Ohio State Buckeyes: Reid Fragel
The classroom was Ohio Stadium. The first day of school was a season opener and a debut as a starter.
And the assignment that showed up on Taylor Decker's desk was a final exam, shutting down a surefire first-round draft pick.
“Obviously,” the Ohio State right tackle said, “the first game I didn’t start as I had wanted.”
That might be expected considering Decker’s inexperience was being matched up with one of the most dangerous defenders in the nation in Buffalo’s Khalil Mack, and there was certainly some carnage as the sophomore was thrown into graduate-level work right away on the offensive line.
But rather than relive that rough outing and allow that disappointment to impact a bright future, Decker instead went right back to work for the No. 4 Buckeyes, making sure there wouldn’t be another one like it as he established himself as the final piece of a puzzle with four senior starters up front.
It certainly helped that Decker had already been welcomed into that group by the veterans and had the full support of the coaching staff after distancing himself in what had been a close race for playing time in spring practice, because contributing to an outing in which Mack made 2.5 sacks and also turned an interception into a 45-yard touchdown could easily have shaken his confidence after just one game.
“That’s the third-ranked linebacker in the country on all the scouting boards,” offensive line coach Ed Warinner said. “And if you assess the game, it wasn't 20 bad plays in the game, it was three. But three bad plays for a cornerback or three bad plays for a tackle, everybody knows about it. They don't know about the other 65 that were pretty decent.
“I didn't have any doubt that at some point he would turn the corner, and he did the next game and played very solid in the second game of the season. It's continued to just get better and better. ... He feels good about himself and so do we. Things are good.”
The Buckeyes haven’t had much to feel bad about offensively since the opener, and they still scored 40 points in that win despite a few missed assignments with Decker under the microscope.
Blessed with both enormous size at 6-foot-7, 315 pounds and technical ability that impressed the coaching staff as soon as he stepped foot on campus, there wasn’t really any doubt that Decker was destined to fill the only vacancy on a decorated offensive line after battling with departed senior Reid Fragel during training camp a year ago. And even in the aftermath of his occasional struggles handling Mack in August, the expectations didn’t change from Warinner, and he never panicked over the results from such a small sample size. That's paying off now for an offense line that is bulldozing holes for a rushing attack averaging nearly 280 yards rushing and playing every bit as well as the unit did last season.
“The coaches kept their trust in me and kept coaching me hard and my teammates picked me up,” Decker said. “I feel like because of that I’ve been able to improve.
“I mean, I knew that wasn’t me, that wasn’t how I’d been playing and performing in camp prior to that game, the weeks leading into it. It was a tough pill to swallow, but I just had to bounce back and recover from it, play the way I know I can play.”
And with each passing week, those memories are increasingly fading away just like a bad dream.
Carlos Hyde had the wrong idea about Urban Meyer's offense when Meyer came to Ohio State.
Like many others, Hyde couldn't get past the S-word -- spread. He envisioned five-wide formations, a hastened pace and a system tailored to track stars, not bruising ball-carriers north of 220 pounds like himself.
Hyde soon found out that he would have a home in Meyer's offense, as long as he earned the right to carry the ball. The scheme didn't simply tolerate his talents; it celebrated them.
Ohio State's offense isn't Oregon's or Baylor's or Arizona's or Auburn's. Aesthetically, the Buckeyes might be a spread team. But at their core, they're all about power.
"People see me back there and they see our offensive line back there, and they’re like, 'These are some big dudes, they've got a big running back,'" Hyde said. "This is not really a spread. It's more like a power team."
Need evidence? Study the second halves of Ohio State's past two wins against Northwestern and Iowa. After some sloppiness in the first 30 minutes of both contests, Ohio State methodically chipped away at the Wildcats and Hawkeyes. The Buckeyes racked up 142 rush yards and three touchdowns in the second half against Northwestern and 194 rush yards and two touchdowns in the second half against Iowa.
An offense with a knack for big plays -- Ohio State has 34 plays of 20 yards or longer this season -- had just one chunk play in each second half. Instead, the Buckeyes mounted long, sustained drives, swinging away with the Big Ten's best offensive line and a 235-pound hammer in Hyde. After running a meager 25 first-half plays against Iowa, Ohio State opened the second half with touchdown drives of 13, 11, 10 and 11 plays. Hyde's 1-yard scoring run early in the third quarter marked the first rushing touchdown Iowa had allowed all season. He tacked on a 19-yard scoring dash in the fourth quarter.
"Offensive linemen in general, after they look up at the scoreboard and see that you've won the game, the first question out of their mouths is how many yards did we rush for?" Buckeyes offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. "Then it's, how many sacks did we give up? And then, where do we eat?"
The Buckeyes are feasting on opposing defenses to the tune of 279.6 rush yards per game, ahead of last year's pace (242.3 ypg), which ranked 10th nationally. Their run focus has helped older players recruited by the previous coaching staff transition to the current regime.From Woody Hayes to John Cooper to Jim Tressel, Ohio State's identity has been closely tied to the power run game. It remains that way under Meyer, despite his ties to the spread.
"That's Ohio State," Hyde said. "When Beanie Wells, Eddie George, Archie Griffin and all the great running backs who came through here, that's what Ohio State has been: traditional, a power I offense. That's basically what this spread offense still is, it’s power.
"That’s pretty cool that the tradition is still going."
The only prerequisites for a spread offense, according to Warinner, are at least three detached wide receivers and the shotgun formation. Other than that, the canvas is blank. Some teams will spread out five receivers and throw 80 passes per game; others will run the ball 60 times.
"A lot like the West Coast offense, there’s many different versions," Meyer said. "I have our version of the spread offense, which is a very physical, power run offense. And it's always really been that way. At Utah, we had the bigger backs. At Florida, the biggest back we had was Tim [Tebow], and Tim became our power guy to offset and complement the speed that we had in the backfield. Here, our speed guy is really our quarterback [Braxton Miller] and some other skilled athletes, and we've got the big, power backs."
When Meyer coached Utah to an undefeated season in 2004, he leaned on two bigger backs in Marty Johnson and Quinton Ganther. The 6-3, 235-pound Tebow rushed for 2,478 yards and 49 touchdowns in his final three seasons as Florida's starting quarterback.
Despite his track record in the power run, Meyer never has produced a 1,000-yard rusher, a fact often used against him on the recruiting trail.
"You hear it, but you just have to be armed and ready to go," he said. "And then they see the yards per carry, they see the opportunities you get."
Hyde feels fully prepared for the NFL, not only as a runner but as a pass blocker. Warinner notes that Ohio State's top three run plays are often called on Sundays, and that Meyer's system has produced plenty of pro linemen.
Four of Meyer's linemen at Florida were selected the 2010 or 2011 NFL drafts, including first-rounders in the Pouncey brothers (Maurkice and Mike). Ohio State has had a surprisingly low number of linemen drafted the past five years but produced a seventh-rounder this past April in tackle Reid Fragel, a converted tight end. Warinner expects all four returning starters from last year's line to be drafted.
"We feel that our offense is as close to a pro spread as can be," Warinner said. "So when you watch people play on Sundays, how they run the ball and how they protect, those things have a lot of carryover to what we do. Most players at this level want to play at that level. Their learning curve is very small leaving Oho State with what we do.
"We sell that pretty hard in recruiting, and it's factual. Plus, it wins games."
Ohio State has won 19 straight, the nation's longest win streak. If the power surge continues, the Buckeyes could be playing for a crystal football Jan. 7 in Pasadena.
Surviving the hazing process of becoming a sophomore starter for an Ohio State offensive line stocked with four seniors may be the bigger hurdle the talented right tackle will face during training camp this month.
There are the nicknames Decker can’t reveal publicly. And then there are jokes about his long hair and questions about whether he’s got the right sense of humor to fit in with the veterans. And as guard Andrew Norwell reminded him with one raucous wrestling match outside the locker room during the offseason, there are also some physical tests, including those off the field, that must be passed during the rite of passage into the starting lineup.
“It’s like the little brother thing for us,” left tackle Jack Mewhort said. “He definitely gets his fair share of garbage from the older guys.
“He’s kind of like the baby brother. He’s bigger than all of us, but he’s the baby -- but we love him.”
The wise cracks and good-natured ribbing actually help make it clear that Decker is welcomed with open arms by the closest position group on the roster.
The Buckeyes bring back more experience and skill than just about any unit in the country up front, though the one hole at right tackle after the graduation of Reid Fragel left some uncertainty and caused some hand-wringing during spring practice for offensive line coach Ed Warinner.
Decker was always the heir apparent for the job after pushing Fragel for it during training camp a year ago as a true freshman, but by his own admission, he didn’t make a convincing enough case when practice ended in April to lock down that role heading into the summer. But as he integrated himself with the tight-knit veterans while continuing to develop a 6-foot-7, 315-pound frame that makes the little brother the tallest and stoutest of the bunch, Decker steadily won over the seniors in building his case as the final piece of the puzzle.
And while still not definitively a starter or finished product, the Buckeyes are already seeing how some of the tests Decker faced over the summer are paying off in August.
“It’s not really been anything too bad,” Decker said. “Honestly, a lot of the times they’re really helpful and just bringing me up the ranks and teaching me how to be an Ohio State lineman. They’re great guys, and since I’ve been here, they’ve been great to me. I’m like a little brother to them, and they joke around with me, but to be said in the same sentence with them would be a huge honor.
“I don’t want to be the right tackle just because I’m the only one there. I want to earn coach’s trust, earn the trust of the guys on the line because they’re great players and I don’t want to be detrimental to their season. I want to help them, because they’re great players and they deserve a great season.”
That’s obviously the expectation in general for a team that will enter the season ranked No. 2 in the nation, but the line specifically is being counted on to be the top unit in at least the Big Ten, charged with protecting quarterback Braxton Miller and building on a year ago, when it was wildly productive in opening holes for the rushing attack.
The Buckeyes already know what they’re getting with four guys who started every game a year ago and have accomplished résumés to show for it. The next step is figuring out who could handle the responsibility of being the fifth member of the band, and the veterans apparently handled some of the auditions themselves.
“Oh yeah, we do that on purpose,” Warinner said. “But it’s all loving. ... There’s an age gap in there, and at the end of the day, he is an offensive lineman and he’s really starting to grow into that unit.
“Those older guys, they pick on him like he’s their little brother. But if anybody else messed with him, they’d jump all over it.”
Official starter at this point or not, that bond might be the surest sign yet Decker is part of the family.
So after an offseason filled with questions about issues away from the field, the focus is once again back on the game itself. And these five topics will be worth monitoring as Ohio State reports for practice with the great expectations that come with being ranked No. 2 in the preseason poll.
Who is ready to lead?
That makes identifying the right group of veterans to take that torch incredibly important for Meyer as he tries to light a path to the national championship, and while a couple of clear choices have emerged to be the face of the program, August will be critical in finding a few more veterans to set the tone.
Left tackle Jack Mewhort and safety Christian Bryant both have emerged as respected voices in the locker room, and Braxton Miller is also starting to find his footing as a more vocal presence. But a couple of other guys who had high hopes of being in that mix are currently or will be facing discipline for issues last month, which will make it pretty unlikely cornerback Bradley Roby or running back Carlos Hyde will be tabbed for a captaincy. Seniors like Philly Brown, Corey Linsley and C.J. Barnett could fill that void, and junior linebacker Ryan Shazier will need to set an example on defense as well.
What's the state of the passing attack?
Miller will always go under the microscope first, and the quarterback is usually the safest place to start in breaking down a passing game. But he certainly wasn't the only one responsible for some numbers through the air that weren't up to Meyer's standards last season.
Miller has worked hard on his footwork and should be much more at ease with the playbook entering his second year in the spread, but he could also use some better route-running, fewer drops and a bit more depth at wide receiver as Meyer looks for more diversity in his attack. Brown should provide some reliability after a productive junior season, and if he builds on the end of it where he consistently looked like a threat to explode after the catch, that alone will make the Buckeyes more dangerous. But he needs some help from freakishly athletic counterpart Devin Smith, rising sophomore Michael Thomas, veterans Chris Fields and Evan Spencer and a handful of newcomers to help keep the coverage honest.
Are the youngsters ready up front?
All four starters are gone from the defensive line a year ago, and while the interior spots are obviously more unsettled than the starting jobs at end, the pressure to perform and the attention will weigh more heavily on Spence and Washington. Both showed flashes of what they could do when given a chance as true freshmen a year ago, but they'll be expected to play like seniors now that John Simon and Nathan Williams are gone.
Can Taylor Decker keep the offensive line at the top of the Big Ten?
Ohio State has fewer concerns about its offensive line than just about any program in the country, and a unit with four returning starters who are all seniors might be more than any other staff would even think to wish for. But that didn't stop Meyer from doing a bit of hand-wringing in the spring about filling the fifth spot at right tackle, and he didn't leave practice in April officially settled on who that guy would be.
It's clear now that Decker will get the nod, and the oversized sophomore will have eyes on him throughout camp to ensure that he's capable of seamlessly replacing Reid Fragel for a unit that was a significant factor in the perfect season last year. Chase Farris shared some of the reps with Decker in the spring and his potential continues to excite the coaching staff, but for now Decker has the advantage. But he'll have to prove over and over in August that the edge is real, and if he does, the Buckeyes could pick up right where they left off.
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.
If the Ohio State offensive line coach had ever coached four returning starters, all of them seniors, he wouldn’t have had much trouble remembering that unit.
And now that he finally does have one brimming with experience and talent, it’s apparently just as easy for Warinner to climb out of bed these days now that the chance to work with it has arrived. All those veterans also might come in handy for him when he reports to work looking for one more guy to join them as they try to fill the hole at right tackle.
“Makes it easy to get up at 5:30 in the morning to come in here, I can tell you that,” Warinner said.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The competitor in Reid Fragel wanted to improve his numbers, impressive as they were.
His advisers and the recent feedback from the Ohio State right tackle's trip to the NFL combine suggested he leave them alone.
Ultimately Fragel sided with the latter and played it safe on Friday morning at the Buckeyes' pro day, passing on the measured workouts, focusing all his energy on positional drills and letting the work he has already done for scouts speak for itself.
"After the combine, you just kind of took a step back and look at how you performed," Fragel said. "Whether you did what you thought you could do, if you could do better or not, it doesn't really matter. I personally think I could have done better than 33 reps on the bench, obviously. I consistently ran under 5 [seconds] when I was training, so it's just things like that that eat at you.
- Who's back: The line as a whole returns almost entirely in one piece, but there is one huge cog missing heading into the second season of the spread offense at Ohio State. Jack Mewhort blossomed into one of the nastiest, stoutest blockers in the Big Ten last year, and the Buckeyes are expecting even more from him both on the field and off as a senior. They'll need that production and stability from him on the left side with Reid Fragel out of eligibility and heading to the NFL after his banner campaign at right tackle, transforming himself from a reserve tight end into one of the most reliable members of the offensive front. After dueling with Fragel nearly all the way through training camp in August, Taylor Decker is primed to take over the starting duties opposite Mewhort as the Buckeyes try to take the offense to an even higher level.
- New face: Despite finishing with the No.3 recruiting class in the country, the Buckeyes didn't land as many signatures from linemen as they wanted, which clearly seemed to bother Urban Meyer as he looks toward the future and sees four seniors who will be gone after next season. That experience is obviously a huge blessing for Ohio State at the moment, but neither Evan Lisle nor Tim Gardner have enrolled yet and won't be able to get a jump on their development in the trenches until the fall.
- Projected depth chart: Mewhort will anchor the line at left tackle again, with Daryl Baldwin likely hanging on to the backup job he held last season. Decker is poised to take over the starting gig at right tackle, with competition for the second-team spot open for guys like Kyle Dodson, Chase Farris or Antonio Underwood as they try to crack the rotation.
- Numbers game: There might not have been enough depth to ever let the coaching staff exhale, but the Buckeyes never had to find out what would happen if one of the starters went down with a significant injury. The first-team line was the most stable group on the team during the perfect season, combining to make every start and provide invaluable continuity for a dominant rushing attack and the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten.
- One to watch: The flipping of Dodson from Wisconsin was cause for a huge celebration for the Buckeyes on signing day a year ago, but a shoulder injury kept him on the shelf during his first year with the team and ended up forcing him to redshirt. Given time to fully recover and dig into the conditioning program, the 6-foot-5, 315-pound athlete should be able to start showing what all the fuss was about. Decker has the edge going into camp after battling Fragel for playing time a year ago, but now it's Dodson's turn to dial up the pressure and fight for work.
- He said it: "Jack Mewhort is already there, he's already a leader. We're asking him to take over a position that maybe a [John] Simon took, the overall heart. I love him, he's a tough guy." -- Meyer in January
As for the Big Ten players on the practice field, the reviews haven't been overly favorable.
The ESPN Scouts Inc. crew cited several issues with Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short on Tuesday, noting that the Boilers standout took off plays during practice and was "loose with his arms" during drills. Short clearly has the size and ability to succeed in the NFL, but he'll need to answer the effort questions going forward. There are a lot of similarities between Short and former Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.
Not surprisingly, Michigan's Denard Robinson is attracting plenty of attention this week. The record-setting quarterback for the Wolverines is working primarily as a wide receiver and trying to show that his unique talents can translate to the NFL at several potential positions. But Robinson also is banged up and is still waiting to be cleared for contact drills. He had several dropped passes during noncontact drills Tuesday and muffed two punts at the end of practice.
Illinois offensive lineman Hugh Thornton drew mostly positive reviews Tuesday, while it seemed like an up-and-down day for another Big Ten offensive lineman, Wisconsin's Ricky Wagner.
We'll see if things improve for the Big Ten group today.
Be sure and track our Senior Bowl coverage throughout the week.
EXTRA POINTS IN A SINGLE SEASON
- Who owns it: A prolific attack in 2010 gave Devin Barclay plenty of chip shots to convert, and the Ohio State kicker converted every single one of them -- putting his name in the school record book an extra point at a time. That record obviously is much more of a reflection of a dynamic offense than an indicator of how good or bad Barclay was that season, but it's well worth nothing that he is the only kicker in the single-season top 10 for 1-pointers who made every attempt.
- Who wants it: Just three seasons after Barclay took over the top spot, the Buckeyes are primed to put an even more explosive offense on the field in Urban Meyer's second year with the program. Drew Basil should be in line to capitalize heading into his senior campaign. As a junior, Basil perhaps didn't get as many chances to try field goals as he might have hoped, a combination of Meyer's aggressiveness and a red-zone offense that ranked among the best in the nation at turning those chances into touchdowns, doing so 76 percent of the time. That proficiency still gave Basil work to do, and he banged through 56 extra points, in all in the third-best individual season in school history in that category.
- Relevant number: The Buckeyes were a perfect 3-of-3 when they had to dial up a two-point conversion instead, and considering how effective the offense was near the goal line thanks to the versatile backfield tandem of battering ram Carlos Hyde and elusive quarterback Braxton Miller, Meyer could conceivably think about trying to double up after a touchdown more often next season. Had those three tries been extra points last year, Basil would already own the No. 2 spot on the single-season list -- though the Buckeyes would obviously much rather be undefeated.
- Offseason checklist: There's not much preparation Basil really needs to do to convert his simplest chances as a kicker, leaving the work that could carry him to a personal record to all those teammates on offense. Another year of development for Miller as he readies for a third season as the starting quarterback should take the spread offense to another level, and there is no shortage of weapons around him. Aside from the loss of Reid Fragel at right tackle and Jake Stoneburner at wide receiver, every other starter returns for an offense that led the Big Ten in scoring last season and still has room to grow.
- Attainable goal: All signs point to even more scoring for the Buckeyes in 2013, and given the track record already established by Meyer with the program, that means touchdowns and not field goals. While that could keep Basil from piling up a personal point total that could challenge Barclay's overall mark of 122 set during that same 2010 season thanks to 20 field goals, the extra point mark could be in serious jeopardy.
- Who: Ohio State was unsettled even midway through training camp as it looked to fill the last available spot on the offensive line, but it clearly found a winner after Reid Fragel nudged ahead in the position battle and never looked back. The converted tight end bulked up his body and soaked up the technique at right tackle, and his nasty blocking in the run game and reliable work in protection provided an invaluable boost for the spread offense in Urban Meyer's first season. It stands to reason that Fragel could have been even more special as a lineman if he'd been able to spend more than one year there, but that development will now come after a likely selection in the NFL draft this spring.
- By the numbers: The Buckeyes featured a power rushing attack before Meyer arrived, but he took it to an even higher level with his spread offense thanks to the physical blocking he got from all five spots up front -- including the somewhat surprising work done by Fragel sealing the edge or pancaking linebackers at the second level. Ohio State averaged 191 yards per game on the ground the season before Meyer arrived, and despite his spread reputation, he backed up his repeated claims that a rushing attack really makes it hum by bumping that number up to 242 behind Fragel and his big buddies.
- Job description: The Buckeyes will be returning four experienced starters on the line, so the new member is going to have plenty of assistance as he breaks into the rotation. With Corey Linsley and Jack Mewhort back, for example, Ohio State certainly isn't going to need somebody to come in and try to be a leader. What it will need is an athletic player capable of keeping Braxton Miller clean in the pocket and displaying enough mobility and strength to keep up with a rushing attack that will essentially return completely intact. The only thing missing is a right tackle, and the spotlight will be on the guy filling Fragel's big shoes.
- Top candidates: The job was nearly Taylor Decker's in training camp, though the true freshman ultimately came up short in his tight battle with the veteran, physically-developed Fragel. The edge Decker did have back in August was that he's a natural lineman who was more technically sound as a blocker, and with another offseason to build his body, the future is bright for the rising sophomore heading into spring practice and a training camp where he's likely to be the clear favorite to join the first unit.
- One to watch: The Buckeyes kept Kyle Dodson stashed away on the bench for a season after his high-profile recruitment and decision to sign with Meyer a year ago, but he'll have a chance to show he's ready to put his considerable athleticism and talent on display after being slowed by a shoulder surgery that set back his growth initially. Decker has a head start, of course, but a healthy and energized Dodson should at least be able to provide some depth up front.
- Most valuable player: The Buckeyes were blessed with good health across the line all season, which gave all five starters every possible chance to build a case as the standout performer for the unit. It might not even be fair to single out just one, but considering the uncertainty at right tackle dating to spring practice and the way Reid Fragel developed to not only lock down a job but excel at it, the senior gets the edge for providing the final puzzle piece in the trenches. Jack Mewhort was a monster on the other side of the line and Corey Linsley was reliable as the anchor at center, but Fragel's transition from tight end was absolutely critical for the high-powered spread offense.
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The Buckeyes might also have a few snubs to complain about as well.
The only unbeaten team in the league had plenty of players earn recognition, though there were a few selections that were a bit puzzling. Did the coaches and the media get it right?
Here's a quick rundown:
Coaches' first-team picks
- Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins
- Defensive end John Simon (Defensive Lineman of the Year)
- Cornerback Bradley Roby
- Quarterback Braxton Miller (Quarterback of the Year)
- Running back Carlos Hyde
- Wide receiver Corey "Philly" Brown
- Linebacker Ryan Shazier
- Safety Christian Bryant
Media first-team picks
- Quarterback Braxton Miller
- Left guard Andrew Norwell
- Defensive end John Simon
- Linebacker Ryan Shazier
- Cornerback Travis Howard
- Cornerback Bradley Roby
- Running back Carlos Hyde
- Left tackle Jack Mewhort
- Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins
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
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