Ohio State Buckeyes: Steve Miller
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- We now know for sure that Ohio State defensive end Noah Spence won't play in Friday's Discover Orange Bowl. He won't play again until the Buckeyes' third game of 2014, in fact.
The team announced Wednesday morning that Spence has been suspended three games by the Big Ten for violating an unspecified conference rule. The suspension begins with the bowl game and includes the first two games of next year, at Navy and vs. Virginia Tech.
It's unquestionably a big loss for the Buckeyes, as Spence led the team with eight sacks, finishing second in the league in that category. He also had 14.5 tackles for loss and is as quick coming off the edge as any player in the Big Ten. His pass-rushing ability will really be missed against Clemson, which has an explosive passing attack. If Ohio State can't generate some pressure on Tajh Boyd, its battered secondary will be hard-pressed to get stops.
The emergence of true freshman Joey Bosa as a star at defensive end mitigates Spence's absence somewhat. Bosa was incredibly disruptive in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State and had 6.5 sacks this season. Jamal Marcus and Steve Miller have been splitting reps at Spence's defensive end spot in practice this week.
We don't know what rule Spence broke and it would be reckless to speculate. Ohio State did mention in its release that Spence was an academic all-Big Ten selection who would continue working on his degree next semester, so this does not sound like it was related to academics. The league also likely would not have stepped in on a criminal matter, and there was no on-the-field reason for the suspension, like fighting. Ohio State said Spence's parents disagreed with the league's ruling and penalty and that the school assisted in exhausting the appeals process with the conference, which is why Spence's status has been up in the air all week. (A cynic might say the Big Ten got burned the last time it went to bat for Ohio State players in a BCS bowl game. See: the Tattooed 5, 2011 Sugar Bowl).
So make of that what you will.
For now, the Buckeyes will have to find ways to make up for Spence's production over their next three games, all of which are against good teams.
If only the Buckeyes' defense could heal that quickly.
Ohio State's defense sure looked sickly in its last two games, against Michigan and Michigan State. If things don't turn around before Friday's Discover Orange Bowl, Clemson's high-powered offense could leave Buckeye Nation feeling ill again.
Not good news for a defense that's already had its share of problems.
"We've not been up to the standard," Meyer said. "It hasn't been the standard for a while."
Meyer said he's evaluating "the scheme, the development and the personnel" to try and figure out why the defense hasn't performed at a typical Silver Bullets level. But he said one thing he isn't considering changing is Luke Fickell, the co-defensive coordinator who calls plays on that side of the ball.
"I have a tremendous amount of confidence in Coach Fickell," Meyer said. "We're going to get this thing fixed."
Fickell met with the media at a press conference on Monday and pledged to keep plugging away.
"I'm not going to sit here and make excuses and say, 'Well, this hurt us,'" Fickell said. "The reality is we know we've got to play better. We know we've got to get better at the things that we do."
Meyer said he has given a lot of thought and spent much time already contemplating who will replace safeties coach/co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers, who is taking the head coaching job at James Madison. While Meyer didn't rule out changing some roles with the new hire, he said the next assistant will likely hold the same title.
The biggest immediate changes on the defense involve some new faces. Vonn Bell, a highly-touted 2013 signee, will get his first start at nickel back, with Tyvis Powell moving to safety. The play of the safeties was a big problem against Michigan State, and the Buckeyes have had trouble replacing Christian Bryant, who was hurt in the Big Ten opener against Wisconsin.
Should Bell have played more earlier?
"I've always been a big Vonn Bell guy," Meyer said. "It takes time to move him into the lineup. We had good chemistry, won a lot of games. But he's certainly a talented guy who's going to play a bunch for us."
Powell has only practiced "some" at safety this season, Fickell said. It's a risk playing two guys in two new positions against Clemson's dangerous receivers, but Ohio State is banking on ability.
"Vonn brings a little something different," defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. "He's a little jack rabbit. He's a little different. Tyvis has a lot of range at safety. I'm excited to watch them play Friday."
Fickell said Miller hasn't really practiced at Spence's end spot all season, and his lack of experience there could "make us maybe have to limit some of the things we do there." Marcus has spent time in that position and brings some good things to the table.
"He's going to bring some aggressiveness and some twitch and some fire to the edge," Fickell said. "But it's that test of time in front of 75,000 people on Friday night. If you have a new guy out there, how do they really, truly react and respond in front of that with those lights on?"
There are a lot of questions hanging over the Buckeyes defense heading into Friday's game. They sure hope to make a miraculous recovery.
Man on fire: Braxton Miller is eventually going to come back and reclaim his starting job, but Kenny Guiton has more than kept the seat warm. The redshirt senior has been a record-setting inferno, throwing the football in the last two victories while Miller has rested his sprained knee. Guiton etched his name in Ohio State lore again with six touchdown passes -- the most in school history for a single game, a record that only took him two quarters to accomplish. The Buckeyes were already confident in their backup before the last two weeks, but their depth at quarterback has proven to be a luxury few teams in the country can match.
The defensive line is only getting better: Even with two starters out with injury, the Buckeyes still were able to deliver consistent pressure. The defensive line continues to silence any doubts about a rebuilt unit up front. Adolphus Washington (groin) and Michael Bennett (stinger) were held out to get them ready for next week’s physical test against Wisconsin, and backups Steve Miller and Chase Farris each chipped in sacks to offer some evidence there is improving depth to go along with the top-end talent in the normal first-team lineup.
The offense has weapons to spare: The Rattlers were hopelessly overmatched from the start, so much of Ohio State’s frighteningly efficient offensive outing must be taken with a grain of salt. But the Buckeyes have more than just a capable backup at quarterback -- they’ve got dynamic, young playmakers waiting for touches at running back and wide receiver as well. Ezekiel Elliott came off the bench in the second half to rush for 162 yards and two touchdowns, Warren Ball added 49 more rushing yards and Guiton completed passes to 10 receivers. Ohio State is putting up points in bunches now, and the future looks just as bright.
Dontre Wilson is ready for more: The package is already starting to expand for the touted freshman, and the Buckeyes are only going to keep adding to Wilson's plate as he gets more comfortable in the offense. Wilson put his speed on full display as a rusher, turning five touches into 51 yards and a touchdown as he worked the perimeter in the option game. His 3 catches didn't yield much, accounting for just 6 yards, but he's displayed some sure hands that should allow coach Urban Meyer to throw his way more often and put him in position to explode down the field. Wilson has only scratched the surface, but he's already starting to live up to the hype.
The defensive line is going to be fine: Adolphus Washington was hampered with a groin injury, but even without the sophomore available to lead the pass rush as the Buckeyes have planned, the unit up front appears to be ahead of schedule in the rebuilding effort. Noah Spence showed up in the backfield to harass the quarterback for the second straight week, Steve Miller came off the bench to chip in an athletic sack and Michael Bennett is finally becoming the force in the trenches he has long been expected to be for the Buckeyes. In all, the unit tallied 3 sacks, forced two fumbles and recovered them both during a performance that should ease some concerns about the lack of experience going into the season.
Corners opposite Bradley Roby will be busy: Technically, Roby didn't get the starting nod as he returned from his one-game suspension. But he was only on the bench for two plays before getting plugged back in the rotation, and once he was there, San Diego State seemed to have little interest in throwing his way. On the rare occasion the Aztecs looked at his side of the field, Roby was blitzing and still was able to break up the pass by leaping up to get a hand on it with his incredible athleticism. Most teams are likely to take the same approach to avoiding one of the nation's best cover guys, which will leave plenty of opportunities for Doran Grant or Armani Reeves to make plays in the secondary -- and both came up with interceptions as the defensive backs held the Aztecs to 216 yards while completing 22 of their 41 attempts.
Top of the depth chart: Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence at end with Michael Bennett and Joel Hale on the interior
Next in line: Ankle injuries in spring practice kept Tommy Schutt from making it a three-man rotation in the middle, but he is healthy now and pushing for work at tackle along with the more veteran starters. Chris Carter isn’t exactly slim and probably never will be, but he has shed some weight and could be a valuable run-stopper when the situation is right. Rashad Frazier has emerged as a viable option at end, and the transition of Jamal Marcus from linebacker a year ago to pass-rushing threat on the edge has apparently been a success as he and Steve Miller offer two more useful bodies off the bench.
New faces: For all of Urban Meyer’s history on offense, he long has made an emphasis on stocking his team with athletes on the defensive line capable of wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks. After losing all four starters from the 2012 line, the Buckeyes were perhaps more intent than usual on stocking up for the future in the trenches, and freshmen such as Joey Bosa, Michael Hill, Tracy Sprinkle and Tyquan Lewis all could play a role in the rebuilding of the unit as early as this season.
Recruiting trail: Even with all four projected starters set to return after this season, the focus on finding more potential game-changers up front hasn’t changed at all for Meyer. The class of commits already includes a pair of linemen, including ESPN300 end Jalyn Holmes (Norfolk, Va./Lake Taylor), a versatile athlete who checks in at 6-foot-5 and has enough mobility to play on either side of the ball potentially.
Flexibility: The plan heading into the season is to rotate through about eight guys up front, which wasn’t something the Buckeyes ever could really do a year ago while still easing Spence and Washington into the mix during their first seasons on campus. Ohio State can’t lean on a group of veterans to carry the load this time, though, and the development of the second unit could be critical as the season progresses. There’s no real question about who the starters are, but for all the talent Spence and Washington bring to the lineup, this will still be their first full year in the Big Ten grind as regulars.
- Despite his relatively limited role a year ago, Washington’s three sacks represent the highest returning total among linemen. John Simon’s nine takedowns led the team, and linebacker Ryan Shazier finished second with five -- so the Buckeyes are certainly looking for more individual production from the next wave up front.
- Bennett appeared in only eight games and chipped in just 11 tackles due to a nagging groin injury, but before his health became a concern, the Buckeyes had big plans for him as a sophomore with Meyer labeling him as one of his top four linemen. Ohio State will need him to live up to that billing on the inside this fall.
There may have been some uncertainty heading to spring practice as the Ohio State staff faced the daunting task of replacing six starters in the front seven -- including the entire defensive line. But it didn’t take long for Spence and Washington to start easing some minds and allowing the coaches to get some sleep. The two are freakishly talented and perfect complements to each other, with Spence a speedy blur off the edge and Washington a powerful force capable of bulling over blockers on the way to the quarterback. Neither has been called on for regular work over a complete season at this level, though, so despite the high expectations, there’s still plenty left to prove on the field. The way the two of them hold up physically as they tap into that enormous potential will be critical in determining just how much of a threat the Buckeyes can pose to opposing offenses this season.
We’ll give as much detail as we can and go behind the scenes to see why these Class of 2014 standouts are so attractive to the Buckeyes.
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From Noah Spence to Adolphus Washington to Michael Bennett to Joel Hale to Steve Miller to J.T. Moore, the names stick out and are full of potential.
Throw in Chris Carter and Tommy Schutt with newcomers Joey Bosa, Tyquan Lewis, Michael Hill, Donovan Munger, Billy Price and Tracy Sprinkle and the future looks bright.
So why would defensive end Dylan Thompson (Lombard, Ill./Montini Catholic) throw his name in the mix and join the 2014 pledges as future Buckeyes?
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Vitals: Dylan Thompson (Lombard, Ill./Montini Catholic) is 6-foot-5 and 274 pounds.
Status: He committed to Ohio State on March 23 during an unofficial visit.
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- Who: As one of the crown jewels of Urban Meyer's first recruiting class a year ago and also one of the true freshmen who chipped in on the way to perfection last fall, the defensive end isn't coming from nowhere to claim a first-team job. His current trajectory isn't surprising given his impressive physical attributes and the flashes of potential he showed in his limited game action behind Ohio State's veteran line last season. But neither of those factors should diminish the importance of his productive spring or the improvement he showed dominating drills even against respected blockers such as senior Jack Mewhort, as Spence solidified himself as a cornerstone of the rebuilding project on a defensive line that lost all four starters.
- Spring progress: The Buckeyes are counting on Spence to take a step forward in all aspects of his game, but his natural tools and his game experience gave him a bit of a head start. Physically, Spence looked stronger in his upper body and hadn't sacrificed any of his trademark burst off the edge. But it was mental improvement that Spence was more focused on during workouts after admitting that he leaned heavily on his motor and energy to make up for his youthful lack of awareness.
- Jockeying for position: There wasn't really any doubt heading into March about where Spence's name would be on the depth chart, and if there had been, it was completely gone after the spring game concluded camp. With the Buckeyes settled at end with Adolphus Washington complementing Spence on the other side, they can turn their attention during training camp to which guys are most capable of providing some breaks for the starters -- with Steve Miller, Rashad Frazier and Jamal Marcus leading the group of candidates.
- He said it: "I pretty much try to go hard every play like it’s my last play. That’s probably the biggest thing I have going for me. I don’t always know what I’m doing, probably half the time I don’t know. I’m going to give 100 percent effort on every play." -- Spence
- Closing number: Tackling Braxton Miller is a bit tougher than just slapping a couple hands on him, so the sacks on the Ohio State quarterback in the spring game come with some grains of salt. But no matter the degree of difficulty, Spence racking up three sacks in the exhibition game in Cincinnati only offered more evidence that he's ready for more responsibility -- and the added buzz that comes with it.
The standup defensive end recorded 44 tackles -- 14½ for loss -- nine sacks and forced a fumble in his nine games for Ohio State.
The next in line for the Buckeyes are players who likely are already familiar to fans as Noah Spence, Jamal Marcus, Steve Miller, Tracy Sprinkle and transfer Rashad Frazier have played this spring.
But who comes after that?
Current freshman Tyquan Lewis could fill in there as well, but all eyes have turned to 2014 and who might be in the mix.
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Sometimes the numbers really do say it all.
In leading Lombard (Ill.) Montini Catholic to its fourth consecutive 5A state championship, defensive end Dylan Thompson finished the season with 92 tackles -- 19 for loss -- 7½ sacks and four forced fumbles.
Thompson -- Ohio State’s fifth commitment in the 2014 class -- is certainly a disruptive force on the line, and his commitment could be a big key to other players.
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It's rare when a defensive line coach steps on the practice field and doesn't see a single starter from the previous season. How rare? According to Ohio State's athletics communications staff, the Buckeyes haven't had a complete overhaul of their starting defensive line since the 1985 season, when all three top spots had to be filled. Although Ohio State ended up starting four new linemen in 1998, it had a returning starter from 1997 (end Matt LaVrar) on the roster.
All four starters from the 2012 team -- ends John Simon and Nathan Williams, and tackles Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel -- have moved on. The effort to replace them is arguably Ohio State's top offseason story line, as the Buckeyes could be a defensive line away from contending for a national title in 2013.
Vrabel is stressing three areas for the linemen this spring -- attitude, effort and toughness. If all three are achieved, Vrabel thinks the players can "let their God-given ability to take over."
The Buckeyes' linemen boast plenty of ability. Ohio State had arguably the nation's top defensive-line haul in the 2012 recruiting class, signing four ESPN 150 defensive linemen, three of whom -- Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt -- saw the field as true freshmen. More help is on the way from the 2013 class with standouts like tackle Joey Bosa, an ESPN 150 selection. Two incoming line recruits, Tyquan Lewis and Tracy Sprinkle, enrolled early and are participating in spring ball.
But the group has only nine combined career starts, five from junior end J.T. Moore. Its career tackles leader, junior tackle Michael Bennett, has a whopping 28 stops in 21 games.
"The guys we've got have a little bit of experience with Adolphus and Noah and Tommy," Vrabel said. "Michael Bennett and Joel Hale, Steve Miller, those guys have been here, contributing and giving us some leadership. And Tracy and Tyquan are just trying to figure their way through this thing.
"We're learning every day."
Although Ohio State's defensive line undoubtedly will be younger, Vrabel also thinks it will be faster with players like Spence and Washington, who finished third on the team with three sacks in 2012. Again, talent isn't a problem, but the line needs leadership after losing two-time captain John Simon.
Head coach Urban Meyer challenged several of the older linemen at the start of the spring, saying, "Steve Miller's been here for a while. It's time to go play. Chris Carter, how long has he been here? At some point you can't redshirt anymore." At the very least, Ohio State needs the veterans to fill out the line rotation.
Ideally, they can take the reins.
"No one's going to replace what John Simon provided for this program," Vrabel said. "We can only hope that we find guys who are willing to lead, be the same person every day, be competitive, play with some toughness and play with some effort. We'll have guys step up."
Vrabel should get an accurate gauge on his group this spring because of the men they'll be lining up against. What the Buckeyes lack in defensive-line experience, they make up for on their offensive line, which returns four starters with 81 combined career starts.
"If we can compete against them," Vrabel said, "we feel like we're going to be OK."
Spence evidently has been competing well, impressing Buckeyes offensive line coach Ed Warinner with his edge-rushing speed.
Vrabel's return to his alma mater in 2011 generated tremendous excitement, and he made an immediate impact on the recruiting trail. But his coaching skills will be under the microscope as he works with a group that, for now, is Ohio State's biggest question mark.
"I'm a young coach, I'm new to this, so every day is a challenge," he said. "I enjoy it, I embrace the challenge and try to do my best."
If Urban Meyer had placed a banner with the words "The Chase" in Ohio State's indoor practice facility last spring, he might have been asked, "For what?"
Sure, football players are always chasing something, as Meyer noted Tuesday when asked about the big, bold banner now hanging at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. That "something" can be localized: a starting job, a bigger role in the offense or defense, a scholarship, a coach's approval.
But Ohio State couldn't chase many tangible team goals last spring. The Buckeyes couldn't chase a Big Ten championship or a national championship because of NCAA sanctions. They only found out in September that they could chase a Leaders Division title. Undoubtedly their greatest attribute was an ability to chase the grandest goal they could -- a perfect 12-0 regular season, capped by a win against archrival Michigan -- and achieve it.
The banner makes much more sense now. Ohio State has emerged from the shadow of postseason probation and can chase whatever it wants, including the crystal football that has eluded the Scarlet and Gray -- and the rest of the Big Ten -- for more than a decade.
Meyer and his players can stop there for now. They should, as it's only spring practice. But "The Chase" will be a theme throughout Ohio State's offseason as bigger, broader goals are back on the table.
"Everybody’s got big dreams," Meyer said, "and we as a football team have some dreams."
Ohio State can dream big primarily because of an offense that transformed in 2012, rising from 81st nationally in scoring to 21st and from 107th in total yards to 47th. Quarterback Braxton Miller blossomed in Meyer's system, racking up a team-record 3,310 yards of offense, earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors and finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Miller, who spent part of his winter break working with noted quarterback instructor George Whitfield in California, leads a unit that returns nine starters, including four linemen. Ohio State also regains the services of versatile running back Jordan Hall, who missed most of last season because of injury and turned heads during Tuesday's practice.
After delivering scathing -- and accurate -- critiques of Miller, the receivers and the entire offense last spring, Meyer has a much rosier outlook these days. Tuesday, he called Miller's footwork "outstanding" and praised Hall and several other skill players.
"Last year, who knew what as going to happen," the coach said. "I think the appropriate term was 'clown show' at this time. I don't feel like [it's] a clown show."
If Miller makes strides as a passer, Ohio State should have its most potent offense since the 2006 season, when the Buckeyes played for the national championship (coincidentally against Meyer's Florida Gators). The key to the spring -- and to the season, really -- is whether Ohio State produces a typical Ohio State defense. Otherwise, Meyer says, any discussion about "those two words that we don’t use very often" is pointless.
The spring spotlight shines brightest on the defensive front seven. Ohio State lost all four starting linemen from 2012, including Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year John Simon and massive tackle Johnathan Hankins, a possible first-round draft pick. Talented young linemen such as Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence got a taste last fall, and Meyer's staff has recruited extremely well up front, but others must emerge to fill out the rotation. Meyer on Tuesday challenged players such as Steve Miller and Chris Carter to do so.
All-Big Ten selection Ryan Shazier returns at linebacker, but depth remains a major concern for a group that needed fullback Zach Boren to fill a starting role midway through the 2012 season.
"If we put together a good D-line and linebackers, I think we'll have a good team," Meyer said. "If not, we won’t. It's pretty simple."
There's also a leadership void to fill this spring. Players such as Simon and Boren made sure the Buckeyes kept up the chase in 2012. Meyer expressed concern last spring at how the team would handle its first brush with failure. Thanks to the seniors, it never happened as Ohio State recorded only the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history.
The torch has passed to players like Miller, a quiet kid from a quiet family whose voice must be heard more in 2013.
"He needs to be a better leader," offensive coordinator Tom Herman told reporters last month.
Other likely leaders include Shazier and dynamic cornerback Bradley Roby, a big talker who almost always backs it up on the field. Their challenge differs from that of their predecessors, who kept the team focused in spite of the bowl ban, yet did so under measured expectations.
The expectations are back to Tressel-era levels, and perhaps even higher because of the perfect season and Meyer's recruiting success. Anything less than a celebration Dec. 7 in Indianapolis -- and perhaps another Jan. 6 in Pasadena -- will be considered disappointing.
"The chase," Meyer said, "is on."
- Who's back: The Buckeyes don't exactly have a shortage of talented defenders returning to the fold up front, but it's what they're missing that will dominate the discussion heading into spring and the summer workouts. The storied career of John Simon is over after one more dynamic season on and off the field, and after battling back from injuries to contribute on the other end of the line, Nathan Williams is out of eligibility also. There's never been much doubt about how bright the futures are for Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, and in limited action as true freshmen last fall, they showed flashes what they can do. But the Buckeyes won't need potential when September rolls around -- they'll need production, and those two and rising junior Steve Miller are at the head of the line and waiting for redshirt freshman Se'Von Pittman to join them.
Successful college programs often can point to a specific time when their program got a shot in the arm to get things rolling.
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