CHICAGO – After 50 wins in four seasons, you’d think that Urban Meyer and his Ohio State coaching staff would be willing to give themselves a little break, but that’s certainly not the case. There is pressure to win in Columbus, every year, and no one cares what you did in 2014 – or 2015 – anymore.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, right?
“Where we are as a team in 2016,” Meyer said from the podium on Tuesday during the 2016 Big Ten Media Days, “(we) have to find a way to replace arguably one of the best group of players ever to come through college football.”
The group includes 12 NFL draft picks. Five first-rounders. Braxton Miller. Michael Thomas. Jalin Marshall. The names and the faces that have become the calling cards of Ohio State football are gone.
Replacing them are – unless you’re a diehard recruiting fan who knows the names and faces of every player in the Buckeyes program – a set of virtual no-names. That, according to Meyer, is OK. That, he says, is how the magical run to the 2014 national championship began early in the that season.
“I see that potential. I think 2014 was the template that everybody wants,” Meyer said. “J.T. Barrett was buried in the depth chart, Darron Lee, Eli Apple, Zeke Elliott, Mike Thomas – those guys were no-names – and they became very good throughout the course of 2014. And another guy, Cardale Jones, was buried in the depth chart.
“(There’s) a lot of pressure on our coaches, assistant coaches and myself, to get them game-ready. I would say going into this this is as talented a group top to bottom as we’ve had. Now how do we get them game-ready?”
There, as they say, is the rub. How does a coaching staff – even one aas accomplished and successful as Ohio State’s – get a team that is more than half-full of players with freshmen eligibility ready for a grueling Big Ten schedule that includes road games at Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State? Not to mention a trip to Oklahoma three weeks into September.
It’s not going to be easy and wouldn’t be for anyone, but Meyer knows that the pieces are in place with Ohio State. He knows because that’s how he and his coaching staff have built the Buckeyes.
“The issue would be if it was a non-talented young team, and that’s not the case at all,” Meyer said. “We’ve had very, very good recruiting classes over the last three, four years and I see it. There’s been examples throughout the years, guy’s supposed to be a great player, they had to wait their turn because of what was in front of them. The chains come off pretty soon and we’ll find out what you got.”
“It’s a very young team, but talented. (August will) probably (be) the most critical coaching month that our staff will – I’m speaking for myself, that I’ve ever been through. We have to get these guys ready. Forty-four of our players, which is over half of our scholarships, are kids that never played in a game. So we have to get them ready. So our practices are going to be much different.”
Practice isn’t really the problem, of course. It’s getting your team through the dog-days of summer and ready for the bright lights of primetime that matters. That, according to Meyer, will be the real challenge. That is the concern.
“That’s what is keeping me awake a little bit right now,” the Buckeyes fifth-year head coach said when asked where his real concerns lay. “Just reaction to game, to running out into the ‘Shoe in front of 110,000 people. (The) good thing is at Ohio State we already had the 100,000 people for a spring game. (It’s) just the experience factor. How do you get them … how do you stay healthy, yet put them in game-like situations as much as possible during training camp?”
One way you do that is by riding the backs of your returning veterans. Meyer and the Buckeyes lost a whopping 16 starters from their 2015 team but they’ve got some – with apologies to DJ Khaled – some major keys returning.
“There’s three people that we named captains immediately after the season, and I can’t imagine going into this without J.T. (Barrett) and without the other guy, Pat Elfein,” Meyer said of the three Buckeyes that escorted him to Chicago. “Pat Elfein, in my opinion, is the best center in college football, and a little bit like the baseball metaphor, you need to be strong up the middle. We’re very strong. And that’s all eyes will be focused on the center and the quarterback.
“And if I had my draft picks, those are the two I’d pick and it’s the same on defense. All eyes are on the center of your defense and that’s the middle linebacker. We’re fortunate all three (Barrett, Elflein and Raekwon McMillan) have incredible leadership skills. You want that in the middle of your defense, because you raise the level of play around them and so does J.T. and Pat.”
The challenge for Ohio State is obvious, but perhaps more obvious than that is the eagerness that Meyer and his staff have in dealing with it. The three-time national champion is looking toward August 6, the day the Buckeyes report to fall camp.
“It will be interesting,” Meyer said plainly. “But I’m very excited to be around them, as all our coaches are this time of year. This will be a new challenge for us and one that I can’t wait to get our hands on.”