Saturday, August 11, 2012

Previewing Big Ten Football: Ohio State

Ohio State football will be ushering in a new era in 2012. The Urban Meyer era. Gone now is Jim Tressel and his notorious sweater vest. Also gone is Luke Fickell, as the head coach who coached the Buckeyes to a surprisingly disappointing 6-7 record last season, which was their first losing season since 1999 (He is staying on as LB coach and co-defensive coordinator). The free tattoo scandal is trying to be viewed in the rear mirror as they move on, ironically, to a spread offense. I say ironically because they laughed at Michigan when they hired Rich Rodriguez, saying that brand of football is not going to work in the B1G Ten. Along with this, due to NCAA sanctions, they will not be able to participate in a bowl game or even the second B1G Ten Championship game.

2011 Record: 6-7, 3-5 Big Ten

Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 9

One of the biggest questions entering 2012 is how Urban Meyer will do in his first season as HC of the Buckeyes. As a native of Ohio, will he still be the focused, hard-working, driven coach as he was in Florida and won two national championships? Or he will try to be the more laid-back, but still arrogant coach who gives all his time to the team? How will his health affect what he does on and off the field, which led him to resign from coaching at Florida twice in the same year? I truly believe he'll show more humaneness to his personality, while still being merciless. Keep in mind his career record is 104-23. That's a percentage of .819! Consider his coaching stops have been at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida, and now Ohio State. Are you aware he went 22-2 at Utah? How many coaches can say that about a lower-tiered program? Yes, he is one of a few innovators of the run-first spread option offense. As I go further into this, maybe we'll see a trend, or maybe we'll see a comparison of what Meyer had to work with and what he has now. Granted, he is going to inherit a better roster of players than that 6-7 record shows. In the end, with no bowl games in site, Meyer and the Buckeyes will be playing spoiler.

One of the bright spots that Meyer inherited, and maybe a good reason why he accepted the job, is quarterback Braxton Miller. Miller wasn't the full time starter last season until week 4 against Colorado. After piling up a 4-5 record, here are his 2011 stats: 11 games played, 9 started, 997 yds passing with an 11 TD-4 INT ratio, 695 yds rushing and 7 TDs. Now, those seem pretty good until you see he had a 50% completion rate on his passes. Spread offense or not, that will not get the job done. Ideally, in a spread offense, you want the quarterback to have at least a 60% completion rate. No matter how much he might run the ball, those passes will still need to be on target. During the offseason, he has spent considerable time working on his mechanics and continuing to look downfield, even when being rushed out of the pocket. Miller will be a sophomore this season, so that will give Meyer and Miller time to develop a long standing relationship. With a passing game that was ranked 117th nationally, there will need to be improvements in droves to get back up to the top.

The offense will also feel a big loss from the departure of Dan Herron. Even though he was suspended for the first 5 games last season, Herron still ran for almost 700 yds and 3 TDs last season. Granted, the TD numbers aren't much, but when you factor in Miller's emergence along with a poor offense overall, it wasn't bad. This season, senior Jordan Hall was supposed to take the reins over as starter, but apparently might not start the season due to cutting his foot open while walking barefoot through a grassy area (big piece of glass maybe). Coaches were looking forward to seeing him full strength due to his proliferation at being an all-purpose back. He has racked up 2,513 all-purpose yards, 26th all-time in school history, in his first three years, including 817 rushing and 202 yards receiving on 21 catches. Now the job is left to a mixture of Carlos Hyde, Rod Smith, Bri'onte Dunn, and incoming freshman Warren Ball. If Hall doesn't make it back soon, look for Dunn to start to make an impact even though he probably isn't best fit for the spread offense.

The wide receiver core is nothing special, and there is no one who stands out. Devin Smith looks to take over the primary receiver position from DeVier Posey, but Smith doesn't have the talent for that spot. Does anyone else think it's odd that there was no receiver who caught more than 14 balls last season? I know "Ohio" is not used to that kind of offensive ineptitude, but that's unacceptable. Corey Brown also needs to step up but it looks like he's incapable of being anything more than a number 4 guy. Chris Fields, Verlon Reed, Evan Spencer also look to catch some passes. Ricquan Southward comes in as a freshman who might be special, although he didn't play much til his senior year in high school. Michael Thomas comes in with great size and skills, and he enrolled early so he might have a better grasp of the offense than most freshmen.  Senior tight end Jake Stoneburner could have a good season when, and if, he excises those off the filed demons. Meyer wasn't joking around when he removed Stoneburner's scholarship, therefore making him earn it back. I wouldn't be surprised if he "earned" it back before the start of the season. Meyer has a history of getting the ball to the tight end (see: Aaron Hernandez), and Stoneburner must be happy about that.

The offensive line is where the Buckeyes are going to need a lot of improvement. They must replace three multi-year starters, including second-team all-conference performers Mike Brewster (center) and Mike Adams (tackle). Two starters are back up front (tackle Andrew Norwell and guard Jack Mewhort), but Mewhort was the second guy who was in trouble with Stoneburner and had his scholarship temporarily yanked. Other than that there's not much to a unit that surrendered 3.5 sacks per game last season. Ideally what they need is a new starting center and two tackles up front. Incoming freshman Taylor Decker could possibly be one of those guys.  He's not a huge guy, but he might fit a lot better with the spread system that Meyer is looking to use.

While the defense wasn't that bad last season, it certainly wasn't that good either. Giving up more than a TD off their usual pace is part of the "not good" factor. Also consider that their linebackers weren't great last season. The linebackers are the tacklers of the defense, and the machine that keeps it going. Storm Klein was the leading tackler last season with 45. That's not going to cut it, and he was dismissed from the team earlier this year due to a domestic violence assault charge. Curtis Grant is coming in to push for the starting MLB spot in his second season, and since he is their prized defensive pickup last year, I could very easily see it as not much of a competition. Etienne Sabino started off weak yet finished strong so we're in a game of wait and see with him. Ryan Shazier played well in limited snaps and he too will be a sophomore this year.

One good thing, for any team, is the entire defensive line is returning. Fresh off a season in which they recorded a paltry 23 sacks and were 50th in run defense, they do have two players back who will shine. First off is senior John Simon who amassed 16 tackles for loss, including seven sacks, and Meyer will have him playing as the primary rushing DE. Secondly, is junior Johnathan Hankins. He is big and athletic, and recorded 67 tackles, 11 for loss. Garrett Goebel and Adam Bellamy return to steady the line, yet Michael Bennett will be challenging Goebel for the starting spot. Nathan Williams should be back but in what capacity is unknown. Having two knee surgeries is one season might put his career in jeopardy.

In the secondary, experience is key, and luckily for them, they'll have it. Bradley Roby and Travis Howard are the returning cornerbacks, with 10 interceptions between the two, and sophomore Doran Grant is closing in on being a good player himself. As for safeties, they have a trio of good ones. C.J. Barnett, Christian Bryant, and Orhian Johnson are all well suited for the job, with possibly Johnson being a key backup.  Barnett should be one of the best players on the defense again (led the team in tackles last year) so look for him to make a big impact. A key freshman for this unit will be incoming star CB Armani Reeves. Reeves, a nephew of former NBA great Charles Barkley, comes in as possibly the speediest, most explosive corner on the whole team. Look for this kid to make an impact early, either on special teams or defense.

Recruiting Spotlight: Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how ones look at it, the best recruits in Ohio State's 2012 recruiting class are not coming in at positions of need.  As mentioned earlier, Ohio State will be returning its entire defensive line.  The Buckeyes were able to grab two 5* defensive line recruits.  These guys could have a shot at getting onto the field in rotation, but their impact will most likely be limited to defensive line depth.  Everyone on their line has at least junior status.  However, there are a couple recruits that could still make an impact.  The most notable is Bri'onte Dunn.  He is a 4* running back and was one of the better recruits from the state of Ohio.  With such question marks at running back, he may be able to find a role.  The only difficulty for him is that he has not been accustomed to the spread system.  If the Buckeyes look down the depth chart for a running back and Dunn improves, he could be one of their biggest playmakers.  Michael Thomas, a 4* wide receiver, seems likely to get some playing time as mentioned above.  He is also entering a position that frankly, didn't do much last year.  Of course, this will largely depend on Miller's development as a passer, but there's little doubt he could see some playing time.

2012 outlook: Obviously, this season is merely a tune-up for future Buckeye teams. They have an easy non-conference schedule and are the only B1G Ten team playing them all at home. Sure, they have road tests against Michigan State and Wisconsin, but they'll probably go 1-for-1 in that. Maybe with Meyer there they'll develop more of a dominance over Pudue, who've they matched up against 3-3 in the last 6 contests. Will they beat Big Blue at home? I'm going with an emphatic NO, for many reasons which I will write about later. Their saving grace in that game is being able to call "The Game" their bowl game, because they have nothing else to play for other than pride. Meyer has a bright future in Columbus, much to the chagrin of us up here in Michigan. He might only be able to sign three less players than other schools, but their rankings are still up there. Last season, Ohio ranked only behind Michigan and two other schools overall in recruiting, and ESPN has them in 5th for 2013. Whatever his tactics are, they are working. However, for 2012...we can say no to Urban Renewal.

Ohio State Predictions:
Record: 9-3
Big Ten Finish: 3rd
Ability To Compete With Top Teams: Medium to High
Upset Status: Medium to High
Bowl Status: None (NCAA sanctions)

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