TALE AS OLD AS TIME
We all knew as soon as Cardale Jones stepped onto the field in the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game that Urban Meyer had a dilemma on his hands.
Jones. Braxton Miller. J.T. Barrett. Three quarterbacks. One starter. One backup. One probable transfer. Meyer and Tim Beck waffled all offseason over which would start in the fall. Everyone and their grandmother weighed in on whether Jones should declare for the draft. (I said he should have.) Then everyone weighed in on which should earn the starting job. (I said it should have been Barrett.)
Suspense built all offseason as Meyer and Beck declined to name a starter. Finally, the first series came in Blacksburg . . . and Jones trotted out. Okay, great! Ol’ Urb knows what he’s doing! And for sixty minutes, it seemed like the right decision. Jones, along with Miller at wide receiver, running back Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas, and a host of other names you know if you watched last spring’s NFL Draft ran roughshod over the Hokies.
But we had doubts. Ohio State sleepwalked through games with teams it should easily dispatch, occasionally juggling quarterbacks, vacillating between kind of bad and kind of good but never getting too far away from head-scratchingly mediocre.
The most important thing, though: wins. Ohio State still managed to grab them, thanks mostly in part to Elliott being amazing and the Buckeyes having a great defense.
And when Barrett finally replaced Jones . . . then got suspended . . . then replaced Jones again . . . the Buckeyes hosted Michigan State. Elliott the bell cow got only a handful of carries and the Spartans upset the Buckeyes 17-14, dashing Ohio State’s title hopes.
Then, of course, Ohio State turned it on, delivering its two most complete performances of the season in blowout wins over Michigan and Notre Dame.
Barrett probably should have been the starter all along. Even while working through their schedule like a kitten playfully batting at flies the Buckeyes still had a crack at the Playoffs. Given the collection of talent which has since been ransacked by the NFL, with the right quarterback and some more decisive coaching the 2015 Buckeyes could have been a team for the ages. Instead they’ll stand as a cautionary tale which their contemporaries at Notre Dame are not heeding.
But it’s 2016 now, and this time we definitely will get to see Barrett lead a team of Buckeyes . . . but an almost entirely new one.
You already know how the rest of this preview is going to read. Ohio State will be insanely talented but insanely raw. Ohio State will continue to be extremely good (maybe even still the best in the Big Ten) but will likely take some time to morph into the behemoth we all know it can be.
Are we just penciling in greatness because of Ohio State’s recent history? Yeah. One can acknowledge the departure of a great deal of talent, but also recognize what the Buckeyes retain. Namely, they’ve got the best recruiting north of the Mason-Dixon line, but more importantly: the coaching mind of Urban Meyer, and the otherworldly talent of J.T. Barrett.
THE FUTURE IS NOW
Elliott was one of my favorite running backs of the recent years of football, just after Carlos Hyde before him. (Dang Ohio State, you pull in some great running backs.) Both guys ran like a freight train and had the physicality to bang out yards between the tackles in Meyer’s power spread.
Redshirt freshman Mike Weber appears to be next in the succession. The 5’10”, 212-pound Weber doesn’t quite have the size of Hyde or Elliott, but he’s got the toughness. This video is just an eight-yard run, but watch him bowl over this safety and drag him halfway through the endzone. That’ll work for Urban.
Of course, Barrett himself is a considerable threat on the ground, rushing for 1,620 yards and 22 touchdowns in two seasons. Meyer will do what he does best and draw up plays to create mismatches, and eventually, this running game will thrive. I’m not worried about the backfield continuity.
Out on the edge, however, the story changes. In 2014 Barrett made his living feeding Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall and occasionally bombing deep for Devin Smith. Smith was already gone in 2015, and now so are Thomas and Marshall, and Miller, and Elliott, and tight end Nick Vannett . . . and basically everyone Barrett or Jones threw a pass to. Corey Smith is the only returning name a casual football fan might recognize, and after him? Parris Campbell, Johnnie Dixon, and James Clark (combined total targets: five). Noah Brown and Smith saw their 2015 campaigns erased by injury, so while they’ll be on the greener side, they’ve spent time in the system and should be ready to lead the way.
So there’s some continuity. Running back Curtis Samuel featured in the passing game (22 catches, 289 yards) and Dontre Wilson figures to take over Miller’s role as the h-back/wideout/occasional backfield option. But at some point, Barrett is going to be throwing to freshmen and sophomores. Take your pick of whom: you can’t take a walk through Ohio State’s locker room without getting a whole lot of four-star sweat on you. Like the running game, eventually this will click because how can it not? Meyer is renowned for getting guys into their positions and maximizing their skill sets. Expect a lot of shuffling early on as guys mature into their roles.
How long will it take? Probably not long. Meyer plugged in a lot of freshmen and sophomores during the 2014 campaign and it worked. I expect that this offense will look in midseason form . . . oh, maybe by midseason.
SING US A SONG, YOU’RE THE SCHIANO MAN
Of all the new faces, the most intriguing might be one of the coaches.
When defensive coordinator Chris Ash left to be the head coach at Rutgers, Meyer replaced him with a Rutgers head coach. Greg Schiano returns to the college ranks after coaching in Piscataway for eleven years. He led the Scarlet Knights to their best season in school history in 2006, going 11-2 and finishing ranked number twelve in the nation.
Schiano then coached two inauspicious years at Tampa Bay before spending another two out of coaching. Then Meyer rang.
Schiano’s defenses at Rutgers were Michigan State before Michigan State was cool: selling out in favor of stuffing opposing offenses short and being completely okay if it meant giving up a big gain here or there. His best defense at Rutgers (that 2006 unit) ranked 11th in Defensive S&P+ and had none of the talent he’ll acquire in Columbus.
And once more, the operative word is “talent.” The Buckeyes return leading tackler Raekwon McMillan at linebacker, end Tyquan Lewis, and corner Gareon Conley. I’ve never seen a unit so devastated by departure.
It speaks to the amazing work Meyer and Ash did. Ash’s defenses ranked 11th and 8th in his two seasons and were the biggest reason Ohio State went 12-1 and not a much more pedestrian 10-3.
So now Schiano, a brilliant defensive coach, gets to pick his Schiano Men from the ranks of Ohio State’s considerable recruiting efforts.
On the line, Lewis got to take advantage of offenses’ attention being on Joey Bosa last year and finished with eight sacks. He’ll lead the way this year along with Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes duking it out on the other side. If Schiano really wants to go young there’s another Bosa on the roster, five-star freshman Nick Bosa.
Behind them, McMillan will anchor the unit best-equipped to bounce back quickly, the linebackers. Losing Darron Lee and Joshua Perry will hurt, but Dante Booker and Chris Worley saw action throughout the season and should be ready.
In the secondary, there are four corners vying for time, with Marshon Lattimore being “outstanding” in camp. (I’m guessing two of the other three are incumbents Gareon Conley and Denzel Ward.) At safety, Malik Hooker and Damon Webb are the experienced ones and Erick Smith and Cam Burrows are the challengers.
Like the offense, one can’t help but feel it’s only a matter of time. My guess is we’ll hear a lot of “My God, a freshman!”-type reactions as these guys start to settle into their roles . . . but there will probably be some breakdowns in the meantime (especially if Schiano continues his aggressive style of defense).
CONTINUITY? WHAT’S THAT?
Well, sort of. Ohio State will have to find a new punt return man. Golly, where will the Buckeyes find a ridiculously athletic player to create excitement in the open field? Think they’ve got one?
Cameron Johnston is a great punter with three-quarters of his punts being fair-caught or landing inside the 20 last year. He’ll continue booting balls on fourth down.
Meanwhile Sean Nuernberger split placekicking duties with Jack Willoughby in 2015 but the role is now solely his. He was perfect on PATs and three-for-three on field goals in the Fiesta Bowl, but did whiff on a 24-yarder against Illinois.
CIELINGS AND FLOORS
Weirdly, Ohio State has it all this offseason. They lose so many key players, they’re getting the benefit of the doubt. They’re also fueling a pretty powerful race car with some pretty cool gasoline. They also have a pretty talented driver. This also means they’re facing enormous expectations.
Even if it all goes to heck there’s enough talent here for the Buckeyes to win ten or eleven games, right? Is anyone just that much better than Ohio State?
Likely not. I expect an early visit to Oklahoma to hand Meyer just his third regular season loss. A powerful Indiana offense visits a few weeks later, and salty Wisconsin and Penn State defenses will test the mettle of these young offensive players in consecutive road trips.
Finally, Ohio State closes with Michigan State and Michigan. Meyer and Mark Dantonio have taken turns ruining each others’ seasons and if this were a game of tag, Ohio State would be “it.” And while last year’s episode of The Game was a bit of a dud, this one won’t be. Meyer’s new guys won’t be so new by then, and Jim Harbaugh will be out for blood. The winner of this game probably goes to the Playoff.
And yes, I think Ohio State is as safe a bet as any. There are questions but with Meyer as the maestro and with Barrett and McMillan leading their units on the field, it won’t take long for the 2016 Buckeyes to get rolling.