Ohio State Buckeyes: Tommy Schutt

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.

Can the Buckeyes' defensive line live up to the hype?

There's not really any uncertainty or much reason to doubt the deepest unit on the roster and perhaps the most talented group of starting defensive linemen in the nation, though perhaps that might be the only thing that could potentially become an issue for the Buckeyes.

[+] EnlargeNoah Spence
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMINoah Spence is suspended for the first two games of the season, but with the depth Ohio State has on the defensive line, the Buckeyes should be fine.
It seems unlikely that a group, led by one of the program's most respected leaders in defensive tackle Michael Bennett, would fall victim to its own hype. Finding the motivation to tap into the potential that has Urban Meyer and the coaching staff drooling over the possibilities would seem to be the only possible hurdle keeping the Buckeyes from making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.

After all, there was so much size, speed and skill on hand this spring that Meyer shipped over an 11-game starter last season -- Joel Hale -- to the offensive line, and he's a senior with just one season of eligibility remaining. The emphasis on rebuilding the defense on the recruiting trail from the front to back is clearly paying dividends, and the next wave is ready to take over and make an impact.

Joey Bosa and Noah Spence showed what they were capable of last season by combining for 15.5 sacks at defensive end, and the former in particular might have only been scratching the surface of his ability after jumping into the starting lineup as a true freshman when Adolphus Washington struggled with some early injuries. It was Washington who was supposed to form the other half of a terrifying tandem with his classmate Spence, but a new, permanent home on the interior next to Bennett might make the junior even more dangerous, as he hasn't lost any burst while still adding strength to his 6-foot-4, 288-pound frame.

And while that collection of starters might make it tempting for new defensive line coach Larry Johnson to just leave them on the field for the entire game and never look back, the Buckeyes are planning to rotate liberally to keep everybody fresh -- and it's the depth that affords them that option. Players such as Tommy Schutt and Chris Carter are capable of coming in to stuff the run on the interior, and pass rushers such as Steve Miller, Rashad Frazier, Jamal Marcus and Tyquan Lewis each could factor into Ohio State's plans to spell Bosa and Spence.

In fact, somebody will have to fill in for Spence for the first two weeks of the season because of the suspension that started in the Discover Orange Bowl and will keep him out of games against Navy and Virginia Tech.

But even answering the question of who will take his place temporarily won't likely be one that causes the Buckeyes to lose any sleep.
Now that spring practice has played out in the Big Ten, we thought we'd try to identify the best overall position group on any team in the league.

Had we done this exercise last year, we might have chosen the Michigan State secondary, a.k.a., the "No-Fly Zone." Ohio State's offensive line would have ranked highly as well, along with Wisconsin's running backs, Iowa's linebackers and Indiana's receivers.

This season, there is once again some stiff competition. The Badgers' running backs are still impressive, with Corey Clement joining the cast in a bigger role with Melvin Gordon. Nebraska's backs are also strong, with Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross. You could make a case for Michigan State's defensive line, even with two new starting tackles, simply because of the sheer talent of Shilique Calhoun and underappreciated senior Marcus Rush. Other units that could be very strong include Iowa's offensive line, Michigan's linebackers and Maryland's receivers, if healthy.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDefensive end Joey Bosa made an instant impact as a freshman and helped transform Ohio State's defensive line into the Big Ten's most formidable unit.
But my vote for the Big Ten's best position group goes to Ohio State's defensive line.

It's not a crew that is swimming with All-Americans and award winners, though defensive end Noah Spence and defensive tackle Michael Bennett both made second-team All-Big Ten last season. Still, for sheer talent and depth, it's hard to beat the Buckeyes' defensive front four.

Start with Joey Bosa, who had an outstanding true freshman season with 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in 2013. He should be even better with a year of experience under his belt, and he's one of the top candidates for Big Ten defensive player-of-the-year honors as a sophomore. At the other end spot is Spence, who finished second in the Big Ten in sacks with eight last fall. The junior will have to serve two more games of his three-game suspension to start the season, but Jamal Marcus showed he can fill in adequately after he had six tackles in a strong Orange Bowl performance.

The Buckeyes aren't huge in the middle with Bennett and Adolphus Washington, who both are listed at 288 pounds. But both are very athletic. Bennett started his career at defensive end, and Washington looked like possibly the best player on the line last spring until he moved back and forth in the fall. The junior has finally found a home at tackle.

"I've picked up about 40 pounds since the end of my senior year of high school," he told ESPN.com. "The defensive end spot became so much harder for me to move and carry all that weight. But I've still got my speed in closer quarters with bigger guys who are much slower than me, so I've still got my advantage."

Washington said that "basically, it's all defensive ends on the field," when Ohio State starts its preferred four. That athleticism can do some major damage.

"We've got guys that can pass rush from any spot on the field, and that’s dangerous," Bennett said. "Who are you going to double team? We all have the mindset that if you’re single-blocked, you should get to the quarterback, and we all have the ability to do that."

New position coach Larry Johnson took over from Mike Vrabel this winter, and the former longtime Penn State assistant wants to rotate guys in much more than his predecessor did. The Buckeyes should have the luxury of depth, especially when Spence returns. Tommy Schutt and the 340-pound Chris Carter can help plug the middle, while Steve Miller, Tracy Sprinkle, Michael Hill, Tyquan Lewis and Purdue transfer Rashad Frazier should all contribute in some form. Jalyn Holmes and Dylan Thompson are 2014 signees who could add even more reinforcements.

Ohio State led the Big Ten in sacks last season and finished third in rush defense despite some soft spots at linebacker. The defensive line returns every player of significance from 2013 and has a lot of young players with room to improve.

"I didn't know we could grow as much as we have this spring," Bennett said.

That's a sobering thought for everyone else, and it's another reason why the Buckeyes' defensive line should be the best position group in the Big Ten.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.

Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.

Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.

Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.

Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.

Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.

Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.

Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.

Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.

Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.

Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.

Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.

Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
Tags:

Ohio State Buckeyes, Illinois Fighting Illini, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Indiana Hoosiers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Iowa Hawkeyes, Maryland Terrapins, Big Ten Conference, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Malik McDowell, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Adolphus Washington, Noah Spence, Tommy Schutt, Jamal Marcus, Darius Latham, Deion Barnes, Louis Trinca-Pasat, Tyler Scott, Evan Panfil, Chris Carter, Bruce Gaston Jr., Ryan Isaac, Ryan Russell, Dave Aranda, Randy Gregory, Ra'Shede Hageman, Antoine White, Shilique Calhoun, Mark Scarpinato, Aaron Curry, Tim Kynard, Michael Rouse III, Carl Davis, Vincent Valentine, Sean McEvilly, Marcus Rush, DaQuan Jones, Nick Mangieri, Theiren Cockran, Avery Moss, Beau Allen, Greg McMullen, Teko Powell, Lawrence Thomas, Anthony Zettel, Tarow Barney, Tyler Hoover, Jihad Ward, David Kenney, Ralphael Green, Micajah Reynolds, Larry Johnson, Langston Newton, C.J. Olaniyan, Paul James, B1G spring positions 14, Alex Keith, Andre Monroe, Arthur Goldberg, Austin Teitsma, Cameron Botticelli, Chance Carter, Chikwe Obasih, Damon Knox, Darian Cooper, Darius Kilgo, David Milewski, Dawuane Smoot, Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson, Djwany Mera, Dominic Alvis, Greg Latta, Harold Legania, Houston Bates, Isaac Holmes, Jake Keefer, Jalani Phillips, James Adeyanju, James Kittredge, Jamil Merrell, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, Keith Bowers, Kemoko Turay, Konrad Zagzebski, Maliek Collins, Marcus Thompson, Max Chapman, Michael Amaefula, Nate Meier, Quinton Jefferson, Roman Braglio, Ryan Phillis, Ryan Watson, Scott Ekpe, Sebastian Joseph, Warren Herring

While Penn State searched for a coach in December 2011, Urban Meyer convinced several Penn State recruits to switch their pledges to Ohio State. Top defensive line prospects like Noah Spence and Tommy Schutt were among those who went from Blue and White to Scarlet and Gray.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesThe rivalry between Ohio State and Penn State could heat up if former PSU defensive line coach Larry Johnson joins Urban Meyer's staff.
Penn State hired a new coach on Saturday in James Franklin, but Meyer once again has used Penn State's situation to bolster Ohio State's defensive line.

Hours after longtime Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson announced he wouldn't remain in Happy Valley despite Franklin offering him an assistant position, Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel and ESPN's Joe Schad reported that Johnson was nearing an agreement to join Meyer's staff at Ohio State. The Buckeyes must replace Mike Vrabel, who has taken a post with the Houston Texans under, yep, former Penn State coach Bill O'Brien.

The coaching business is a small world, isn't it?

Ohio State hasn't confirmed the move, but the addition of Johnson would add to the next phase of the PSU-OSU rivalry. Like Meyer, Franklin comes to the Big Ten from the SEC and brings a similar type of aggressive recruiting approach. When Franklin talked Saturday about dominating the state of Pennsylvania and the region in recruiting, folks in Columbus took notice.

Now Ohio State is poised to replace an exceptional recruiter in Vrabel with another exceptional recruiter in Johnson, who brought top talent to Penn State throughout his 18 years as an assistant there. Johnson coached high school ball in Maryland and has strong connections to the area, which becomes even more important to the Big Ten with the University of Maryland officially joining the league on July 1.

The recruiting competition between Johnson and Franklin, once Maryland's coach-in-waiting, for top recruits in and near the Beltway will be fierce. Recruits from other areas like Thomas Holley, an ESPN 300 defensive lineman who committed to Penn State in October, could now be in play for Ohio State.

Johnson could have remained in Happy Valley and has been nothing but positive toward Franklin despite being passed over for the job for the second time in two years. As he told ESPN.com's Josh Moyer on Monday night, "Getting promoted isn't the issue to me. At the end of the day, it's giving Coach Franklin the chance to move forward."

It's also time for Johnson to tackle a new challenge. Ohio State could be shaking up the defensive play-calling duties after the unit's struggles in 2013, and Johnson would be a good candidate to assist Luke Fickell or take over. He turned down a chance to become Illinois' defensive coordinator after the 2008 season, and also said no to an opportunity at Maryland after the 2011 campaign. Joining Ohio State would make less sense if it's strictly a lateral move as a line coach, but if Johnson can move up both in pay and in responsibilities, he's making the right decision. Franklin is expected to bring defensive coordinator Bob Shoop from Vanderbilt to Penn State.

Penn State certainly will miss Johnson, who had plenty of support from current and former players to become the next Lions coach. Ohio State, meanwhile, needed another strong recruiter after losing both Vrabel and Everett Withers from its defensive staff. It certainly would get one in Johnson.

The Ohio State-Penn State rivalry has been ratcheted up a notch, both on the field and especially on the recruiting trail.

Five things: Ohio State-Iowa

October, 19, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Critical areas and key players to watch as No. 4 Ohio State and Iowa return from bye weeks and dive back into the Big Ten season on Saturday at the Horseshoe (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2).

Something has got to give: In a classic strength-against-strength showdown, there can only be one winner. Iowa has had one the stoutest rush defenses in the nation so far this season, and it has put up a brick wall in front of the end zone through six games, refusing to allow a single touchdown on the ground. The Buckeyes are averaging more than 280 yards per game running the football, and Carlos Hyde is as close to a sure bet to score in the red zone as there is in the country. Ohio State is well aware of the job the Hawkeyes did in slowing offenses down in the first half of the year, and it has taken it as a personal challenge to break that scoring streak that the Hawkeyes are bringing with them on the road.

Better Braxton: Both uncharacteristically hesitant as a rusher and careless with the football, Braxton Miller had two items at the top of his bye-week checklist after a rocky outing in a victory over Northwestern -- make sure his knee is totally healthy and keep a vice grip on the ball. Miller admitted that he wasn't quite feeling "like his old self" entering the off date, and the extra time to rehab and rest his left knee following two physical outings since returning from his early-season sprain should provide a boost for the Buckeyes. As for the pair of fumbles, Ohio State coaches went so far as to have him keep a football in his hands during stretching to emphasize ball security moving forward, and Miller should have plenty of opportunities to prove that lesson has been learned.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller, Tyler Scott
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsBraxton Miller is taking steps to be more protective of the ball after two fumbles at Northwestern.
On the line: For all the attention the Hawkeyes have received for their work against the rush, the Buckeyes have actually been even better as their rebuilt defensive line has zipped through the development process and anchored a unit that currently ranks sixth in the nation, allowing 86.2 yards per game. With defensive tackle Tommy Schutt returning from a broken foot to play his first game of the season on Saturday and end Adolphus Washington getting healthier after groin and ankle injuries, Ohio State might actually get even stingier with more depth and talent on the defensive line. Iowa's rushing attack hasn't been nearly as productive as Ohio State's, but establishing a presence on the ground will be a priority as Iowa will try to set up play-action passes and attack an inconsistent secondary.

Island living: The draft stock Bradley Roby came back to improve this season hasn't exactly suffered during the first half of the season, but it also hasn't soared yet. The redshirt junior cornerback hasn't been as consistent in locking down receivers in one-on-one situations as he was a year ago during his breakout campaign, but when he's on his game, few in the country are more capable of shutting down a side of the field and refusing to allow a target room to operate. Through five games since returning from suspension, Roby has 28 tackles and two interceptions and came up with a crucial blocked punt for a touchdown against Northwestern. But both he and Ohio State are still looking for more, and he'll likely again be in position to heavily influence the outcome as the defense leaves him isolated in the secondary as the Buckeyes try to stuff the run.

One at a time: A winning streak that stands at 18 games and the increasing volume about the national title chase as the season crosses the midway point could be distractions for the Buckeyes, and Meyer has hinted that the pressure might be starting to build for the Buckeyes. But throughout their unbeaten run since he took over last year, the constant each week has been an uncanny ability to focus on the next opponent, tune out the noise and go to work regardless of whether an opponent is ranked or not. That approach is going to be tested regularly now that the toughest stretch on the schedule is over, and Iowa is more than capable of taking advantage if the Buckeyes let their guard down.

Midseason report: Ohio State

October, 15, 2013
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Perhaps the journey hasn’t been quite as smooth as Ohio State might have planned, but the Buckeyes still are right on schedule to get where they want to go.

The Buckeyes still haven’t lost since Urban Meyer took over the program last year, and with another perfect half of a season under their belts and no postseason sanctions hanging over their heads, they’ve done everything they can to get in position for a potential spot in the national championship game despite some occasionally difficult circumstances.

Most notably, Meyer had to survive for nearly three games without star quarterback Braxton Miller, though backup Kenny Guiton rewrote the record books to bridge the gap until the reigning Big Ten player of the year returned in time for conference play. The Buckeyes, though, are looking at a longer absence for safety Christian Bryant, with a broken ankle ending his season and shuffling up a secondary that has had some ups and downs even with the senior on the field.

But through it all, the Buckeyes just seem to keep on rolling, and with tough tests against Wisconsin and Northwestern having already been passed, the road looks pretty clear ahead in the buildup to The Game against Michigan at the end of November. With Miller back on the field, Carlos Hyde back in the fold after a three-game suspension and the defensive line potentially getting a boost from the return of tackle Tommy Schutt as early as this week, the Buckeyes might have only scratched the surface through six games.

Offensive MVP: WR Philly Brown. Both quarterbacks have put up gaudy individual numbers while effectively splitting responsibility for the first-half wins, and both Miller and Guiton deserve credit for their respective improvements throwing the football. But the strides the receivers have made since last season have been every bit as critical in the development of the passing attack, and Brown has been the most consistent of them all and been an invaluable asset for either guy taking the snaps. The senior leads the team with 381 yards on 30 catches, and this year he’s also turning those receptions into scores with five touchdowns already to his credit.

Defensive MVP: LB Ryan Shazier. Few players in the country do more defensively to stuff the stat sheet, and the junior continues to produce at an elite level even while taking on more responsibility to become a vocal leader in the absence of Bryant. Shazier might not have many of the kind of highlight-reel plays he made a year ago on film yet this season, but Ohio State isn’t complaining about his 47 tackles (eight for loss), two forced fumbles and a sack.

Bye week to-do list: Ohio State

October, 11, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The first half of the season is in the books, and "The Chase" is still right on schedule for Ohio State.

But even with an undefeated record and what appears to be a pretty manageable slate of games coming up, the Buckeyes still have some areas to clean up if they're going to be a factor in the national title race. They could have used a bye one week earlier instead of taking on Northwestern on the heels of a significant injury to a starter, but they survived that road test anyway and can regroup without having suffered a loss all the same. Here's what has likely had the attention of coach Urban Meyer as he sets the course for the stretch run.

[+] EnlargeJared Abbrederis
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin's Jared Abbrederis found a lot of room in the Ohio State secondary on Sept. 28. That's an area the Buckeyes will try to improve during their bye week.
Sorting out the secondary: The defense made some second-half adjustments against the Wildcats and did enough to slow down a dangerous attack to get another victory, but last week wasn't the first time the Buckeyes have looked susceptible to big plays in the secondary this season. There was even more attention on the defensive backs, particularly Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown, as the loss of Christian Bryant to a season-ending broken ankle has added some uncertainty to what was expected to be perhaps the strength of the team with all the veteran experience in the unit. Even star cornerback Bradley Roby has been victimized a few times, and there has appeared to be some communication breakdowns and blown assignments against the pass in previous games against California and Wisconsin, which will make cleaning up the fundamentals in coverage a priority.

Keep harping on Miller's mechanics: The offseason reviews about Braxton Miller's improved ability with his arm were unanimously positive and have largely been proved correct, but neither the Buckeyes nor the junior quarterback can consider the job complete just yet. Miller missed at least one throw that should have been a touchdown against the Wildcats and at times looked a little shaky in his decision-making, but those issues didn't wind up costing Ohio State anything in a gritty win on the road. Coming back from missing nearly three weeks with a knee sprain, Miller might have had just enough rust on him to keep him from operating at full capacity, though there have certainly been glimpses of what he's capable now as a passer, most notably in the scoring barrage early against Wisconsin. Focusing again on his footwork and getting more live reps on the practice field should only help him become more consistent in the passing game.

Stay hungry, healthy: The Buckeyes are obviously aware of how the schedule shakes out, and it's not hard for anybody to deduce that they'll be heavy favorites in each of the next five games. But it's far too early to look ahead to the matchup with Michigan waiting at the end of November, and with no margin for error in the national title picture, the Buckeyes will have to maintain both the chip on their shoulder and the one-game-at-a-time approach that has served them so well since Meyer took over. Getting an extra week to make sure Miller is fully comfortable with his left knee is also helpful, even though it doesn't appear to have really hampered him much over the last two weeks. But the Buckeyes should really be boosted by the return of defensive tackle Tommy Schutt from a broken foot that has kept him on the sideline since training camp, expanding the rotation up front and providing some extra beef to stop the rush.

With any conference there will always be battles on the recruiting trail within the Big Ten. Coaching changes, different philosophies and geographic location all factor in to who battles who.

Here is a look at the top five Big Ten recruiting rivalries.

Huge test coming for OSU defensive line

September, 26, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The clues started popping up in the form of ferocious pass-rushing ends who were dominating spring practice.

By the time training camp and the start of the season rolled around, a couple new bodies were added into the rotation, and Ohio State was starting to show signs that what was thought to be a potential problem was about to be solved.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Jason Mowry/Icon SMITrue freshman Joey Bosa has been pressed into action and has performed admirably.
Now with four games under their belt, the Buckeyes are reasonably certain that an entirely rebuilt defensive line has gone from possible weakness to legitimate strength.

But even with all the information they’ve compiled -- dating to the end of last season and through an impressive start outside of Big Ten play -- all No. 4 Ohio State really has at this point is a hypothesis. The true test is coming Saturday, with No. 23 Wisconsin and its powerful rushing game visiting Ohio Stadium to provide a more concrete answer about just how good the Buckeyes are up front.

“They have not received the challenge yet like this one,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “This will be the biggest challenge to this point, maybe the rest of the year, for our defensive front seven.

“I know we’ve had conversations about this outfit before, because the run game is real. You can get embarrassed real fast if you're not gap-sound and handling your business.”

The Buckeyes went about their nonconference business with ruthless efficiency and relative ease, relaxing some of the concerns about filling the void left by three graduated seniors and a junior who left early for the NFL draft. But given the level of competition a largely inexperienced unit has faced compared to what it will encounter in the trenches against the Badgers, it’s difficult to reach much of a conclusion until after this weekend’s prime-time matchup.

Ohio State hasn’t been at full strength on the line yet either, with Adolphus Washington missing two games due to a groin injury that has kept him from forming what appears to be a terrific tandem with fellow sophomore Noah Spence. Defensive tackle Michael Bennett was held out of last week’s blowout over Florida A&M, and Ohio State has yet to get a snap out of Tommy Schutt at the position this season due to a preseason foot injury. Those issues have pressed a true freshman into an expanded role at end, where Joey Bosa has shined, and it also forced Meyer to move offensive lineman Chase Farris back over to defense to provide more depth and talent on the interior alongside veteran Joel Hale.

But even with those limitations, the way the Buckeyes have played might give them a bit of extra credit, considering they still rank No. 9 in the nation against the rush and No. 13 in total defense, which also represents marked improvement from some early struggles a year ago in Meyer’s first season with the program. But those numbers haven’t come against teams that can block as physically or run as dangerously as the Badgers, and the nation’s third-ranked rushing attack is the measuring stick that counts for a defense looking to live up to the proud tradition of the Silver Bullets.

“I know people are going to say that it's going to come down to making tackles and stopping big plays and things like that,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “But if we do a great job up front, we'll be in good shape. If we don't do a great job up front, we'll have a tough time.

“That doesn't mean the back seven don't have to play well. The linebackers and [secondary] are every bit a part of stopping and fitting that run and being a part of that effort as the front seven. But those guys up front are where the game is won and lost.”

Testing a hypothesis doesn’t get much easier than that.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Breaking down the positions and players who have the most to prove as No. 2 Ohio State opens the season on Saturday against Buffalo (TV: ESPN2, noon).

FIRST DOWN: Defensive tackles

Michael Bennett
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThe Buckeyes feel good about their DEs, but Michael Bennett and the rest of the Ohio State DTs have something to prove.
The broken bone in Tommy Schutt's foot has thrown another wrench in the rebuilding project for the Buckeyes up front, and they reacted to it swiftly by shuffling Chase Farris back over to defense from the offensive line.

Schutt wasn't listed as a starter on the depth chart for the opener, but the sophomore impressed in limited action last season and had turned in a productive training camp before the injury bug bit him again on Monday. The Buckeyes know what life is like without Schutt after ankle issues limited him throughout spring, but for a unit that is replacing all four starters, having everybody healthy and ready to contribute was obviously important.

Ohio State has no shortage of confidence in Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington at end, but in some respects Joel Hale and Michael Bennett are still unknown quantities despite having been in the program for a couple years. Now with Schutt out and Farris moving to fill the void, the pressure is ramped up for a newcomer such as Michael Hill or sophomore Chris Carter.

SECOND DOWN: Freshmen skill players

The Buckeyes have no shortage of pieces returning from the Big Ten's best offense a season ago, but it's the fresh additions that figure to allow Urban Meyer to truly unleash his spread attack this fall.

They still have to prove themselves in a game though, and Dontre Wilson, Ezekiel Elliott and Jalin Marshall are all likely to touch the ball a few times as the Buckeyes evaluate what they have in what is shaping up to be an offensive class capable of making an early impact.

Wilson, in particular, could get his hands on the football right away with Ohio State trotting him out to return kickoffs. His electric speed could be put on display early, but the Buckeyes will really be watching him closely in the H-back role as they try to add more diversity to the playbook.

THIRD DOWN: Cornerbacks

The starting job Armani Reeves is filling this week is only temporary, and the sophomore is well aware of that. But he's got a huge opportunity to impress with Bradley Roby sitting out his one-game suspension, and potentially down the road it might help him make a push for the other first-team job at cornerback.

Doran Grant has something to prove himself after playing minimally in reserve of Roby and Travis Howard a year ago, so the junior bears monitoring as well as he transitions into the starting lineup. There hasn't been any question about the pecking order since spring -- with Roby and Grant leading the way for a talented, deep secondary -- but only one career start separates Grant from Reeves. Both would benefit from making a strong first impression against the Bulls.

FOURTH DOWN: Braxton Miller's arm

The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive for the junior's development as a passer, and he publicly lobbied after practice to air the ball out at least 25 times -- then joked that he would call his own plays to get to 30.

If Miller is eager to show off the improvements he's made mechanically both in terms of accuracy and his footwork, the Buckeyes would certainly like to get a gauge of how far he's come in a meaningful setting as well.

There's been little doubt since a productive spring game that Miller is sharper and more confident delivering the football, and he's only had more time to fine tune his arm since then. The Buckeyes were far from a balanced offense last season, rushing twice as often as they passed, with Miller's skills as a runner helping drive up the margin.

But if his arm has managed to make up some ground with his feet, the offense could be unpredictable with what it could do on any down, making it a nightmare to try to defend.

Position preview: Defensive line

August, 21, 2013
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Breaking down the Ohio State roster as training camp winds down and the program turns its attention to the opener on Aug. 31 against Buffalo.

DEFENSIVE LINE

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.

Notable numbers:

  • 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.
Big question: How good can the super sophomores be?

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.
Trades aren't happening in college football any time soon. Even if they were legalized, the thought of two hated rivals doing anything to potentially help each other out would make Woody and Bo start spinning in their graves.

But pretend for a second those laws were relaxed and the Buckeyes and Wolverines each had a need so pressing that the programs at least kicked around some ideas. As part of our ongoing look this week at "The Game," a couple ESPN.com beat writers took a shot to see just what they could get from each other that might spur on a championship run for the current roster. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, here's a look at how a (fictional) deal might have gone down.

From: OSU_GM

To: UM_PersonnelDept

Subject: Don’t tell anybody

Mr. Rothstein:

We probably shouldn’t even be talking, and if word gets out that we even considered making a deal, we might need to consider looking for new jobs. But since the rules against trades in college football magically vanished and we were hired for some reason to become general managers for Ohio State and Michigan, respectively, I think we at least owe it to ourselves to pursue all options. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Buckeyes were hit pretty hard by graduation in the front seven after knocking off the Wolverines to cap a perfect season last fall (in case you forgot about the celebration in the ‘Shoe). And recently the program has seen a group of linebackers that was already thin lose a couple more bodies that could have offered some help off the bench this fall. Additionally, while the future looks pretty bright at tackle for Taylor Decker or Chase Farris, right now there is one spot without much experience that tends to stand out when there are four seniors starting elsewhere on the line. So, I don’t know what position is troubling you most as training camp sneaks up on college football, but if there’s a potential swap or two that might help us both out, I am all ears. But you didn’t hear that from me.

Sincerely,

Austin Ward

Interim Ohio State personnel director

---

[+] EnlargeMichael Schofield
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThe Buckeyes wanted Michael Schofield for experience at tackle, but Michigan's demands in return were too rich for OSU's blood.
From: UM_PersonnelDept

To: OSU_GM

Subject: Too late

Mr. Ward:

Unfortunately for you, I'm mouthy. And I've already started rumors you are trying to trade Braxton Miller for the remnants of Rich Rodriguez's offense. Apologies in advance. Not going to lie, looking over my roster I have concerns at wide receiver, running back and I could use some experience on the interior of the offensive line. Also, while there's some depth at cornerback, wouldn't mind grabbing one or two from you. Oh, and since you're interested in giving up Miller, that would solidify some of the depth issues there. I see you're fishing for a tackle. Sorry, Taylor Lewan is not available. While I like Michael Schofield a lot, he is more available at the right price. So too are some of the linebackers. What interests you on the Michigan squad? I'm willing to listen for anyone except for Lewan and quarterback Devin Gardner.

Sincerely,

Michael Rothstein

Fake Michigan personnel director

---

From: OSU_GM

To: UM_PersonnelDept

Subject: Re: BRAXTON

Hey bud, these talks just about ended instantly with any mention of the franchise quarterback being available. Newsflash -- Miller won’t be on the market heading into his senior season either, so get used to trying to defend him. At any rate, Schofield would be an intriguing option for the Buckeyes because he could provide another veteran presence with ample experience in the Big Ten, potentially giving Decker or Farris another year to develop physically before moving into the starting lineup in 2014. After getting a glimpse at what Desmond Morgan could do last fall when he made 11 tackles (in a losing effort) against Ohio State, he might look good in Scarlet and Gray, especially if the spring gave him flexibility to play in the middle. I probably don’t need to mention that Bradley Roby is untouchable in the secondary, but there is no shortage of talent alongside him in the backend. Might want to take a look at the stable of running backs the Buckeyes have in the fold as well -- but feel free to skip over Carlos Hyde.

AW

---

From: UM_PersonnelDept

To: OSU_GM

Subject: No subject

(Read full post)

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Training camp hasn't even started yet. After that grueling month, there's still almost an entire season to be played before "The Game" that matters most.

But it's never too early to set the table for the feud between Ohio State and Michigan, and at BuckeyeNation and WolverineNation, we're doing it all week.

We looked back on Monday at some heroes and villains on both sides of the rivalry. Today we're looking ahead at the strengths and weaknesses that could decide the latest edition in the storied series, which is just more than four short months away.

STRENGTHS

Ground and pound:

Carlos Hyde
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesOhio State running back Carlos Hyde is poised for a big senior season.
The Ohio State rushing attack was potent enough a year ago, but it's only added more experience and weapons to the mix now. By November, it might be almost impossible to slow down the Buckeyes on the ground as they incorporate the new pieces to the attack and potentially get more support from the passing game. Braxton Miller is obviously a threat to score from anywhere on the field, and if Carlos Hyde makes the kind of improvement he's targeted in terms of making defenders miss at the second level, that one-two combination will continue to rank among the best in the country, particularly with four seniors back on the offensive line.

But it might be the added dimension of a healthy Jordan Hall or a true freshman such as Dontre Wilson or Jalin Marshall at the hybrid, Pivot position that gives opponents even more fits. Or maybe it's a backfield that can be loaded up with as many as three talented rushers, rolling out Rod Smith or Bri'onte Dunn in a diamond formation with Hyde and Miller. Either way, the Buckeyes have the personnel to give Michigan a workout in the front seven.

Air patrol:

The expectations are growing for Michigan's passing attack now that Devin Gardner has the position all to himself, and he'll have plenty of time to develop and find a rhythm before meeting up with the Buckeyes. But there might be no stiffer test in the country than the one Ohio State can present a quarterback thanks to its overflowing talent and veteran savvy in the secondary. Cornerback Bradley Roby and safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett would make life difficult on their own, but the Buckeyes can complement that with another senior safety in reserve in Corey "Pittsburgh"' Brown, a junior cornerback looking to make a name for himself in Doran Grant and a class of incoming defensive backs that represented perhaps the best signing day haul in the nation.

The Buckeyes plan to get as many of those guys involved as possible this season, which could make the secondary even more fearsome by the time Gardner gets a crack at them.

WEAKNESSES

Middle ground:

The fresh faces are almost everywhere in the front seven, but heading to training camp, there's not all that much uncertainty about who will be filling which shoes left behind by the defenders who helped the Buckeyes go unbeaten last fall. Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington are poised for breakouts at end and Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry appear ready to lend a hand next to Ryan Shazier at linebacker, but there are two critical spots on the inside of the line that bear monitoring as Ohio State prepares to stop opposing rushing attacks. Michael Bennett is close to a lock for one role, but there could be a heated competition for reps next to him to complete the rotation. Tommy Schutt battled injuries throughout spring practice, but he has the ability to be a future star. Joel Hale is a grinder and respected leader, and the junior could be an intriguing option as well. And if big Chris Carter can manage his weight, his massive frame clearly could fill up some rushing lanes.

By November, the Buckeyes figure to have long ago answered those questions up front and should have also built up plenty of experience. But that will be at the top of the priority list as Ohio State chases a Big Ten title -- and keeps an eye on its rival.

Kicking it:

More often than not, the Buckeyes had the edge over opponents in the third phase. But considering how much value Urban Meyer places on special teams and how much production he expects, Ohio State wasn't all that close to giving him what he wanted a year ago. Kicker Drew Basil wasn't used all that much, aside from the season-ending win over Michigan, but among his 11 attempts last season were a pair of missed field goals from less than 39 yards that didn't exactly inspire confidence. The Buckeyes will be breaking in a new punter as well, and winning the field position battle is as important under Meyer as it has always been under previous regimes at Ohio State -- putting pressure on some young contributors to make plays in kickoff and punt coverage.

Philly Brown took a couple punts back for touchdowns last year and the "Freak Show" punt block unit made itself a nuisance a few times, but Meyer and newly-promoted special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs keep the bar pretty high in that area of the game. And in tightly contested rivalries, it can make all the difference.

Why Meyer takes patient approach 

June, 11, 2013
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Some coaches come out in flurry. Some like to wait and close the door behind everyone else.

While Michigan and Ohio State go at the recruiting process differently -- or more to the point, Brady Hoke and Urban Meyer -- both strategies work.

Hoke has the No. 1 2014 recruiting class right now. Michigan held the same distinction at this point last year before falling to No. 6. And no one closes quite like Meyer.


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videoCOLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State’s defensive line should need no introduction over the next few seasons.

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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Devin Gardner will start for Michigan, an Ohio State fan gets tackled for a big loss, and Oklahoma's perfect record inside the 10-yard line. It's all ahead in the "College Football Minute."
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