COLUMBUS, Ohio – At 7:43 on the morning after Ohio State’s season supposedly ended, Lupe Fiasco’s “Super Star” blasted in the locker room. As players bobbed their heads and gathered their gear before the first Buckeyes practice since learning of Braxton Miller's season-ending injury, the lyrics dripped with symbolism: “If you are what you say you are, a superstar/Then have no fear.”
The song set a fitting tone for life A.B. – After Braxton – in 2014 at Ohio State. The school announced Tuesday that Miller, a Heisman candidate quarterback and two-time Big Ten Player of the Year, will miss the entire season with a shoulder injury. While there’s no way to overstate the importance of Miller to the Buckeyes -- if he returns in 2015, Ohio State will likely be the preseason No. 1 -- the news sparked more searching for answers than soul searching.
Miller’s absence thrusts redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett into the spotlight and highlights head coach Urban Meyer’s fascination with Eagles coach Chip Kelly's offense. Suddenly Ohio State’s identity shifts from Miller's celebrity to the program's ability to compensate for his absence.
The answer to replacing Miller’s production -- 24 touchdowns passing and 12 touchdowns rushing -- could lie in a phrase heard often around Buckeye camp this summer: “We want to be the Philadelphia Eagles of college football.” That’s meant everything from music blaring in practice, just like Kelly did in Eugene when he coached at Oregon, to players getting their urine tested every day to see if hydration levels are high enough. A brave Ohio State assistant strength coach, Anthony Schlegel, dressed up in a faux “nuclear suit” to collect urine Wednesday morning.
All the trappings of Kelly's system present a logical question: For Ohio State to catch up to the rest of college football with its best player out for the year, will it fully embrace the tempo that Kelly mastered?
“That’s a good question,” Meyer said. “That’s also to be determined. We’re prepared more than in the last two years. It’s the third year in the system.”
Playing fast and furious takes time, even if it sounds counter-intuitive. But talk to any of the up-tempo spread gurus, and they’ll insist that it takes until the third year to really get the system sizzling.
Without Miller’s improvisational genius, 4.3 speed and cannon arm, the Buckeyes will look a lot different this season. So can the tempo, depth of athletes and collection of speed in the program steal the starring role from Miller? That seemed to be the attitude around the Buckeyes facility Wednesday.
“If used properly and effectively, tempo should help our cause from the standpoint of not needing the ridiculous dynamism that Braxton Miller provided,” said offensive coordinator Tom Herman, the architect of Ohio State's no-huddle offense.
The new offensive identity in life A.B. begins with Barrett, who led the first team throughout most of the Buckeyes' summer camp drills as Miller was eased back in after shoulder surgery in February. Barrett’s reputation for doing everything well but nothing exceptional has helped introduce a buzzword to his first year as a starter: “distributor.” Barrett’s job will be to find players in space, limit mistakes and move the chains. He is cerebral, grasps the entirety of the offense and is already considered by strength coach Mickey Marotti as one of the team’s three best leaders. Barrett’s smooth release and pretty spiral prompted numerous members of the Buckeyes staff who worked with Meyer at Florida to compare Barrett to former Gators QB Chris Leak.
“I’ll take that,” Meyer said with a smile. “I’m a big Chris Leak fan.”
Barrett’s high school coach at Wichita Falls Rider, Jim Garfield, summed up Barrett’s moxie and presence with one story from his sophomore year. In a tight game against Andress High School of El Paso, Garfield challenged his quarterback: “We need a touchdown now.” On the first snap of the series, Barrett dropped back, threw a deep ball and was so confident it would be completed for a touchdown he didn’t even watch. He just ran straight over to Garfield and asked, “How do you like that?”
“That’s what sets him apart,” Garfield said. “He has that confidence about him.”
And he takes over as a starter with plenty of talent around him. Ohio State is better stocked at its skill positions than at any point in Meyer’s three-year tenure in Columbus. Sophomore starter Ezekiel Elliott, freshman buzzsaw Curtis Samuel and senior Rod Smith give the Buckeyes quality depth at tailback. The receiving corps lacks a defining star but is more athletic and deeper than when Meyer arrived on campus two years ago, so much so that returning senior starters Evan Spencer and Devin Smith will be pushed hard for playing time. Watch for freshman Jalin Marshall and junior college transfer Corey Smith, both of whom stood out in practice on Wednesday, to breath down the seniors' necks.
“In my 10 years here, this is the most explosive offensive talent, depth wise, that we’ve ever had,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. “The 2006 team had a lot of offensive weapons. But depth wise, you just have to get the ball to the players and get out of the way.”
at Penn State
at Michigan State
As Ohio State figures out how quickly it wants to go on offense, the defense will be figuring out a new identity under new defensive coordinator Chris Ash. The former Arkansas coordinator has installed a more aggressive system that will rely on Ohio State’s stout defensive line to pressure the quarterback and the corners to control coverage so the safeties can fly in on run support.
“They're at a high SEC level because of the recruiting that coach Meyer has done,” Ash said. “This football team compared two years ago is a lot more athletic and deep and compares very well to the top SEC teams.”
But how the offense moves without one of the most dynamic players in college football will remain the biggest question. There was no hangover from the news, as Meyer -- ever the purveyor of hyperbole -- called Wednesday’s practice one of his best in the three years he’s been at Ohio State.
The Buckeyes flew around with music blaring while operations coordinator Fernando Lovo barked down-and-distance on a microphone and team managers in referee jerseys hustled to spot the ball. Those are all obvious swipes of Kelly’s playbook. “I really admire the way that they do their business,” Meyer says.
As 2014 kicks off and Ohio State searches for an identity without Braxton Miller, the question amid the cacophony is simple: Will the tempo of Ohio State’s offense on Saturdays match Kelly’s teams at Oregon? Or will that tempo only exist in practice?