COLUMBUS, Ohio—It was one of those record-scratch-stop-everything quotes.
“We know that people are always going to doubt us,” Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry said Tuesday after the Buckeyes’ first spring practice. “That’s going to be a big thing for us. We’ve got a target on our backs and people are going to doubt us.”
Doubt Ohio State? After what we watched just a few months ago? Who on Earth would doubt a team that closed a season the way the Buckeyes did and then returns most of the key players from the run?
Fortunately, ESPN’s Marty Smith followed up by asking Perry who precisely might doubt Ohio State. Perry’s answer said a lot about the way the Buckeyes are approaching their title defense.
“Can Ohio State really do it again? Maybe it was a fluke that all those players came together the way they did. They had really good senior leadership, but they aren’t there anymore,” Perry said, listing all the potential knocks. “All those things you’re going to hear.”
What originally sounded like manufactured angst turned out to be a carefully considered position. Seniors like Perry know staying on top is tougher than getting there, and they do not intend to let the Buckeyes slip. They were supposed to be a year away last season, and they won the national title anyway. Now their year is here, and they don’t want to lose the edge that put that new banner on the wall of the practice facility.
“We did lose players that were vital to that team last year,” offensive tackle Taylor Decker said. “It’s kind of scary with a team coming off a big season like we did to have a letdown. You don’t want guys to think we’ve arrived or that we’re entitled to win games.”
The older Buckeyes understand that repeating is hard. Chemistry changes from year to year. While there should be no doubt whatsoever that Ohio State is capable of winning consecutive national titles, the veterans know the wrong attitude can turn a capable team into one that doesn’t live up to its vast potential. “The big challenges,” Perry said, “are going to be keeping everything on track in terms of learning assignments and just making sure we don’t get too comfortable—that this doesn’t seem too mundane.”
Fortunately for Ohio State, there should be enough intrigue during this spring’s practices to keep everyone interested and engaged. Starting spots are open at defensive tackle, defensive end, cornerback and right tackle. Experienced receivers return, but will a field-stretcher emerge who can come anywhere near Devin Smith’s absurd 28.2-yards-per-catch average? Oh, and then there’s the quarterback thing.
Three passers suited up for Tuesday’s practice who probably would start for at least 110 other FBS programs. There was Braxton Miller, the two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year. There was J.T. Barrett, the Big Ten single-season record holder for touchdowns produced. And there was Cardale Jones, whose three career starts all came in postseason games and all ended with the Buckeyes passing around a trophy.
At some point, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and co-coordinators Ed Warinner and Tim Beck will have to choose one of those three to start. But that day won’t come anytime soon. Miller is still recovering from shoulder surgery in August. He did some light tossing off to the side Tuesday, but he probably won’t be throwing at full strength until the summer. Barrett just had the screws removed from his surgically repaired ankle last month, so he won’t be full speed, either. He took part in some drills Tuesday and watched others. Jones, meanwhile, is the same bazooka-armed guy we watched help the Buckeyes to wins against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon. He’ll get the bulk of the first-team reps this spring, which should help close the experience gap between him and the other two.
“There are ways to put two tight ends on the field,” Meyer said. “There are ways to put four receivers on the field. There’s even a way to put three safeties on the field. It’s called put one in nickel.” But there is no accepted way to put three quarterbacks on the field, even if all three deserve it. Maybe Meyer will start one and use another as a situational player. That’s what he did at Florida in 2006 with senior Chris Leak and freshman Tim Tebow. But he doesn’t have to decide that this spring.
“When you say, ‘How does it play out?’ I don’t know,” Meyer said. “We’re going to worry about Braxton getting to Thursday and get something out of him in practice. … It’s day-to-day, player-by-player. That’s the focus, not what’s going to happen and what we foresee.”
Also, as challenges go, it’s a pretty pleasant one. At the place referred to in Columbus as The School Up North, Jim Harbaugh must choose from a group of inexperienced and/or unaccomplished signal callers. Ditto for Nick Saban at Alabama, Charlie Strong at Texas and Jimbo Fisher at Florida State. All would love to have Meyer’s problem, which, for the record, Meyer only considers a problem because he’ll have to at some point disappoint people he admires.
“There’s no stress at all as far as the functionality of the position,” Meyer said. “It’s the personalities, families, people involved. If I disliked one or two of them, it would be not that hard. But I have a lot of respect for them. Everybody around there has seen what they’ve done. That’s the only dilemma, and it’s not right now. Because we’re not even focused on that.”
Instead, the Buckeyes are focused on what strength coach Mickey Marotti and every football player on Twitter at 6 a.m. call “The Grind.” The phrase is emblazoned on a banner at one end of Ohio State’s indoor facility—across from last year’s banner commemorating “The Chase.”
“The Grind is a lot of things,” Perry said. “It’s what our program is about. We sharpen. We shape. We pulverize. It’s a lot of friction. We like that. That’s how you develop players. That’s how you get the best out of people.”
So while the media and fans ask about the quarterbacks, the rest of the Buckeyes will go about the business of avoiding complacency and silencing the doubters—real and imagined. And if they truly do spend the next few months sharpening, shaping and pulverizing, that friction could create another national champion.
Big Ten players to watch in 2015
Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, Ohio State QB
The most compelling storyline of the college football offseason centered on who would win Ohio State's starting quarterback job. With Braxton Miller moving to h-back, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones will compete for the right to run the Buckeyes' first-team offense. Jones led Ohio State to a national title, but Barrett flashed immense potential during the regular season.
Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State DE
Calhoun enters his final season as one of the lynchpins of Michigan State's stellar defense. The defensive lineman is a menace in the backfield as evidenced by his eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss in 2014.
Corey Clement, Wisconsin RB
Clement ran for over six yards per carry and nine touchdowns last season when spelling for Heisman finalist Melvin Gordon. With Gordon off to the NFL, Clement is set up to become the latest in the long line of successful Wisconsin running backs.
Joey Bosa, Ohio State DE
Bosa was an integral part of the Ohio State defense that limited Heisman winner Marcus Mariota and shut out Wisconsin. The rising junior has 21 sacks in two seasons, and his knack for forcing fumbles coming off the edge continues to make him a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.
Christian Hackenberg, Penn State QB
Hackenberg struggled last season in his first year under James Franklin and behind a shaky offensive. But the Nittany Lions' signal caller shined when he started as a true freshman, and another year under Franklin's tutelage in addition to much needed improvements in protection should help to bring out the talent in the former five-star recruit.
Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State RB
Elliott was last seen bowling over Oregon defenders in a dominant performance in Ohio State's national championship win. The rising junior ran for over 200 yards in each of the Buckeyes' last three games of 2014, and he could reach 2,000 yards this year if Meyer goes to him early and often.
Connor Cook, Michigan State QB
Cook has helped the Spartans go 23-3 over the last two season, including wins in the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl. He likely would have been the No. 3 quarterback in this year's draft class. Instead Cook's return to East Lansing makes Michigan State the biggest threat to Ohio State for the Big Ten title.
Darron Lee, Ohio State LB
Lee returned from an injury that ended his freshman season to become a vital part of the Buckeyes' defense last year. His athleticism made him a threat in coverage or in the backfield, and the young linebacker isn't afraid to hit either.
Anthony Zettel, Penn State DT
Zettel returns to Happy Valley for another season despite drawing the attention of NFL scouts with his play in 2014. The defensive lineman recorded eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss. His ability to wreak havoc in the backfield will be key in a conference loaded with talent at quarterback and running back.
Taylor Decker, Ohio State OT
Decker is an absolute load along the offensive line for the Buckeyes. He not only paved the way for Ezekiel Elliott's late-season exploits, but he was also able to keep all three of Ohio State's quarterbacks relatively clean in the pocket. Decker's dominance on the line should help the Buckeyes' high-powered offense continue to shine this fall.