After a quiet off-season, could a new crop of young talent take Ohio State back to the College Football Playoff?
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Urban Meyer sat at his desk in his windowless office on Monday afternoon, subdued after an aggressive morning practice and sweaty afternoon workout. Meyer faces one of the most unique seasons of his coaching career, as he has a roster with 42 true and redshirt scholarship freshmen and just four recruited scholarship seniors. He must prepare 16 new starters for the season opener against Bowling Green on Sept. 3.
With all that uncertainty ahead of him, Meyer sounded decidedly zen heading into 2016, at peace with an off-season of serenity and pleased with how his program has progressed since losing 12 players in the 2016 NFL draft. For a program whose quarterback controversy drove the college football news cycle for nearly the entire calendar year in 2015, the defining sound coming out of Columbus this off-season has been silence. Other than reserve tailback Bri'onte Dunn's dismissal from the team in July, there's been no drama, little controversy and really no significant news out of Columbus since National Signing Day.
This, of course, comes in stark contrast to Ohio State's rival, Michigan, where Jim Harbaugh's trolling tweets, rap video and satellite camp extravaganza provided more click bait than the Donald Trump campaign. Asked about the obvious comparison between Ohio State and Michigan's off-seasons, Meyer responded in a manner that mirrored his program's past few months: He smiled quickly and said nothing. When prodded more generally about the past six months, Meyer said: "I love it, and it's been on purpose. The last six months is the way that I like it. Ohio State players have been in the news for all the right reasons, like the NFL draft."
From observing the Buckeyes practice Monday and spending some time with Meyer and the staff, it became obvious a distinct crosswind is blowing through the program this season. There's an undercurrent of uncertainty figuring out how to replace nine early-entry draft departures and deciding on 16 new starters. But there's also a quiet confidence, happy that the attention, the Sports Illustrated cover and the preseason hype have been deflected up to Ann Arbor. "We're so much better than in the spring," Meyer said. "Back then, there was almost a hope because we're so young. We weren't very good. This team is starting to develop now. The journey is very clear now."
So grab some popcorn and Google the roster. Outside of veteran quarterback J.T. Barrett and marauding linebacker Raekwon McMillan, there's a host of unknowns that need to sort themselves out with the Buckeyes. But it became clear wandering the practice field Monday that there aren't a lot of butterflies in the coaching staff to accompany all the question marks. This is a distinctly faster Ohio State team, teeming with the potential to live up to the standard Meyer has set here by going 50–4 since 2012. Ohio State coaches see the defensive line as the deepest since they arrived, the secondary as the most talented and an offensive line that's in the conversation with the Buckeyes' best.
The stars don't shine as bright as tailback Ezekiel Elliott, end Joey Bosa and linebacker Darron Lee, but the overall talent remains in a similar solar system. "There's quantity," co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell says, "more than the big-time quality guys."
Take the cornerbacks, for example. Junior Gareon Conley is entrenched as a starter and could follow Eli Apple's path to becoming a high-end draft pick. From there, sophomore Denzel Ward, sophomore Marshon Lattimore and redshirt freshman Damon Arnette are vexing the coaches as to who should earn playing time. All are considered high-end talents, with little separation. Meyer's indecision comes off as more of a first-world problem than a query of uncertainty.
There are parallels to be drawn between this year's Ohio State squad and the inexperienced 2014 team that steadily improved and rallied to win the national title after Braxton Miller's injury and a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech. That season was supposed to be a set-up year for 2015, when the Buckeyes were an authoritative preseason No. 1 but never quite got their offense in synch, ending up 12–1 and missing the Big Ten title game and the College Football Playoff. Expectations will likely follow a similar pattern over this year and 2017. The Buckeyes will be viewed with skepticism this season until the young talent manifests itself, and they should return next fall as prohibitive title favorites projected to drop another busload of players—like those talented young corners—in the NFL.
Surely, these Buckeyes are far from perfect. Running backs coach Tony Alford points out with a smile that not a single tailback that's in his room full-time has taken a college carry, including starter Mike Weber. The long-snapper, Liam McCullough, has never delivered a college snap. There's no clear-cut No. 1 wide receiver to replace Michael Thomas, nor is there a proven tight end. The Buckeyes' biggest challenges come on the road, as a Week 3 trip to Oklahoma will be a strong early litmus test and precedes night road games at Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Not exactly tame venues. Meyer jokes that he gets on his knees and prays for good health every day, as offensive line, linebacker and tailback depth are perilous. "It's all so fragile," he says.
Don't mistake the quiet coming out of Columbus this off-season for a mellower Meyer. He's as feisty as ever on the practice field, pleading with his team for the "juicy juice" energy that's defined his teams here.
The biggest smile on Meyer's face Monday—even bigger than when he found out Ohio State got commitments from two top receivers for the 2017 class—came when he was asked about becoming a grandfather. His daughter, Nicki, and her husband, Buckeyes staff member Corey Dennis, are expecting their first child in December. "Mama's feet haven't touched the ground now," Meyer said of his wife, Shelley. "She's out of her mind excited."
By the baby's birth, it'll be clear if the hushed optimism around the Buckeyes translates into loud results like in 2014. Imagine the grin on Grandpa Meyer's face in December if the uneventful off-season translates into a quiet juggernaut on the field. At first glance, the talent is certainly there for that scenario to unfold.