CHICAGO—The first problem with Ohio State’s bid to repeat as national champion landed like a safe dropped from a roof on Thursday, and the problem is Ohio State. Four players are suspended for the season opener at Virginia Tech for violations of athletic department policy: All-America defensive end Joey Bosa, receiver Corey Smith, and H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson. The reported specifics for the punishments are more or less beside the point. The suspensions themselves hardly vaporize the Buckeyes’ highest aspirations; in the worst case, Ohio State has experience in losing to the Hokies and winning a title anyway.
Essentially, Big Ten media days opened here with a great screaming reminder of the copious challenges in defending a championship, and the danger of assuming college kids won’t self-destruct at very inconvenient times. This was going to be hard enough without the Buckeyes upping the degree of difficulty. So if there’s a concern here, it’s that. It’s the notion that Urban Meyer and Co. warned the roster against atrophy from within after raising a trophy last Jan. 12, and here are four important players responsible for it. No, at this point, it can’t be considered symptomatic of deeper-rooted, team-wide distraction. But it is a problem, a self-inflicted flesh wound, and Ohio State didn’t need any of those.
“Everyone deals with ‘stuff,’” Meyer said Thursday. “When you’re at Ohio State or other programs like it, ‘stuff’ becomes a major deal. And this is.”
His tone belied any alarm. Meyer was a couple minutes late to the podium, but evidently not because the Buckeyes coach needed to compose himself or fumble around for answers. There were barely any ebbs or swells in his voice for 15 minutes on the dais and the other 90-plus minutes he held court. Part of it, surely, was that he long ago digested the impact of the news. (“This didn’t happen yesterday,” Meyer said of the transgressions.) Part of it was simple top-down leadership. Meyer said he discussed the suspensions with the three players who accompanied him to Chicago, and he indicated there was no turbulence in the air. “We talked about it for literally like 15 seconds,” linebacker Joshua Perry said.
Everyone was in agreement: Nowhere to move but straight ahead.
“Being a veteran, you have to make sure guys are acting right,” tackle Taylor Decker said. “You have to do everything, if they’re not, to rein them back in and get them on the right track. But ultimately there’s going to be stuff that slips, problems that arise. The real mark of our team is how we handle that.”
From a strictly competitive standpoint, the fallout is somehow both fractional and wildly intriguing. Ohio State still will be expected to win at Virginia Tech, though that is now a slightly more losable game than it was. When asked what concerns him most about the opening-weekend personnel attrition, Meyer conceded that losing Bosa—“Arguably one of the best defensive players in the United States of America,” he said—will be a concern. He mostly brushed off the reshuffling on the other side of the ball, noting how diligently the Buckeyes recruit for depth at H-back. Meyer also pointed out that there is a potential H-back available whose athleticism qualifies him to be mentioned in the same breath as Percy Harvin, the paragon of explosiveness in Meyer’s eyes.
Oh, yes, suddenly Ohio State needs Braxton Miller and needs him badly, a moment that arrived far sooner than anyone expected. It has been about a month and a half, Meyer confirmed, since the former Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback approached him with the idea of playing receiver as a “Plan B” if he couldn’t throw effectively after shoulder surgery. There is no mystery here anymore: Meyer hedged just a hair Thursday but said he believes Miller will be a receiver, adding that Miller will receive the head coach’s personal attention on Day 1 of training camp, to see where the player is at and to gauge how quickly he can be moved along.
“My expectation,” Meyer said, “is that he’s an impact player.”
What Meyer doesn’t know is what Miller can do, or precisely how he fits in. Meyer has seen Miller run routes before—“Wow,” was the coach’s summary of what he saw—but the coach also wondered how a quarterback-turned-receiver will react to quality defensive backs in his grill.
The identity of Ohio State’s starting quarterback won’t be known until he runs on to the field in Blacksburg, Va., on Labor Day. Meyer, disinclined to play one of his biggest cards any earlier than he has to, declared this Thursday. But there is one way the choice between J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones is irrelevant: Either one desperately needs Miller, their former position mate, to help bring the Buckeyes through a Week 1 that will be even more taxing than anyone suspected.
Meyer didn’t appear to be burdened by too many other great unknowns, or much of anything really, despite suspensions that suggest a faint dip in urgency. Or at least the amount of urgency a repeat demands. This isn’t a heinously big deal. The Buckeyes may not be fat and sated. They may be motivated to do again what they did last year. They may even claim they are aware of the pitfalls their success created.
“It’s going to be a battle against ourselves a little bit,” Perry said.
Still, what you wondered on Thursday was more precisely this: Does Ohio State’s roster comprehensively understand how hard this is going to be?
“I can see how (the suspensions) would be perceived,” Decker said when asked about complacency. “But I wouldn’t say that personally. There’s always going to be a human element and things happening like that. It’s just amplified because of our success. I understand the perception. But also I’m in that locker room and I know what’s going on. And I’m not worried about it.”
On this subject, Meyer pointed to what he called indicators. Performance in the classroom, the weight room, and in social circles. For the most part, he said, his team has performed “great” in all areas. “All we can do is watch the indicators, watch it closely,” Meyer said. “And then dive into it with a sledgehammer if we see something disrupting the team.”
The discipline of four key players, he suggested, is not an insidious disruption. But it is a problem, and an unnecessary one before a season that will be teeming with enough complications from the outside.
It may be that the Buckeyes blow by Virginia Tech anyway, as they still deploy the sort of talent for which some coaches would sell vital organs. It may be that the suspensions offer Miller the platform for a breakout performance that catalyzes the offense to greater heights. It may be that Urban Meyer icily moving dead ahead Thursday was the dead perfect reaction.
Of course, Ohio State would rather not be in the position to find all this out.
But here it was nonetheless, starting a national title defense by being its own worst enemy, even if the consequences only last one weekend. In a way it fit what Meyer well knows about national titles. Someone asked if it was easier to win one or defend one, and the day’s disciplinary news filled the space between the lines of the coach’s reply.
“I know what’s more enjoyable—getting there,” Meyer said. “That’s a frickin’ fight up the hill. There’s nothing like that. It’s the one when everyone’s pointed at you, because you’ve been there, (that) at times can be awful. I haven’t felt that way yet. I can’t say which is easier. I can tell you which is more enjoyable.”
Truthfully, a repeat was never, ever going to be anything like easy. Winning a title makes winning another one more complicated, not less so. But Urban Meyer knew that. He just has to hope everyone else does, too.