As Always, Title Is Expectation at Ohio State
By RICK THORP
COLUMBUS — Urban Meyer doesn’t like to dwell on the past.
Ohio State’s sixth-year head coach is more of a forward thinker.
So, when discussing his team’s prospects for the upcoming season, Meyer prefers not to talk about last season; or the year before that, or the year before that.
His sole focus is on what’s ahead. And what’s ahead, he hopes, is a trip to Atlanta at the Mercedes-Benz Dome for the national championship game in January.
It’s a game the Buckeyes fell short of last year. And it wasn’t even close.
In the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State was taken behind the woodshed by Clemson, 31-0, in a ”New Year’s Eve Massacre” that, in many ways, set the tone for this year.
While Meyer wouldn’t come right out and say his team is ready to avenge that loss this year, it’s clear the beating has stuck in its craw and plenty of motivation has been garnered from it.
”We kind of let that one go,” Meyer, 61-6 in Columbus, said during Big Ten Media Days in suburban Chicago last month.
”We’ve been known in the past to use different forms of motivation, a loss here or there or whatever have you.
”That ship has sailed. It’s gone. And we’ve not addressed it. We’ve not talked about it. Professionally, it changed how we do some business on offense and we’re moving forward.
”So, it’s in the back of everyone’s mind, and whether I’ll use that during training camp or not is to be determined. But where we’re at as a team, I like where we’re at. So, we’re just pushing forward.”
It could be argued the Buckeyes, who finished 11-2 overall and 8-1 in the Big Ten a year go, overachieved in 2016. With a roster laden with inexperience, Ohio State still put forth a remarkable season, filled with a plethora of big wins.
”Last year, we were the most — we were the youngest team in college football,” Meyer said in the Windy City. ”And this year, we’re not.”
It’s true. Ohio State lost just seven starters and return 15.
”We lost six juniors to the NFL Draft, nine the previous year. So, there are obviously some shoes to fill. But I was thinking about we have three fifth-year seniors here (at media day) representing Ohio State, and I don’t know if I’ve had that before. Nowadays, fifth-year seniors at Ohio State are hard to find.
That’s true, too. If last year was, personnel-wise, a bonus year for the Buckeyes, then this year Meyer and his staff could be reaping the benefits of all the experience those youngsters garnered.
New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson heaped high praise upon quarterback J.T. Barrett following Indiana’s visit to Columbus last season, and through his work with the senior, that admiration has grown.
Barrett (6-2, 220) returns after throwing for more than 2,500 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. He’s 26-4 as Ohio State’s starter and is seven TDs away from Drew Brees’ conference record of 106 career touchdowns responsible for.
Candidates to back up Barrett include: former Ohio Mr. Football Joe Burrow (6-3, 215), a sophomore, Dwayne Haskins (6-3, 214), a redshirt freshman, and true freshman Tate Martell (5-11, 205).
”He’s in the fight,” Meyer said of Martell, who hails from Las Vegas.
The core of Ohio State’s offense is its line. Returning are starters (who have more 900 snaps between them) center Billy Price (senior, 6-4, 312), left tackle Jamarco Jones (senior, 6-5, 310), left guard Michael Jordan (sophomore, 6-7, 310) and right tackle Isaiah Prince (junior, 6-7, 310).
”Obviously, that’s where the whole thing starts,” Meyer said.
The coach doesn’t see Jordan having any type of sophomore slump and he said his playing every game last year will only benefit him this year.
”There is no price tag you can put on experience,” he said. ”We can try to create it as much in practice, but there’s nothing like it. He’s doing great right now, had a great finish to the summer.”
Right guard is the only spot up for grabs, and Meyer said there was quite a battle going for it camp between four players — Malcolm Pridgeon (junior, 6-7, 315), Matthew Burrell (sophomore, 6-3, 300), Demetrius Knox (junior, 6-4, 308) and Branden Bowen (sophomore, 6-7, 312).
”We need to be in sync,” Jones said. ”We all have to go 100 percent and communicate. If we don’t trust each other, we won’t deliver.”
The offensive line paved the way for Mike Weber to become the third Ohio State freshman to surpass the 1,000-yard barrier last season (1,096, 9 TD). Not bad for a guy facing high expectations for having to replace Ezekiel Elliott.
Weber started camp with a hamstring issue, leaving the door open for players like Demario McCall (sophomore, 5-9, 195), who was Weber’s top backup last year, to get some touches, along with sophomore Antonio Williams (5-11, 208) and true freshman J.K. Dobbins (5-10, 208).
”Demario is going a little bit of hybrid on us right now, so we’re using him a little bit all-purpose,” Meyer said. ”But I kind of like where we’re at at tailback. Every one of them made really nice strides this summer, and they’re playing pretty well.”
Senior Marcus Baugh (6-5, 250) returns at tight end, but he’s been bothered by injuries in camp. He didn’t practice in the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery. Baugh is the team’s leading receiver (24 receptions, 269 yards).
”Tight end is wide open,” Meyer said in Chicago. ”It was a position of not one of our strengths a year ago.”
With sophomore A.J. Alexander lost for the year, that leaves a pair of redshirt freshmen — Jake Hausmann (6-4, 252) and Luke Farrell (6-6, 250) to battle Baugh for playing time.
Junior Parris Campbell (6-1, 208) is the lone starting receiver back. He’ll be joined in the mix by juniors Terry McLaurin (6-1, 204) and Johnnie Dixon (5-11, 195) and sophomores K.J. Hill (6-0, 198) and Austin Mack (6-2, 215).
”To me, the wide receiver position is wide open,” Meyer said. ”We were not where we needed to be a year ago. And we have some talent. More than that, we have as high character a group as we’ve ever had in that room as far as work ethic, doing things right.”
Defensively, Ohio State returns seven starters. However, tackle Michael Hill will miss some time at the start of the season after being suspended. Meyer hadn’t determined the length of the suspension, but said he’ll miss the Indiana game.
Starting tackle Dre’Mont Jones (sophomore, 6-3, 295) returns, as do ends Tyquan Lewis (senior, 6-4, 265) and Sam Hubbard (6-5, 265).
”Those defensive ends are freaks,” Jones said. ”We have to come to practice every day to face our defensive line”
”We’re not going against blocking dummies,” he said. ”Those guys are really, really good.”
Other ends in the mix include: sophomores Nick Bosa (6-4, 270) and Rashod Berry (6-4, 260) and sophomore Jonathan Cooper (6-3, 250). senior Tracy Sprinkle (6-3, 293), who missed almost all of last year, is in the mix at tackle, too, along with sophomores Robert Landers (6-1, 283) and Davon Hamilton (6-4, 300).
Linebackers Chris Worley (senior, 6-2, 230) and Jerome Baker (junior, 6-1, 225) started last year and return. Worley has moved to the middle. Senior Zach Turnure (6-1, 228), junior Dante Booker (6-3, 240) and sophomore Malik Harrison (6-3, 235) are other players in the mix.
Senior Damon Webb (5-11, 195) is the lone returning starter in the secondary. Senior Erick Smith (6-0, 203) and sophomore Jordan Fuller (6-2, 207) could grab the other safety spot.
At corner, sophomore Damon Arnette (6-0, 195) and junior Denzel Ward (5-11, 191) return. Also in the mix are freshmen Jeffrey Okudah (6-1, 193), Shaun Wade (6-1, 185)and Marcus Williamson (5-10, 180).
Junior Sean Nuerenberger (6-1, 225) returns this fall after going 16 of 24 on field goals for his career. His 106 consecutive extra points is a school mark. Redshirt freshman Drue Chrisman (6-3, 212) will punt. Sophomore Liam McCullough (6-2, 228) is the long snapper.
The Buckeyes opened the Amway Coaches Poll at No. 2 and were selected as Big Ten East Division favorites, but Meyer said those things have no bearing on how the team moves forward.
”Obviously, we weren’t at the top a year ago,” he said. ”We were near the top. And Ohio State is always going to be there. I mean, it should be one of the top schools in our conference. And, other than that, I think that’s just respect for our players, respect that we recruited some good players and means no consequence at all in how we do our business.”
Aug. 31: at Indiana 8 p.m.
Sept. 9: Oklahoma 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 16: Army 4:30 p.m.
Sept. 23: UNLV TBA
Sept. 30: at Rutgers TBA
Oct. 7: Maryland TBA
Oct. 14: at Nebraska TBA
Oct. 28: Penn State 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 4: at Iowa TBA
Nov. 11: Michigan State TBA
Nov. 18: Illinois TBA
Nov. 25: at Michigan noon
Win 11, Lose 1