Big Ten: Ohio State Buckeyes
Last week on the blog, we took a look at the reasons why several contenders would win the Big Ten title in 2017, including Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. We also examined some sleeper teams.
It was all very optimistic, as things tend to be this time of year. Now it's time to play the role of pessimist. We're here to tell you why your team won't win the Big Ten title in 2017.
The country-pop band Big & Rich will perform before the Scarlet Knights' spring game next month. Sorry, Piscataway. After a dismal 2-10 season, it's going to be a long time before any championships are comin' ... to your city.
Jeff Brohm will make things interesting and exciting in West Lafayette again. Eventually. Bear Bryant couldn't lead this team, which has won two Big Ten games in the past three years, to a title this season.
Hey, this is a program that's won two of the past four league championships, so it wouldn't be a total shock to see the Spartans rebound from 3-9. Except that the program currently is mired in turmoil. There's going to be a very strange vibe around the spring game, which might be the first time we find out officially who's still on the roster while a sexual assault and Title IX investigation swirls. The trend line here is not good.
The Illini have some young talent coming in, but they may be hard pressed to surpass last year's 3-9 mark in Lovie Smith's second year. The two-deep was razor thin this spring, and basically the entire defensive line must be replaced. Things may get worse before they get better in Champaign.
You've got to like the direction of D.J. Durkin's program after he brought in a very solid recruiting class. Again, though, we're talking about 2017, and this team is going to be very young and without a proven quarterback. Plus, there should be a five-year mandatory championship probation for wearing these uniforms.
The Hoosiers have thrown a scare into several of the league's best teams the past couple of years. But it has almost always just been a scare, which is why Tom Allen is using the slogan "Breakthrough" this year. Even if Indiana finds a way to win some more of those close games thanks to an improved defense, it just doesn't have enough talent to get to the top of a loaded East Division.
Crazier things have happened for the boys in purple. Like 1995, for instance. Or actually making -- and winning -- a game in this year's NCAA tournament. The Wildcats will have one of the league's best backfield duos in Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson. Yet they've been just a bit too inconsistent to believe they can make a championship run.
Every day is elite in P.J. Fleck's universe. But with a very young team, no experience at quarterback and a brand new coaching staff, this year could prove mediocre at best. And to win a title, the Golden Gophers need to beat Wisconsin again before we all die.
Maybe this is the year. (Note: I copied and pasted that sentence from every preseason article written about the Cornhuskers since 2002). It's hard to win a championship with four losses , and that's exactly how many games Nebraska has dropped in seven of the eight past years. Where's the top-shelf, All-America-type talent? Will the team show up in the big games away from home?
There's a new starting quarterback and hardly any receivers anybody's heard of. Penn State and Ohio State are among the crossover games (though both are at Kinnick). The Hawkeyes have to go to Wisconsin. There's enough here for Iowa to win eight games and trigger a $500,000 bonus for Kirk Ferentz, but hide your eyes at bowl time.
Eighteen starters are gone -- 18! If anyone besides Urban Meyer can get that much youth up to speed, it's Jim Harbaugh, and his four-hour practices will age anyone quickly. Still, that's an uphill battle. And last time we checked, Ohio State is still on the schedule.
Speaking of the Buckeyes, it's always dumb to bet against them winning the Big Ten. Except that Ohio State has somehow won only won one Big Ten championship in the past six years. Meyer has lost only three league games while in Columbus, but they have come at the most inopportune times. The offense also has to prove it can throw the ball more than a few yards downfield.
The Badgers are like a metronome. You can set your watch to their consistency. They're the West favorites until someone proves otherwise. But can they beat whomever comes out of the East? They lost to Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State last year. The offense always seems to come up a bit short in those huge games. Alex Hornibrook is promising, but he's not Russell Wilson.
The returning experience is outstanding and the Trace McSorley-Saquon Barkley combo is as good as it gets anywhere. Yet the Nittany Lions also caught some breaks last year with their schedule, with how that Ohio State game turned out and the East tiebreaker situation. This year, they have to go to the Horseshoe, not to mention the viper pit known as Kinnick Stadium. Michigan at home will be no picnic. Defending a title is much tougher than coming out of nowhere to win one.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- No matter how impressive the résumé is already, there are undoubtedly improvements to be made.
J.T. Barrett is the first to admit that he has areas of his game that need to be addressed during spring practice. But like the Ohio State offense as a whole, it's important to note that the veteran quarterback isn't broken.
The Buckeyes scored points in bunches -- with one notable exception, in the College Football Playoff. And Barrett has now accounted for 100 touchdowns in his career for a program that wouldn't have even been in contention for the national title without his presence at the most important spot on the field.
But what can he do to take another step forward and end his run with Ohio State with a championship? In the first in our series looking at the to-do list for the Big Ten's top individual returners and some of their key statistics, let's begin with a player who's already among the most decorated performers the Big Ten has ever seen.
What's J.T. Barrett working on this spring?
The deep ball: The inconsistencies that hampered the Buckeyes at times -- and the collapse against Clemson -- were a collective effort, and Barrett was often low on the list of problems. The offensive line struggled to protect him, the receivers had issues with their routes and dropped a few too many passes, and even the coaching staff put Barrett in tight spots with the playcalling. Nevertheless, the spotlight always winds up on the quarterback, and it's no secret that Barrett is being asked every day in spring camp to help stretch the field better. Arm strength has never been one of his best attributes, but ranking just No. 76 in the nation with 29 completions of 20 yards or more isn't going to cut it for Urban Meyer. During open portions of practice, new quarterbacks coach Ryan Day has been emphasizing those deep throws and finding new ways to teach how they should be delivered. If the young receivers can get to the right spots this fall, expect Barrett to be able to find them.
Touch and accuracy: Barrett's completion percentage dropped for the second consecutive season, finishing last year at 61.5 percent. That was still good enough to finish in the top half of quarterbacks nationally, but it's well below the level Meyer would like from his passers. Ideally, Barrett would be around the 65 percent mark he posted as a freshman, if not even better than that, and that's where Day comes in with those new drills. The process starts with fine-tuning the footwork in the pocket, and Day has added some obstacles during drills that otherwise don't include defenders to stress where and how some passes need to be thrown. In one drill during open periods, Ohio State has rolled out a net in front of a downfield target that snags attempts that aren't thrown with the proper arc, just one example of Day trying to squeeze more accuracy out of Barrett.
Chemistry: Leadership isn't a problem for the program's first three-time captain, and his speeches are already the stuff of legend at Ohio State. So this might be the easy part for Barrett as he tries to get on the same page with his wideouts, start incorporating new pieces like versatile Demario McCall into the attack and help center Billy Price bring along an offensive line trying to cut down on the 28 sacks allowed last season. Ordinarily, Ohio State might be inclined to take it easy with a guy who has played and won as many games as Barrett has and take a closer look at the backup quarterback options with an eye on the future. But with new coordinator Kevin Wilson taking over to put his mark on the offense and Barrett trying to take strides after realizing there wasn't much NFL interest in him after last season, there's no time for him to relax.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- First he was the guy without a clearly defined position.
Then he was the guy trying to replace Darron Lee.
At some point, maybe Chris Worley will finally get to stop answering questions about position changes and the shoes he’s trying to fill. But it won’t be this spring for Worley, who heads into his senior season and once again is essentially restarting what has become an annual process of making his own name with the Buckeyes.
So exactly who is Chris Worley? Whoever Ohio State needs him to be -- and himself.
“Nobody wants to be constantly sort of talked about by being compared with another guy,” Worley said. “Guys want to come in and make a name for themselves. But, you know, that’s not how the world works.
“My job is to go on the football field and perform at the highest level in college football. Whether that’s replacing Darron or replacing Raekwon, at the end of the day those two guys were considered at the top of college football at their positions. It’s up to me to live up to that name, and I have no problem with that at all.”
Worley has already done it once, filling in seamlessly for Lee after Lee was taken by the New York Jets in the first round of the NFL draft last year. And after racking up 70 tackles with an interception, a forced fumble and 4.5 tackles for loss as an outside linebacker, Worley now has a new standard to match with the Buckeyes moving him to the middle to replace another early entrant to the draft in McMillan.
Worley is still quick to point to a spirited competition with Lee in 2014 that stretched through training camp and into the first week of the season, before Lee pulled ahead and became one of the nation’s breakout defensive stars. And battling for so long with a future first-rounder only added to Worley’s overflowing confidence, even when he was coming off the bench. It offered him some evidence that he was already close to that level as a linebacker after starting his career at Ohio State as a hybrid who could have also played in the secondary.
The challenge this spring certainly isn’t identical, because he was playing alongside McMillan a year ago instead of serving as an understudy to him. But once again, Worley in some ways will be trying to escape the shadow of a predecessor.
“We lost what I think is a man’s man in Raekwon McMillan,” defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “Just a really fine football player and a smart football player. We needed to make sure that we could try to replace him with a guy who has that kind of presence about him.
“Chris Worley, he’s just a really, really smart football player. He’s a guy that I think understands the game at a very high level. ... I’m really impressed by him.”
That football knowledge will be particularly useful as Worley becomes the Ohio State defense's new quarterback. Schiano is trusting Worley to get everybody lined up, know each assignment in the playbook and provide leadership on the field. On top of that, Worley obviously still has to play at a high level in the heart of the defense.
Through three practices, the Buckeyes are expecting he’ll be able to do that without dramatically changing his body from its current 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame.
“When you think of Chris Worley, some say his weight may not be big enough to move over there,” new linebackers coach Billy Davis said. “I think with all the spread offenses you face, he has all the size to play in there at [middle linebacker], especially in the college game.
“He’s a great leader in there, he’s very vocal, everybody follows him, he knows what he’s doing, so he’s a great quarterback for us. ... Not everybody can do that. Chris is outstanding at that.”
There is still a long way to go in spring practice to know exactly how much Worley might thrive in that role. Even after the Buckeyes wrap up camp next month and head into the offseason, Worley is well aware that he’ll continue to be asked about the guy who played in the middle before him.
That, of course, will be nothing new for Worley. And it hasn’t slowed him down any in the past.
“When you play at a place like Ohio State, that’s going to happen,” Worley said. “You might hear guys say, ‘Well, I’m not trying to be Darron or J.T. [Barrett] or Cardale [Jones] or Braxton [Miller].’ But at the end of the day, you better try to be that. Those guys have ripped college football apart. Why wouldn’t you want to be that?
“You have to know the expectation and try to live up to it or surpass it, but you also can’t count another man’s blessings and miss your own. That was my whole take on last year, and it will be even this year. Of course I’m trying to play better than Darron, or play better than how Raekwon did last year, but I’ve been blessed with a certain skill set as well.”
Those skills have already proved invaluable for the Buckeyes.
At some point down the road, they’ve raised the bar for whoever has to try to be the next Chris Worley.
Spring practice has barely started in some cases, and in a couple of Big Ten spots, the pads haven’t been put on at all yet.
But it’s never too early to forecast what should be another fascinating, competitive conference race this season. This week, we’re breaking down the top contenders with the top-five factors that could make them champions by the time December rolls around.
Up first: The league’s representative in the College Football Playoff last year, the Ohio State Buckeyes.
1. The talent level: No coach in the Big Ten has recruited as well during as many years as Urban Meyer. And now entering his sixth season with the Buckeyes, his machine is fully operational, keeping the pipeline flowing with elite talent at every position. But what could make Ohio State even more dangerous this season is that Meyer won’t be trying to plug in so many first-time starters the way he did a year ago, with no shortage of experienced veterans returning from a team that exceeded many expectations by growing up quickly last season on the way to the College Football Playoff.
2. J.T. Barrett is back: Among all those battle-tested, proven winners returning to the starting lineup is the most productive quarterback in Ohio State history. Any records that Barrett hasn’t broken yet will likely fall soon, and those that he already has might be put out of reach for any future successors at the most important position on the field. The redshirt senior had issues at times last season with his accuracy and footwork, but he was relatively low on the list of offensive problems for a team that struggled to protect the passer, didn’t reach its potential at wide receiver and was overly conservative calling plays. Quite simply, the Buckeyes wouldn’t have been in the College Football Playoff without him -- and he’s more than capable of taking them back there again.
3. Kevin Wilson has arrived: The Buckeyes are quick to point out that their offense isn’t broken after putting up more than 39 points per game last year. But the humbling shutout loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl exposed some significant problems with the passing attack that could no longer wait to be addressed. That inconsistency had shown up previously, and while there’s plenty of blame to go around, Meyer’s major move to upgrade the attack was to bring in former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson after he resigned from his post there last year. Wilson worked wonders with the Hoosiers and had the league’s highest-scoring offense two seasons ago -- edging the Buckeyes despite a clear difference in personnel. Giving him a full complement of weapons could be deadly for opposing defenses.
4. The defensive front seven is loaded: For all the conversations about Ohio State’s offense this offseason, there’s a good chance it won’t take that many points to win games thanks to the stingy Silver Bullets on the other side of the ball. Despite the loss of middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, the Buckeyes will have returning starters at every other spot in the front seven -- including a ridiculous surplus on the line. With Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes all deciding to stick around for another season, plus Nick Bosa heading into his sophomore campaign, Ohio State’s biggest problem might be finding playing time for all of its ferocious pass-rushers. And the Buckeyes may have found a ready-made solution for replacing McMillan, sliding Chris Worley inside and then filling his spot by sliding in another former starter in Dante Booker as he returns from injury.
5. Urban Meyer: When it comes down to it, the Buckeyes figure to always be in contention every year as long as Meyer remains in Columbus. The team he inherited lost seven games in 2011 -- and he has lost only six times during the last five seasons combined. Meyer has shown he isn’t afraid to shake things up to get results, and changes are coming for the second time in his tenure thanks to Clemson revealing a flaw in his system. The last time was after the 2013 season when the Tigers picked apart a crumbling defense. Meyer responded by hiring Chris Ash to revamp the pass defense, and the Buckeyes won a national title the next year. This time, it’s the offense that must improve after the goose egg in the semifinal, and Meyer will be expecting a very successful season again this fall.
Spring practice is underway at most Big Ten schools. We're still waiting for Iowa, Michigan, Penn State and Rutgers to get started, while Illinois is already done. One of the best things about spring practice is identifying breakout players for the following season. Our crew of Big Ten writers offer their picks for breakouts this spring:
Jesse Temple: Wisconsin LB Garret Dooley
Wisconsin will be loaded again on defense in 2017, but the biggest question centers on how the Badgers can replace the production of outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. Those two combined for 107 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. Dooley made a big leap as a redshirt sophomore last season. He went from making three tackles in 2015 to 40 tackles with 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He also earned his first two career starts replacing an injured Biegel at midseason.
Wisconsin has produced two All-Americans at outside linebacker the past two seasons with Joe Schobert and Watt. Dooley has a long way to go to reach that lofty status, but his predecessors have shown what is possible playing the position at Wisconsin.
Dan Murphy: Murphy: Nebraska WR Stanley Morgan Jr.
The Cornhuskers are going to need a new go-to target in the passing came now that Jordan Westerkamp is gone, and Morgan seems to be stepping up among a very young receiver corps in that role so far this spring. Coaches say the rising junior has hit the new stage of taking a more professional approach that many players reach when they're ready to blossom as newly minted upperclassmen.
Morgan's numbers in the weight room have increased and he has looked a step faster in running his routes so far in practice, they say. The New Orleans native had 33 catches and two touchdowns last year. Those numbers could jump significantly in 2017 with Morgan and De'Mornay Pierson-El leading a group of talented, but raw younger players in the passing game.
Austin Ward: Ohio State WR Binjimen Victor
The Buckeyes have been searching for a replacement for Devin Smith since he left after the national title two years ago, trying to find somebody capable of causing fits of panic for defensive backs worried about matching the speed of a consistent, dangerous deep threat. Midway through last year, Urban Meyer sounded like he was on the brink of unleashing one with 6-foot-4 size to go with athleticism to burn, but Victor apparently wasn’t quite ready yet as a true freshman.
He finished with just four catches for 64 yards and a touchdown, though one was the longest reception of the shutout loss to Clemson in a game where he also flashed explosive potential on a route that earned a pass interference penalty. For an offense looking to expand its passing game, Victor figures to be in the spotlight this spring.
I'll cheat a bit by going with one team that's well into spring ball (Northwestern) and another that has already wrapped up (Illinois finished its drills last week). But, hey, performances are better than predictions, right?
Nagel will be counted on to fill an enormous void left by Biletnikoff Award finalist Austin Carr. Nagel had 40 catches for 447 yards last year and is stepping into Carr's No. 1 receiver role this spring. The 5-foot-11 junior probably isn't going to replicate Carr's numbers, but if he can continue to build chemistry with Clayton Thorson, he'll be an important target out of the slot.
Crawford is a fifth-year senior -- not a designation you usually see in breakout-type lists. But he is making a key position change, from linebacker down to the rush-end spot. That's the same position that Carroll Phillips played last year en route to nine sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season. The Illini are replacing most of their defensive line, and Crawford showed good pass-rushing ability this spring.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Kevin Wilson wants to make a couple of things clear right away.
He wasn’t working miracles at Indiana, he wasn’t operating in a barren wasteland of talent and Ohio State doesn’t represent a magical oasis of personnel that can open up the playbook of his wildest dreams.
On paper, yes, there is a difference between the Hoosiers and Buckeyes that absolutely cannot be denied. And, sure, the loaded roster Urban Meyer has assembled has much more in common with the record-setting Oklahoma attack Wilson oversaw before he was hired to overhaul the Hoosiers.
But even if Wilson doesn’t want the credit as he rattles off the accomplishments of the NFL draft picks he produced at Indiana or notes that his rebuilding job actually created a more prolific scoring offense in 2015 than even Ohio State’s in the Big Ten, it’s hard to ignore the possibilities of just what he might be capable of now that he’s calling plays for a team that has four-star and five-star talent coming off the bench.
“We’ve got high talent here,” Wilson said after his first week of spring practice with Ohio State. “But the talent we had over there was really good, too, because we recruited and developed it. What we did in the weight room, what we did off the field, what we did in practice. I think the last two years, we set [a record] for most amount of all-conference players and most guys going to the pros. You can talk about talent, but it’s also about getting guys to play.
“Shoot, a year ago we were the best offense in the Big Ten at a place [some] said had no talent. Talent doesn’t win. It’s the ability to play together.”
Wilson has shown throughout his career that he has a knack for developing the kind of chemistry that can create offensive explosions, dating all the way back to his early stints at Miami (Ohio) and Northwestern. His innovative thinking, flexibility with his power-spread offense and ability to mix and match schemes based on his personnel helped build his reputation and put up bushels of points. And all of that also helped disguise the fact that at times he didn’t necessarily have a level playing field in terms of pure skill.
That certainly wasn’t a factor when Sam Bradford was airing the football out with the Sooners or Adrian Peterson was slicing through defenders on the ground. That same willingness to adapt, though, worked every bit as well with Nate Sudfeld putting up huge passing numbers with the Hoosiers just one season after Tevin Coleman rushed for more than 2,000 yards.
Now Wilson gets a crack at putting together a plan for a senior quarterback in J.T. Barrett, who has already accounted for 100 touchdowns in his career. He has a running back in Mike Weber who became just the third freshman in school history to top 1,000 rushing yards, and he’ll have four starting offensive linemen returning up front. And despite the loss of the team’s top three receivers from an inconsistent unit a year ago, the Buckeyes have no shortage of talent arriving from recent highly ranked recruiting classes.
And he also has the complete confidence of Meyer, who has long been an open admirer of Wilson’s work and appears energized by the chance to work with him.
“This year, there are things we have to work on and he’s the perfect guy -- he and [new quarterbacks coach] Ryan Day and our staff -- to get it fixed,” Meyer said. “The term we use around here is: We’re not changing; we’re enhancing what we do. If it was broken, we’d have to change it. If we wake up one day fifth or sixth in the Big Ten in offense or something, then you’re going to see one of these deals [starting over from scratch].
“I think the key word is mesh. If there is something that fits conceptually with what we’re trying to do, then we add it.”
How much addition is necessary remains to be seen since Wilson is only two practices into his tenure with the Buckeyes.
And for his part, Wilson hardly seems worried about updating Ohio State’s playbook or even putting together a finished product at this point. For now, he’s still just getting to know the players and figuring out how much talent he has to work with -- regardless of how it might compare to his previous stops.
“What you did in the past doesn’t mean it’s going to happen again,” Wilson said. “I’m kind of used to change. But I have core values in offensive football that parallel almost exactly, word-for-word verbatim to what Coach Meyer believes. The first adjustment is not an adjustment, because we’re on the same page as far as how you want to run the offense. Maybe the language is different, maybe the things you emphasize, as I continue to learn and grow that, in time maybe we enhance.
“But right now we’re running our stuff and running it with some great players.”
And Wilson’s stuff mixing with Ohio State’s players might just be the makings of a truly dangerous combination.
And in the final week they busted out the motorcycles.
The excitement of starting a new year of offseason workouts can quickly give way to the tedium of mat drills in the winter and basic playbook installations in spring. There are no upcoming opponents to study, no palpable buzz that crescendos toward a big game on campus like in the fall. Coaches need to get creative to keep spirits high.
For players, a break from the norm makes the hard work a bit more tolerable. For spectators, the entertainment value is as good as a football fan can expect when the season is still six months away. Here are some of our favorite offseason attempts to spice up a workout so far.
The Buckeyes' strength staff slipped into its leather chaps last week to wrap up winter workouts with the team’s annual Harley Davidson workout. Coaches rode motorcycle onto the practice field. Later the team strapped the logos of their rivals onto punching bags and let loose a little frustration.
— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) March 4, 2017
The team took a much different tenor than earlier in the same week when players held their own slam dunk contest. They might not have been playing at a full 10 feet, but linebacker Malik Harrison brought more style in his contest-winning slams than the competitors in the NBA All-Star contest this year.
— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) March 1, 2017
At Penn State, dodgeball was the game of choice as the Nittany Lions wrapped up winter workouts. Head coach James Franklin and his staff suited up in uniform to challenge their players to a match. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer even donned a pair of futuristic-looking Rec Specs a la Gordon from the movie "Dodgeball".
The staff challenged the players to a dodgeball tournament this morning. It was a bold strategy, let's see if it payed off for 'em... pic.twitter.com/YgQMVmViPy
— Penn State Football (@PennStateFball) March 2, 2017
Wisconsin doesn’t take the field for spring practice until next week, but here’s hoping the Badgers return their series of big guys doing things normally reserved for little guys. The trend started with a punt-catching competition between the offense line and defensive line a year ago. The Badgers also had their linemen run through a wide receiver gauntlet last spring with equally entertaining results.
And lastly there’s Michigan. The Wolverines will break up the doldrums of their spring practices with a trip to the Eternal City in late April. Last year the Wolverines spent a week of practice at the IMG Academy in Florida, and players said they enjoyed the beach trips they got to take between workouts. This year in Rome their non-football activities are scheduled to include visiting the Vatican, a trip to a Syrian refugee camp and some Italian sightseeing destinations. There are no known plans for any motorcycles for Jim Harbaugh’s team, but perhaps a Vespa or two.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- This is the good part for Urban Meyer.
The fallout from a humbling shutout, the coaching transitions and all the questions about what's wrong with the Ohio State coach's offense -- he can probably do without those things just fine.
But plugging in old game film as a refresher of what the Buckeyes look like when they're operating on all cylinders? Bouncing around ideas with another power-spread guru and looking for fresh ideas to put in future game plans? Coming up with a few new concepts over two months with a revamped staff and then hitting the practice field to install them for the first time in spring practice?
"There are some fun things you get to do and some non-fun things you get to do," Meyer said after the opening workout on Tuesday morning. "In the coach's world, that's fun for us."
First Meyer had to get the non-fun stuff out of the way, and there's not much doubt that the College Football Playoff loss to Clemson clearly belongs in that category.
There was also the search for a new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after Ed Warinner and Tim Beck parted ways with the program, opening the door for former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson to take over the attack along with former Chip Kelly protege Ryan Day. But there were warning signs ahead of the season-ending defeat that Ohio State's offense was destined for an offseason overhaul as the passing game struggled to find any consistency late in the year. Those struggles may have paved the way for Meyer to move on quickly from one of the worst losses of his career and dive into what he calls "enhancing" his system rather than changing it.
There were hours with the new assistants spent watching old Ohio State clips that highlighted his vision -- primarily from the three-game postseason run to the title in 2014, but also a regular-season win over Michigan State that year along with a few other prolific outings. Wilson obviously had his own ideas after building the Hoosiers into one of the Big Ten's most prolific scoring machines despite not boasting nearly the personnel he'll be working with at Ohio State. And Day, too, was already putting his stamp on working with the passers, which was on display Tuesday morning with an early emphasis on the deep ball and putting the proper touch on downfield throws.
And considering Ohio State is coming off a season where it averaged more than 39 points per game, brings back senior quarterback J.T. Barrett, and will have four starters returning on the offensive line, there's obviously still plenty of reasons for Meyer to smile aside from his chance to tweak a couple pages in the playbook.
"I wouldn't say a bunch, but there is some enhancement going on now," Meyer said. "We're not changing, we're enhancing what we do. If it was broken, we'd have to change it. If we wake up one day fifth or sixth in the Big Ten in offense or something, then you're going to see one of these deals (overhauling everything).
"We have to get back to being productive [with] 250 [rushing yards], 250 [passing yards], great tempo in between plays, aggressive play calling. ... I made them watch and I sat down and ran the clicker and said this is what I want it to look like. The one common denominator in all those games was we hit the deep ball. It's who we are. We're going to pound the football at you and we're going to go over the top. When that works, life is pretty good offensively."
Meyer, of course, has had far more good days than bad with the Buckeyes.
But it's one of the low points that has set him up for a spring filled of the kind of work he appears to enjoy so much, which could once again make Ohio State a dangerous threat offensively by the fall.
"This is our vision, this is our game, and it's a very balanced [offense]," Meyer said. "We're not changing who we are."
The enjoyable enhancement process, though, is already well underway.
The ahead-of-schedule conversation officially is over at Ohio State.
This is the year the Buckeyes have pinpointed to contend, and the work really picks up now as Urban Meyer welcomes a veteran team that came close last season to a camp that will set the tone for another push to the College Football Playoff.
The memories of the embarrassing semifinal loss to Clemson surely haven’t faded yet, and Ohio State surely will use them as motivation when it hits the practice field for the first of 15 workouts on Tuesday morning. That was a young team that had exceeded expectations in 2016 until the shutout loss in the Fiesta Bowl, and Meyer can take some solace in the rapid maturation as the Buckeyes turn their attention toward another shot at a championship.
But even with so much talent returning, getting into the four-team field to play for the crown is never easy. And the challenge starts now for Ohio State.
Spring schedule: The Buckeyes will open with two practices this week before putting the workouts on hold during spring break. Ohio State will then work uninterrupted with a handful of sessions each week leading up to the annual spring game at the Horseshoe, which is scheduled for April 15 at 12:30 p.m.
What’s new: Meyer has a revamped offensive staff in place to try to address the inconsistencies with the passing attack that culminated with the shutout loss in the College Football Playoff, with Kevin Wilson now in charge following his resignation at Indiana. Quarterback J.T. Barrett also has a new position coach, with Ryan Day welcomed on board in place of Tim Beck. Defensively, the loss of Luke Fickell to Cincinnati left a vacancy for linebackers coach, which Meyer filled by tapping veteran NFL coach Billy Davis for the role.
Three things we want to see
1. Time to air it out: The emphasis on a powerful, versatile ground game isn’t going away any time soon for Meyer and Ohio State. But the issues throwing the football at the end of last season made it clear that changes were necessary to help balance out the attack against elite competition, and Wilson was hired with aerial improvements at the top of his to-do list. Barrett has taken some criticism for his completion percentage over the last two seasons, but the senior still is a proven commodity with 100 touchdowns accounted for in his career and actually was quite low on the list of problems for the Buckeyes last season. The offensive line will need to protect better, the play-calling could stand to be more imaginative and, perhaps most important, the receiving corps needs to live up to the recruiting hype and start producing. The passing attack clearly is the Buckeyes’ top priority this spring, and there really isn’t a close second.
2. Reloading the secondary: For the second consecutive season, the Buckeyes have to replace three early entrants to the NFL draft. But once again, there appears to be confidence within the program that they'll be able to simply plug in the next wave and not miss a beat. There is experience returning with Denzel Ward at cornerback and Damon Webb at safety, but what really seems to have the Buckeyes excited is the historic class of defensive backs they signed that might be one of the all-time great hauls in the secondary. And with junior-college transfer and former Alabama signee Kendall Sheffield joining the program for spring practice, Ohio State has a head start on what could be another seamless transition of talent.
3. New boots: For all the veterans Meyer is welcoming back, he’s going to have to break in a new punter for the first time in four seasons after the graduation of Cameron Johnston. And he’ll also need a new starting kicker, though that could be a familiar face if Sean Nuernberger is able to bounce back and end an up-and-down career on a high note. If Meyer had his way, the ultra-aggressive coach wouldn’t ever need to worry about either position. But Johnston became an invaluable weapon for the Buckeyes during his career with his ability to dramatically switch field position. And when they were faced with some tighter matchups, a couple of missed field goals offered a reminder that having a reliable option who can deliver three points consistently can prove pretty useful. Finding two new starters on special teams could wind up being one of the keys to Ohio State’s spring.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Kerry Coombs admits to being a little nervous. And if the Ohio State cornerbacks coach could be in the building on Monday to offer his support in person and maybe help his players shake off their own anxiety, he would do it in a heartbeat.
He’s still toying with the idea of swinging over to Indianapolis on Sunday just to see the former Buckeyes in person and offer a few words of motivation ahead of their on-field NFL combine workouts. But no matter what, Coombs will have to watch the performances of Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore on delay and rely on text updates, because his day is already reserved for developing the next first-round pick to come out of his meeting room.
“The reality is, at this point, it’s performance time and they don’t need another guy making them nervous and all that kind of stuff,” Coombs said. “What they need to do is just go be who they are. I’ll talk with them before they perform and compete, encourage them. But I’ll be in meetings and everything else with our own players getting them ready for practice Tuesday.
“I may go over on Sunday, but that’s more social. Just seeing them to say hello and pump them up a little bit, because I’m absolutely nervous and excited for them. It’s like game day all over again.”
Ohio State’s defensive backs have obviously thrived in those situations over the past few years. And the expectation is Lattimore and Conley will again deliver with every team in the league closely evaluating and weighing the value of spending a high draft pick on the latest models from the cornerback factory Coombs has overseen since joining the Buckeyes under Urban Meyer in 2012.
He’s already produced first-round picks in Bradley Roby and Eli Apple and developed Doran Grant into a fourth-rounder at the position he’s directly responsible for. And throwing in second-round safety Vonn Bell last year and likely first-rounder Malik Hooker this year, the Ohio State secondary as a whole has become something of an NFL pipeline with six early entrants to the draft over the past two seasons alone.
And while all that turnover would seem to increase the degree of difficulty of keeping the roster stocked with elite talent to continue a trend that could produce an eye-opening three first-round cornerbacks selected in just two years, the track record of success is actually helping instead.
“I don’t want to say it’s easy, because to be the best in the country at what you do, to be a first-round pick at what you do, that’s not easy,” Coombs said. “But for obvious reasons, it helps in the recruitment of great players. And if we do a good job recruiting the right kind of kid, I’ve got the best strength coach in the country [Mickey Marotti] working right down the hall from me and the best head coach in the country [Urban Meyer] down the other hall. The combination of those things, for me, makes getting the players ready easier.
“They understand and have watched guys who have achieved that. So they know it is possible, they believe in the system, they believe in the process and, frankly, they’re eager to work really, really hard to make it a reality. The standard is clear, we talk about in our room all the time, and that’s the expectation for every kid that comes to every meeting in the secondary.”
That NFL pitch obviously isn’t a tough sell, and the Buckeyes used it to tremendous success with a historic signing class that included five ESPN 300 defensive backs in addition to the nation’s top junior college cornerback in Kendall Sheffield.
Sheffield enrolled for the second session of the spring semester with the Buckeyes and will be able to participate in spring practice when it opens next week, giving him a solid chance to fill one of those two spots left behind by Lattimore and Conley. But the competition to play in the loaded Ohio State secondary is only getting more fierce, even with all the talent that will be on display in Indianapolis instead of Columbus, Ohio.
“The fact our kids are doing so well and that we win so many games and that they are graduating is huge,” Coombs said. “But at the end of the day, the conversation almost always circles back to, those guys are going to get drafted, you’re going to see them on television, they’re going to be widely regarded as the best in the country at what they do. That really is the standard.
“To be honest with you, I don’t want to recruit a guy that doesn’t want to be a first-round pick. If that’s the standard and that’s what they want to be, there’s a platform here for the elite person to achieve that. That’s what is really exciting about being in my office every day.”
And with the finished product on display elsewhere on Monday, that’s where Coombs will be as he gets to work with the next batch.
The developmental work at Position U is over, and now it's up to the scouts, coaches and general managers to sum up the work.
There's no easy way to hand out those unofficial titles for the best programs around the country or the top Big Ten school to crank out stars in specific spots on the field. How much does college production count? Is it just about churning out draft picks or how much weight should be given to production at the next level? Quality or quantity?
Sorting through those claims to the crown will have to wait another day. But based on annual invites to the NFL scouting combine which opens this week in Indianapolis, there are hints that some schools have a position that the talent scouts want to see every year -- which is at least the beginning of a claim to Position U.
This time around, here are three units with players on the market who are trying to build on a legacy.
Ohio State defensive backs: The Buckeyes have emerged as the league's current kings of the combine looking back over the last four seasons overall. And while rival Michigan actually has more overall attendees this year, once again Ohio State's loaded draft class in the secondary is in line to steal the show. Since Bradley Roby left early and became a first-round pick in 2014, the Buckeyes have sent eight cornerbacks and safeties to the combine to flash their speed, versatility and ball skills ahead of the draft. And now Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore are all pushing to either solidify a first-round grade or sneak into that position after earning their invitations to Indianapolis. There's not much doubt that Ohio State has stamped itself as DBU in the Big Ten recently, and this year could strengthen the claim that it has become that nationally as well.
Wisconsin offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk: The latest blocker off the assembly line in Madison might not be ready to do much physically after undergoing offseason hip surgery, but he'll still draw plenty of attention from teams looking to shore up the protection and run blocking up front. Ramczyk can still show off his football intelligence and answer questions about his rehabilitation, and even if he hadn't emerged as a star last season, simply having ties to a program that has become a staple at the combine would likely help his case. The Badgers have a rich history producing linemen, but even just looking at a smaller time frame they've been represented at the event every year since 2011 -- with eight blockers ultimately drafted from OLU. Ramczyk is about to add to that total no matter what he can do physically at the moment.
Indiana running back Devine Redding: The tradition is undoubtedly richer at Wisconsin when it comes to running backs, and even this season it is sending a pair of rushers to the combine to add to the legacy. So that crown is probably safe with the Badgers, but the Hoosiers are at least making a strong push for short-term consideration with Redding continuing a run that started with Tevin Coleman and was followed up by Jordan Howard last year. Again, that's a small sample size and part of Indiana's case relies on how well those rushers have performed at the next level. But Redding has a chance now to build on that by going up the road from Bloomington to work out and show that he has the same kind of ability that has translated so well from Indiana's aspiring RBU on to the pros recently.
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With spring practice gearing up throughout much of the Big Ten, it's time to bring back the mailbag. You can send in questions any time via Twitter or by emailing me at ESPNBigTenMailbag@gmail.com.
— Benny (@FLBuckeye14) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Good question, if a bit early. We should have a better sense of these teams once they get through spring ball. But allow me to make a couple of way-too-early calls, which are subject to change.
Most improved? I think you have to go with Michigan State. Even though the offseason has had its share of difficulties for the Spartans, it's simply too hard for me to imagine this program going 3-9 again. Mark Dantonio's team probably still won't be good enough to seriously contend in the East Division, but 7-to-8 wins is totally in reach.
As for digressing (good word choice by you), I'll go with Minnesota. The schedule is still manageable early on for new head coach P.J. Fleck. But given the personnel losses, the uncertainty at quarterback, the turmoil around the program and the transition to a new staff, I find it unreasonable to expect another nine-win campaign out of the Golden Gophers. This is more likely a team that will have to scrap for a bowl bid.
@BennettESPN what are the most interesting out of conference games?
— Slotter (@Slotter) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Well, the big ones are well known. Michigan vs. Florida in Arlington, Texas, on opening weekend. Oklahoma at Ohio State and Nebraska at Oregon in Week 2. Michigan State hosting Notre Dame on Sept. 23.
A couple of other lesser-heralded ones I like: Wisconsin at BYU in Week 3 -- not quite LSU at Lambeau, but it's an intriguing road trip nonetheless. Maryland at Texas and new coach Tom Herman in the opener. Penn State vs. Pitt, naturally. Purdue vs. Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Jeff Brohm's alma mater, Louisville, in Indianapolis in Week 1.
The nonconference schedule maybe doesn't look as glamorous in 2017 as it did in the summer of 2016, but there are still some very interesting games on tap.
— Ben Weinberg (@bweiny) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Well, you're already eliminating Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State from the East and Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska from the West with your parameters. I think we can agree Rutgers, Purdue and Illinois aren't particularly close to winning a division, and Indiana and Maryland have the deck stacked against them in the East. So that leaves only Michigan, Northwestern and Minnesota. As I wrote earlier, I think the Golden Gophers are in for some rebuilding. So yeah, the Wolverines and Wildcats are your best bets to be the next teams to break through and get to Indianapolis.
John A. emails: Do you see Alex Hornibrook taking a step forward for a Wisconsin team that is just a QB away from a special season? And if he does take that step, how do you see their season panning out?
Brian Bennett: I do think you'll see Hornibrook take a step forward. He showed good poise and made plays as a redshirt freshman in some tough games a year ago, and that can only help his development. The big question is what is Hornibrook's ceiling. Can he be a star at quarterback, or is he destined to be a solid game manager? The Badgers have managed a lot of success with the latter type of signalcaller, so he doesn't have to be Russell Wilson 2.0.
I'm fairly bullish on Hornibrook's potential because of two things: his outstanding makeup, and the tutelage of Paul Chryst. I think you could see Hornibrook develop into a slightly better version of late-career Scott Tolzien, which was pretty darn good.
— YetiHawk (@AlgoHawk) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Well, all right.
Best team offense: Penn State, though Ohio State with Kevin Wilson pulling the levers is fascinating and dangerous.
Best team defense: Ohio State, because of its experienced defensive line. But Michigan and Wisconsin should both be really good defensively, too.
— TODD (@OhHeyItsTodd) February 21, 2017
Brian Bennett: Things certainly can't get much worse, but I don't know how much a recruiting class will help. You're talking about a bunch of extremely young players who'd be outmatched physically in the Big Ten.
There is bound to be improvement, though, and there's no real reason why the Scarlet Knights couldn't compete with teams like Illinois, Purdue, Maryland and Indiana. The bad news is that Washington, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are still on the schedule, plus a trip to Nebraska. Ouch.
With spring practices beginning across the Big Ten, we're taking a look at some of the strengths and weaknesses that could shape the division races in 2017. Earlier this week, we examined the biggest strengths of each team in the East Division. Today, it's time for the weaknesses.
Indiana: Short-yardage offense. The Hoosiers converted only 71.4 percent of their red zone opportunities into scores in 2016 and were 121st nationally in scoring touchdowns inside the opponents' 20. Third-and-short and fourth downs were also a problem. New head coach Tom Allen has made fixing this a priority this spring.
Maryland: Pass protection. The Terrapins were more like turnstiles when it came to keeping defenders off their quarterback in 2016. Maryland surrendered an unconscionable 49 sacks in 13 games, more than all but one team in the FBS. The program is making strides under D.J. Durkin but won't go very far until that number improves substantially.
Michigan: Running the ball against good opponents. The Wolverines' 2016 rushing stats look good on paper. But they piled up a lot of yards against inferior teams. When Michigan absolutely needed to run the ball against outstanding defenses last year, it often stalled. See the 2.5 yards per carry against Florida State, the 2.1 ypc vs. Ohio State and the 2.8 vs. Iowa -- not coincidentally, all losses. The offensive line needs to get stronger in order to stand up against the best defenses on the schedule.
Michigan State: The pass rush. The Spartans managed just 11 total sacks in 12 games a year ago, the fewest of any Power 5 team. And that was with Malik McDowell in the lineup for much of the year. Mark Dantonio turned to playing several freshmen and sophomores on the defensive line late in the season, which could speed their development for this fall. But if Michigan State can't put pressure on the quarterback, the rest of its defense will continue to be ineffective.
Ohio State: The downfield passing game. J.T. Barrett struggled to get the ball to his receivers in the vertical passing game last year, as the Buckeyes averaged just 6.8 yards per pass attempt (88th in the FBS). New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day were brought in to fix the passing issues, and Barrett will need to build chemistry this spring with a fleet of young wideouts.
Penn State: Third-down conversions. There's not much to complain about from the 2016 Nittany Lions' season, though third downs were strangely troubling for much of the year. Penn State converted just 32.6 percent of its third downs last year and was just 7-of-20 on third downs against Wisconsin and USC. With Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley back, there's no good reason for that to continue in 2017.
Rutgers: Quarterback play. We could go a number of different ways here after the Scarlet Knights' disastrous 2-10 campaign. No unit is blameless. But a lack of playmaking ability behind center was a chief culprit in why Rutgers averaged just 9.9 points per game against Power 5 opponents and was shut out four times. Job one for new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill is to find a quarterback who can move the offense.