And he did exactly that, signing more offensive linemen than any other position. When all the paperwork was filed on Wednesday, Meyer had a group that might not be as flashy as the burners on the perimeter but ultimately figures to be the foundation for Ohio State’s future.

“Last year was a [recruiting] disappointment in the offensive line,” Meyer said. “I’d say two of the five this year have to be in the depth, and we recruited as such.

“Typically you don’t put freshmen in there early, but these guys have got mature bodies and they’re fairly mature men.”

Certainly the newcomers aren’t as physically developed as the veterans who just graduated, and obviously they don’t have anywhere near the experience competing at the Big Ten level. But based on the numbers and the talent on hand, the Buckeyes may have no choice but to plug a couple true freshmen at least into the two-deep depth chart as they rebuild the unit almost from scratch.

Taylor Decker is the lone holdover, and Meyer confirmed that the junior is set to move from right tackle to left as part of the transition. Pat Elflein handled himself well at guard in place of Marcus Hall late in the season, and he’s a safe bet to lock down another starting job. Jacoby Boren has played in reserve and impressed on the practice field, and he will move into the lineup at center. The rest of the rotation is currently written in pencil, which if nothing else at least leaves the possibility open that a fresh face could make a push for playing time.

With such precious cargo at quarterback, though, the Buckeyes would surely prefer to plug in a player who has at least been through a season with the program to help protect Braxton Miller. Their options, however, are somewhat limited after signing just two linemen a year ago, losing one of them before the season and ultimately moving a defender to the other side of the ball to help make up for it.

“I think last year’s smallness in numbers certainly led to an increased urgency to have to go sign those guys,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “But with last year, at Ohio State we’re not just going to sign a guy just to fill a spot. If we don’t think he can help us win a national championship, we’re not going to sign him. Those guys weren’t out there towards the end of recruiting last year, so that put us in a dire need of urgency this year.

“Really the entire staff did a great job coming through with five offensive linemen, and all five of them, none of them are guys who you would think would be reaches at Ohio State.”

Out of that bunch that earned their offers, Jamarco Jones had his name pop up most frequently as a crucial signee and possible option to lend a hand early, with Demetrius Knox not far behind him. Brady Taylor, a late flip from Virginia Tech, caught Meyer’s eye as well after getting up to 295 pounds and could emerge as a guy he said “could sneak in the depth fairly quickly.”

On top of that, the Buckeyes also have a pair of true freshmen linemen already on campus in Marcelys Jones and Kyle Trout, potentially giving them a chance to acclimate quickly and make an impression during spring practice as the Buckeyes sort through the candidates on hand. But even if none of them wind up as regulars by the end of the season, the day surely isn’t all that far off when all those speed-burners Meyer is stockpiling are counting on the latest group of beefy blockers to give them room to work.

“Our toys are very useless,” running backs coach Stan Drayton said, “until we take care of that front.”

Offseason to-do list: Ohio State

January, 24, 2014
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Last season is barely in the rearview mirror, but it's already time to look ahead at what's next. After a rocky finish to a season that had such high hopes, perhaps no team has shifted its attention forward more quickly than Ohio State.

The Buckeyes are up next in the look around the Big Ten at the top priorities in the offseason, as Urban Meyer looks to squeeze a little more out of his team coming off a 12-win campaign -- and a two-game losing streak.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesOhio State coach Urban Meyer made no secret of the fact that he was not happy with the way his defense performed in 2013.
1. Fix the defense: Even before the Discover Orange Bowl, Meyer was already vowing changes to his beleaguered defense and promising to look at every aspect of the unit in trying to get it right. That process quickly started with personnel changes in the secondary, and with the loss of star linebacker Ryan Shazier, that position group may now be under the most intense scrutiny moving forward. Meyer also seemed bothered throughout the season that the scheme wasn't as aggressive as he'd prefer, and that will no doubt be addressed in the coming months. And to help deliver that message, he'll have two new staff members around to get the defense patched up, including former Wisconsin and Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who specializes in the secondary and has a real mess to clean up given Ohio State's problems against the pass. There is still plenty of talent on hand, but the Buckeyes have to figure out a way to maximize it and complement a high-scoring offense.

2. Balance the attack: For all the emphasis the Buckeyes put on evening the play-calling out between the run and the pass, for the second season in a row they were clearly more comfortable with the former and were never really able to get things moving through the air when they had to down the stretch. They still scored a ton of points, and they'll still have Braxton Miller's legs to help bail them out thanks to his decision to return for a senior year, but they would be much better off if the quarterback takes another step forward as a passer and allows offensive coordinator Tom Herman to get closer to a 50-50 split between the run and the pass. Ohio State finished the year rushing the ball more than 63 percent of the time, and while the success Miller and running back Carlos Hyde had on the ground made it hard to resist leaning on them, the Buckeyes will need to air it out more often to get some extra defenders out of the box.

3. Plug the holes up front: The early loss of Shazier to the NFL, the departures of a handful of defensive backs and the graduation of Hyde and wide receiver Philly Brown all leave notable jobs to fill, but clearly the most important vacancies are up front for the Buckeyes. The program was blessed with four senior starters on the offensive line last season, and Jack Mewhort, Andrew Norwell, Corey Linsley and Marcus Hall set the tone for Ohio State both on and off the field. But they're all gone now, and the downside to having a season with all that veteran talent to work with is that they all have to be replaced the following season. Taylor Decker is the lone holdover at right tackle and provides a solid building block, and Ohio State also had a glimpse at what Pat Elflein could do at right guard late in the season. The Buckeyes can likely count on Jacoby Boren to rise up and fill the void at center, but that still leaves two more spots open for competition and questions, and finding answers in spring practice will be critical.

More to-do lists:

OSU offseason to-do list: Offense

January, 8, 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 off the record for Ohio State. As the Buckeyes turn the page to Year 3 under Meyer, they'll certainly be looking to top that victory total, clinch a spot in the first edition of the playoffs and again compete for a national title. To do so, all three phases will have issues to address, and today the checklist starts on offense.

Improve the passing attack: The spotlight always shines on the quarterback first, and Braxton Miller undoubtedly still has room to grow as a passer. But getting the spread offense to take flight will take more than improved accuracy, better decisions and a tighter grasp on the playbook from Miller. With Philly Brown moving on after a productive career, Ohio State will have to start by replacing him as the leading receiver, a job that should fall to Devin Smith if he can find more consistency on the perimeter. The Buckeyes, though, had fewer candidates to make a play in the passing game than originally thought last season, and Smith and tight end Jeff Heuerman are going to need a group of talented youngsters to lend a hand next fall -- perhaps starting with Michael Thomas as he comes off a redshirt season as a sophomore.

[+] EnlargeDecker
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesTaylor Decker will be the only returning starter on the Ohio State offensive line, but a couple replacements are already identified.
Rebuild the line: The day was always coming, but now the reality of replacing four senior starters on the offensive line must sink in for Ohio State. Meyer and position coach Ed Warinner have something of a head start, given Taylor Decker's successful transition into the starting lineup last season, and Pat Elflein's strong work when pressed into duty against Michigan and Michigan State at the end of the year will provide another level of comfort in the rebuilding process. The coaching staff has a lot of faith in Jacoby Boren to fill the void at center, which gets the Buckeyes over the halfway mark, but it will need to identify another tackle and guard during spring practice to complete the unit, begin building chemistry and prepare to meet the high standards of the 2013 group.

Replace Carlos Hyde: The heavy workload might have made it seem like the stable was relatively empty behind Carlos Hyde, but among the offseason to-do items, replacing the stellar senior running back might be one of the easier tasks for the Buckeyes. The hard part might be sorting through the options and figuring out how to distribute the workload a season after Hyde carried the football 127 times more than any other tailback -- a margin that would have been even wider if not for his three-game suspension to begin the season. Dontre Wilson is certain to get more touches, but the starting job seems likely to belong to somebody else, as the rising sophomore figures to stay in a hybrid role. Ezekiel Elliott showed flashes of his ability off the bench and could be in line for the top job, though perhaps Rod Smith could finally break through or maybe Bri'onte Dunn will come off a redshirt season as a sophomore with something to prove. Either way, the Buckeyes have options in the backfield.

Vets get young linemen ready for future

December, 30, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The future hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s no longer just the Ohio State coaching staff thinking about what it looks like on the offensive line.

The four seniors heading for the exit and about to usher in a new era are now every bit as aware that the end is near, leaving them two different legacies to attend to at once before they leave behind all of those starting jobs.

The ramifications on their own careers with the No. 7 Buckeyes are obvious as they look to cap a banner two-year run in the Discover Orange Bowl against No. 12 Clemson on Friday. But looking beyond that, the veterans have balanced their preparations for one final game with the need to get some younger guys ready for what comes after it at a position that has become the backbone of the program thanks to that core group of four.

“I think as you start to look around and it’s coming to an end for us, you realize that you do have a lot of responsibility to make sure this place is OK when you’re gone,” left tackle Jack Mewhort said. “I think us as seniors, I’ve been trying to coach guys more than I ever have and making sure that guys are getting ready.”

[+] EnlargeDecker
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesTaylor Decker will have to take a lead role on the offensive line after the departure of four senior starters.
There will be one familiar face still around, with Taylor Decker serving as a bridge from the present as the Buckeyes begin the transition and rebuilding of the critical unit up front.

The sophomore right tackle more than held his own with his senior teammates on the close-knit offensive line, and his experience playing alongside them could be invaluable as he suddenly becomes the elder statesman in the meeting room. The Buckeyes have also had a recent glimpse at Pat Elflein in competitive situations as he was pressed into duty at right guard following Marcus Hall's ejection against Michigan and subsequent discipline in the Big Ten title game, and the right side of the line appears to be in good hands if that’s where both he and Decker end up staying.

Jacoby Boren has also impressed on the practice field and in limited opportunities to play in games at center, though plugging him into the starting lineup would still leave a couple more holes to fill heading into spring practice. And since Mewhort, Hall, Andrew Norwell and Corey Linsley won’t be around then to offer any advice to potential candidates to fill those spots, they’re getting all the pointers they can in now.

“Just from a teaching standpoint, it’s just all about helping them out, where we see their weaknesses are,” Linsley said. “If we can point out, like, I don’t know, Billy Price needs to learn to keep his pressure on the inside of his feet and not lose his balance by keeping it all over the place. That’s one area that I’m helping him.

"Jacoby, Pat and Taylor are definitely the ones who have progressed the most, and they’re doing a heck of a job leading in terms of off the field, intangibles. We don’t really need to do a lot from a motivational standpoint. [Offensive line coach Ed] Warinner does all the work there, because he’s grinding them day in and day out.”

Warinner is probably the most important holdover for the linemen, though the rebuilding job almost became even more challenging with the highly respected assistant in the mix for head-coaching jobs again this winter. If more dominoes fall this offseason, he could still get back in the mix for a position elsewhere, which would really cloud up the crystal ball for the Buckeyes on the offensive line.

But at least for one more week, Ohio State knows exactly what it has.

“I know people talk a lot about us leaving and the shape of the offensive line, but I’m not worried,” Mewhort said. “I know there are a lot of hard workers in there and a lot of guys who are going to be very good players in the future.”

The chance to prove it is creeping up quickly.

Linsley ready to ditch his 'pitch count'

September, 11, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Another shortened outing was in the books, and Corey Linsley climbed the stairs up to Ohio State’s post-game media room and walked through a short hallway.

Once again, the senior center wasn’t needed for an entire game, though he at least got to work more than the single quarter he was allotted in the season opener the week before.

As he opened the door and headed out for one of his first interview sessions since undergoing foot surgery after spring practice, somebody from behind him asked when he’d finally get a chance to go the distance on a Saturday afternoon again.

“That’s up to the doctors,” a smiling Linsley said. “Thanks for asking.”

If it were up to the veteran lineman, or if it were necessary, there would be no need for the question, and he would already be turning in complete shifts in the heart of the Ohio State offense.

The stinging pain in his foot is gone by now, repaired by the insertion of a screw to address a bone issue that was described as similar to a Lisfranc injury. And while the injury wasn’t quite that serious and Linsley had played through discomfort at the end of last season, the Buckeyes made a decision and a plan months ago that would require some patience both from the coaching staff and the player not to rush him back too quickly to open the season.

Linsley has started both nonconference games, and the Buckeyes have clearly been more productive with him in the lineup than on the sideline. Over 17 plays against Buffalo, Ohio State scored 23 points -- and put up just 17 more over the final three quarters. Last week against San Diego State, the attack rolled up 35 points in the first half before again sticking to its cautious approach down the stretch in a 42-7 win.

Had the score been closer, the rehab plan apparently allowed for Linsley to play as much as needed against the Aztecs. And assuming the doctors agree with his own assessment, the chance to once again finish what Linsley has still been starting is coming on Saturday against Cal.

“The problem is fixed,” Linsley said. “Before it was a sharp pain, like I couldn’t really push off of it and I didn’t really have a lot of strength in my foot. Now it’s just a soreness. I’ve got the strength, I’ve got the stability, and it doesn’t feel like it’s going to break.

“They say it’s kind of hard to get back in the swing of things, but the most difficult part is you see guys working out there and you want to be a part of that. You see guys getting better, you want to be a part of that. ... I trust the plan they’ve got. But you do want to be out there, too.”

The blueprint was designed to have Linsley back to full strength by the time the schedule really started heating up in Big Ten play, and from that perspective Linsley is right on pace.

He was slowed throughout training camp and had to focus largely on mental reps, and there’s always the threat of rust after a long layoff due to injury. But Linsley has still been afforded the chance to chip away in meaningful action through two weeks, the nagging issue in his foot is effectively in the rearview mirror -- and Ohio State has also been able to develop some depth with Jacoby Boren benefitting from the playing time in place of the starter.

“Yeah, [Linsley] wanted to play more in the opener,” offensive line coach Ed Warinner said. “He wanted to play more in the last game, but circumstances were such that we were in a good situation where we didn’t have to do that.

“Everything has progressed there fine, and he’s 100 percent. ... But we also had kind of pitch count for him -- when he got to that number, we got him out of the game. Had we needed to play him more than that in the first two games, we could have.”

Now heading into the third, Linsley and the doctors might finally be ready to ditch the pitch count and turn him loose.

Four downs: Buckeyes to watch vs. SDSU

September, 6, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Players and positions to watch as Ohio State goes back to work on Saturday against San Diego State at Ohio Stadium (TV: ABC, 3:30 p.m.).

Offensive line

The reviews were just average for the big guys up front in the season opener, and that's not nearly good enough for a program that expects its offensive line to be the best in the conference. A so-so performance also puts prized quarterback Braxton Miller directly in the line of fire, and after giving up four sacks to Buffalo, the Buckeyes are obviously looking for a significant improvement there. Part of the issue is health, and with center Corey Linsley in the game during the first quarter, the Buckeyes were close to unstoppable with the football. When coach Urban Meyer decided to pull him and rest his surgically-repaired foot, adding another new player in sophomore Jacoby Boren to the mix along with right tackle Taylor Decker certainly appeared to knock things out of whack. That unit will be in the crosshairs of Meyer this week.

Bradley Roby

The dynamic junior cornerback had to wait an extra week to get back on the field thanks to his one-game suspension, delaying his chance to start improving his NFL draft stock and also forcing the Buckeyes to tap the brakes a bit on their plans for a more aggressive defensive approach. Ohio State has continually stressed that it won't build its program around one guy, but with Roby out, the amount of press coverage was clearly lower than anticipated and the blitz packages appeared to be scaled back some. Not having safety C.J. Barnett on the field was also a factor with less depth overall in the secondary, but Roby is the centerpiece in the backend, and he'll no doubt be energized to prove he's better than ever before.

Running backs

The job continues to belong to Jordan Hall, but the first true threat to unseat him early in the season is returning to the fold. Rod Smith was yet another expected contributor forced to watch the opener due to suspension, and the projected backup missed out on what could have been a golden opportunity to prove he could be an every-down back while Carlos Hyde serves his own punishment over the first three weeks. Instead Hall turned in the most prolific rushing performance of his career and raised the bar for Smith, who will have to prove himself quickly on special teams before he can get a crack at showing off his physical rushing style -- and what Ohio State hopes will be improved ball security.

Philly Brown

The receiving version of Philly Brown was barely a factor in the opener, and Meyer was quick to shoulder the blame for the senior's lack of touches during a two-catch outing against Buffalo. The special teams version showed some flashes of productivity with 44 yards on 4 returns, but he was also shaky fielding the football and, according to assistant Kerry Coombs, had issues with a "high sky and a bright sun." The Buckeyes need Brown to be a factor both in the passing game, like he was last year as the team's most targeted receiver. And they can also use the dynamic returner he proved he could be last season while taking a pair of punts back for touchdowns. Ohio State will be looking for improvement in both areas heading into Week Two.

Position preview: Offensive line

August, 15, 2013
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Breaking down the Ohio State roster as training camp heats us and the program turns its attention to the opener on Aug. 31 against Buffalo.

OFFENSIVE LINE

[+] EnlargeJack Mewhort
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesAn Ohio State offensive line that returns four starters is anchored by Jack Mewhort.
Top of the depth chart: From left to right, Jack Mewhort, Andrew Norwell, Corey Linsley, Marcus Hall and Taylor Decker

Next in line: The backup spots don’t have to be quite as precise given the flexibility of some reserves capable of playing multiple spots, with Chase Farris likely the first man up if injuries strike at either guard or tackle. Darryl Baldwin has impressed during training camp and provides depth on the edge, and Pat Elflein has emerged as a viable option on the interior. Jacoby Boren spent time filling in for Linsley when he was injured during spring practice and early this month, and the sophomore’s work ethic and family history with the program is well documented.

New faces: The Buckeyes didn’t do much to restock the cupboards with the most recent signing class, and a class of blockers that only included two names dropped to one this season when Tim Gardner was sent home following an off-the-field incident. That leaves just Evan Lisle, who has shown some potential but would likely benefit from a year to develop on the sideline before getting thrown in the mix.

Recruiting trail: With four seniors set to move on from the program after this season, coach Urban Meyer made it clear since signing day in February that he has to bring in a strong class of linemen to pave the way for the future. He would have liked to have done that in 2012, obviously, but he’s off to a strong start with the next group after getting pledges from ESPN300 picks Jamarco Jones (Chicago/De La Salle) and Demetrius Knox (Fort Worth, Texas/All Saints Episcopal). The Buckeyes also have commitments from tackles Kyle Trout (Lancaster, Ohio/Lancaster) and Marcelys Jones (Cleveland/Glenville), reinforcing the importance of targeting the line in the 2013 class.

Flexibility: Returning four senior starters doesn’t leave much room for movement on the first unit, and the strong start to camp for sophomore Taylor Decker erased the only real question mark heading into the opener. Farris and Baldwin have each been able to push for work at times at right tackle, but Decker’s brute strength and knowledge of the game has given him a leg up and given line coach Ed Warinner little to worry about with his starting unit.

Notable numbers:

• The work hasn’t all come at one spot, but one way or another, the Buckeyes have been able to count on inking Mewhort’s name in the starting lineup for quite some time now. The season opener against Buffalo will mark his 26th consecutive start, a string that has included appearances at left guard, right guard and the position he locked down for all of last fall, left tackle.

• For all the hype about the spread offense and what it would do for the passing attack in 2012, the Buckeyes ultimately relied much more on power and a smash-mouth ground game thanks to the nasty attitude and physical approach up front in Meyer’s first season. Ohio State rushed twice as often as it passed, turning those 559 total carries into an average of 242 yards per game and finishing the season as one of the top running teams in the nation.

• The offensive line wasn’t necessarily on the hook for all the sacks on Braxton Miller last season, but given the quarterback’s mobility and the experience returning, they should be able to cut down dramatically on the 30 takedowns they allowed in 2012. Miller is a better decision-maker moving into his junior season and that should get the ball out quicker and provide some help for the line. But the big guys also appear capable of establishing a more comfortable pocket.

Big question: Is Taylor Decker ready?

The Buckeyes weren’t ready to pronounce the sophomore a starter leaving spring practice, and Decker himself admitted that he hadn’t earned the right after 15 workouts in March and April. The coaching staff has already seen enough in August to trust him with that responsibility, though, and it comes with expectations that could hardly be higher. From a broad perspective, the Buckeyes are planning to contend for a national title. From a position-specific angle, Meyer has made it well known that everything starts in the trenches, and he wants nothing less than the best offensive line in the Big Ten -- for starters. With four proven commodities from an unbeaten team returning, the focus will be on the new guy to meet the standard.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Several factors usually get mentioned first as reasons for Ohio State's 12-0 season in 2012. Braxton Miller's heroics. Carlos Hyde's emergence. The play of the defense down the stretch, led by John Simon and Ryan Shazier.

But one factor probably doesn't get mentioned enough: the performance of the team's offensive line. A major question mark going into last season, the line shaped up as one of the best in the Big Ten last year under the tutelage of Ed Warriner. And with most of the group back and some better depth, the unit provides a strong reason to believe in the Buckeyes again in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJack Mewhort
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsLeft tackle Jack Mewhort, an all-Big Ten-level talent in 2012, could be the Buckeyes' next great leader.
Warriner turned in one of the better coaching jobs in the league last year, rounding into shape a crew that was previously undistinguished and underwhelming. He turned Reid Fragel, a former tight end, into a standout right tackle who should get drafted later this month. Corey Linsley went from playing guard to one of the conference's top centers, while Jack Mewhort developed into a top-flight left tackle. One of the indelible images of the Buckeyes' season was the line pushing around Michigan State's terrific defense to grind out the victory in East Lansing.

About the only thing Warriner had to worry about last season was health, as there was no experience and precious little depth behind the starters. He doesn't have the same worries this spring.

"It's a nice feeling to know you probably have a backup tackle and a backup guard," he told ESPN.com.

Four starters are back, so the real battle this spring is to replace Fragel at that right-tackle spot. Right now, sophomores Chase Farris and Taylor Decker are splitting a lot of first-team reps there, with Darryl Baldwin also in the mix.

"Those two guys have a lot of ability," Warriner said. "The more comfortable they get and the more confidence they get, one of them could take off -- or maybe both will and we'll play by committee. But they have high-level talent and all the traits of really good linemen."

Head coach Urban Meyer said Tuesday that redshirt freshman Pat Elflein has been one of the surprises of the spring, and he could add depth at guard or tackle. Warriner also said Jacoby Boren is making strides at center. While the team suffered a setback when reserve Antonio Underwood tore his anterior cruciate ligament late last week, the Buckeyes should still be able to rotate more guys on the offensive line this fall.

"If the next man in can play a certain amount but the level doesn't drop off enough to hurt our team, we might do that just to keep the unit fresh and hopefully be smart throughout the season," Warriner said.

But Ohio State will want its veterans on the field as much as possible. Mewhort, whom ESPN.com voted as a first-team All-Big Ten performer, has been hailed as one of the team's best leaders and anointed by Meyer as a possible replacement for Simon in that regard.

"He's what you want in terms of an attitude, of work ethic, of being a competitor," Warriner said. "When you're a first-year starter at a new position with a new coaching staff, sometimes you just worry about your own business, and that was him to some degree last year. But now, he's taking kind of a bigger role with his leadership on offense and even the team as a whole."

Warriner said guards Andrew Norwell, a first All-Big Ten team honoree by the media last season, and Marcus Hall have made maybe the biggest improvements of anyone on the line this offseason. Along with Linsley, whom Warriner said has "elite-level strength," the Buckeyes have the potential to field four all-conference type linemen.

"We think we possibly could, if they play up to their ability level," he said. "The good thing about the group is, they don't really care about that. If we won the Big Ten and none of them made all-conference, they wouldn't care a bit. That's the kind of unselfish players they are."

Warriner said he has challenged the group to help lead a top-five national offensive attack this season. Ohio State led the Big Ten in scoring last year (37.2 points per game) and finished second in rushing yards per game (242.3). The offensive line led the way, though players like Miller and Hall sure helped.

"We know the quality of our skill guys can erase some things and create some big plays," Warriner said. "If you block it for six, you might get 16. At some places, if you block it for six, that's what they'll get -- six yards."

Everything works in concert. But don't forget the Buckeyes' offensive line when talking about reasons for the team's success.

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