The Road to 4-0

By Chris Lauderback on August 20, 2012 at 1:00p

Objectively looking at the schedule, starting 4-0 feels like a foregone conclusion.

Meyer: You have questions, he has answers. 

We've all heard the chirps about California and UCF at least being decent teams but I think most of us believe it's a pretty safe bet that a reinvigorated Ohio State football team, led by an equally reinvigorated Urban Meyer and playing at home in the 'Shoe, will prove more than enough to dispatch of four decidedly inferior foes. 

Under Meyer and his handpicked staff, this team is going to play at an entirely different pace with a seismic shift in both urgency and sustained intensity.

What's less certain, however, is exactly how the Buckeyes will sweep the non-conference slate and if enough questions will have been answered for the squad to open to 5-0 when things get real on September 29th in East Lansing. 

I'm sure you've got your own little list of questions about this young team, having identified them as questions that, if answered in the first four contests, will give the Buckeyes a chance to win every game on the schedule. The basic logic is, you can't be 12-0 until you go 4-0 and establish some building blocks. 

With that, here's a list a list of four questions that need sorted out over the non-conference schedule in order for Ohio State to reclaim its perch as the conference's best team and put the nation on notice for next year. 

Are the linebackers good enough for this defense to be great?

Sporting what could be one of the dominant defensive fronts in college football coupled with what should be at least an above secondary highlighted by future star Bradley Roby, the first four games will give us a chance to evaluate the question mark of the defense - the linebackers.

Ryan Damn Shazier was one of last year's breakout freshmen and there's little reason to believe he won't be significantly improved as this season gets underway. He made his fair share of freshman mistakes, sometimes over pursuing ball carriers and getting beat over the top in the passing game but it will shock no one if he opens the non-conference slate making plays sideline to sideline.

Alongside Shazier, things are less certain. Etienne Sabino was more like Etienne So-so for the bulk of 2011, though he did close well with strong efforts at Michigan and against Florida while Curtis Grant has been anointed the Mike, though it feels like it was almost by default.

If nothing else, Sabino is a hard worker and leader by example as evidenced by his selection as a team captain. Like Shazier, he was selectively exposed in zone coverage and unlike Shazier, he didn't always show the speed necessary to keep up with elite rushers. In the opening weeks, Sabino will need to show he's improved in these areas to make me feel good about the state of linebacking in Columbus.

Grant is without a doubt the biggest question mark on the starting defense simply because there's no collegiate body of work with which to draw conclusions. I want to pencil him in as a top five tackler in 2012 but I'll feel better about doing so once we get to see what he's got against the likes of Miami, UCF, Cal and UAB.

If nothing else, the good news is that Fickell's defense will feature just two linebackers on the field for a high volume of snaps, making it easier to absorb a lack of effectiveness at this position group.

All this assumes, perhaps incorrectly, that any of the freshmen - a Perry, Marcus or Crowell maybe - don't make the most of their first four games and seize some playing time if Grant falters.

which freshmen will emerge as key contributors?

Unquestionably, one of the great fan chores to complete during a new season is looking to see which newcomers step and make a name for themselves among the faithful. 

This season, with so many redshirts and true freshmen in the two-deep, the task of correctly predicting which handful of them will blow up won't be easy. I think they call that a #BuckeyeNationProblem or something.

Think about it: names like Noah Spence, Michael Thomas, Adolphus Washington, Taylor Decker, Bri'onte Dunn, David Perkins, Jamal Marcus, Najee Murray, Nick Vannett, Josh Perry and Tommy Schutt dot a super-sized R-Fr/Fr roster totaling 43 kids.

So which three or four will rise to the top against the likes of Miami, UCF, Cal and UAB, earning the right to be big time players as the Buckeyes take on conference play and prepare for the 2013 redemption tour?

Thomas starred in the spring. Can he repeat in the fall?

On offense, the four with the greatest opportunity include Dunn, Decker, Thomas and Vannett. 

I'll take Decker and Vannett out of this group to separate themselves but I won't be shocked if Thomas breaks from a crowded pack of receivers to become a legit target in the eyes of the Miller. The two practically made out in the spring game as Thomas racked up something like 30 catches for 400 yards - or maybe it was 12 for 131 - but the bottom line is the kid was constantly open and has good size at 6'2", 200 lbs. 

All signs point to Decker being Reid Fragel's backup to open the season but something tells me Decker will eat into the converted tight end's minutes right from the jump. Decker's an intelligent kid who has the schemes down pat; he just needs to refine his pass blocking, something he'll have plenty of chances to practice as Ohio State gets back to striving for some balance and not being afraid to throw the football. 

Vannett, a redshirt from Westerville, cashed in some karma points when Jake Stoneburner was officially moved to wide receiver, opening the door to a starting spot. He'll battle with Jeff Heuerman for time but I like what Vannett has shown so far and with Braxton learning a new offense, there could be plenty of opportunities in the early going to catch dumpoffs / safe throws, enabling Nick to earn the trust of the staff and signal caller as the season wears on. 

Defensively, a host of young linebackers are learning the ropes including guys like Perry, Marcus, Perkins and Camren Williams while the defensive line loaded up on more depth with Spence, Washington, Schutt and Se'Von Pittman.

Among those kids, I'm putting my money on Spence being the guy to separate from the pack and become a force. This team needs a pass rusher off the edge with Nathan Williams not yet at 100% and John Simon best utilized in other ways, and based on what we've seen and heard so far, Spence is primed to be that guy.

Perry and Marcus both seem like guys that could make noise but at this point, that projects to being our new favorite special teams darlings.

how much improvement will we see from the passing game?

While there's no question Jim Bollman and Nick Siciliawhatevero did nothing to help the Ohio State passing attack in 2011, it's also clear Braxton wasn't yet totally ready for primetime from a mechanics and reading defenses perspective and with zero proven receivers to help him along, OSU managed to rank 115th in Passing Offense and 107th in Total Offense, one of the true lowlights from a lost season. 

Despite having to learn a new offense, Braxton has shown steady improvement with his accuracy from last year to now and with Tom Herman and Meyer effectively designing plays in which Braxton can excel, there's no reason to believe Miller isn't on the cusp of greatness. 

For Miller to truly go next level, he needs some receivers to emerge. 

With Stoneburner moving to the outside, it will be interesting to see how those two adjust in the early going and what trickle-down effect it has on the rest of the corps. 

Devin Smith and Philly Brown figure to join Stoneburner in seeing the bulk of the reps as the non-conference slate plays out but with all three lacking a polished wide receiver resume, Evan Spencer, Verlon Reed, Michael Thomas and Chris Fields should also see plenty of action. I have to believe no less than three guys in this group can seize the opportunity over the first four games and give the Buckeyes production they sorely missed in 2011. 

Another obvious benefit to running an updated offense is that we'll get to evaluate running backs and tight ends as full fledged members of the passing attack. I touched on TE/Vannett earlier and out of the backfield, we could start seeing just what Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde can do as early as game two. 

The Herman/Meyer offense will feature enough quick-strike routes that a premium will be placed on the ability to run after the catch. As such, I am insanely curious to see how effective the slippery Hall can be in space after the catch. 

A last piece of the passing game puzzle that will have my focus is the pass protection. Last year, the combo of Miller holding onto the ball too long at times, the offensive line struggling to not be terrible and wide receivers failing to gain consistent separation led to 3.54 sacks allowed per game, 'good' for 118th in the country. Yeah, you're right - that's out of 120 teams. 

Again, the vastly improved offensive strategy as a whole should have a colossal impact on pass pro but I'm still anxiously awaiting the chance to watch Mewhort, Norwell, Linsley, Hall and Fragel/Decker attempt to shore up the trenches and keep Miller upright over the first four games to give me hope that they can do so against Sparty's pretty-close-to-elite defense. 

who will prove to be the 2nd most important offensive player?

Barring injury, its pretty clear this offense is tailor-made for Braxton to blow up both with his legs and with his arm. 

Catch up on everything you need to know ahead of the season kickoff.

Less clear is who will step up in the first month of the season and become another guy that Meyer can count on to help move the ball. 

Looking to run a balanced power spread attack, a hybrid player like Jordan Hall could form a dangerous 1-2 punch with Miller. As noted, we won't get our first glimpse until game two at the earliest but could Hall be the guy heading into East Lansing targeted to be Braxton's Robin? 

No question Hall could be the one but going back to the fact this offense will still lean heavily on the ability to power run the football, I'm going with Carlos Hyde as the player most likely to complement Miller over the course of 12 games. 

I like his ability to run between the tackles and love his speed at 6'0", 232 lbs. No longer wary of how he was mishandled in a 2011 campaign that saw him top the century mark twice and not record a carry twice, it will be interesting to see if he can be the guy to soften up the middle allowing Braxton and company to exploit the edges. 

Either way, watching Hall and Hyde battle over the course of the non-conference to be the number one offensive option behind Braxton should be fun. Both could easily be that guy as they have differing strengths and if both do take their abilities to the next level, I'll have an increased confidence in Ohio State picking up a W in East Lansing and using that as a springboard to the rest of the B1G slate. 

Right now, the only absolute we know is that answers to these questions will be begin playing out in 12 days. 


Comments Show All Comments

ATXbucknut's picture

Good read. Thank you.
I believe opposing defense are going to work hard to stop our run game (with a LB tracking Brax at all times) and dare us to throw with consistency. I think the OL will have improved (how could they not?), but I still think a developing OL with little depth and inexperienced WRs means our passing game will lag. 
I want to believe 12-0 is possible, but I think our offense will be largely one dimensional going up against really good defenses in East Lansing, Madison, and at home against scUM. I think 9-3 is more realistic. Am I being too pessimistic?

bassplayer7770's picture

You are certainly entitled to your opinion, but keep in mind that opposing defenses also worked hard to stop our run game last season, and we endured some of the most predictable playcalling ever.  I'm optimistic the passing game will demand respect this season.

TBDBITLinWIScantSON's picture

I think you're being optimistic about scUM's defense.


hail2victors9's picture

Beat sparty and nebraska...the other 9 games do with as you please.

Those who stay will be CHAMPIONS!

~Bo Schembechler

BuckeyeNation's picture

HAIL: I see what you did there.
Let me be the first to say, if you need some help w/your foes in your division buddy just ask... we're all friends here, lol!
Also, no worries... we will do w/what we please w/the other "10" games. HAHA !! :D

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

Well we do know that we'll be at least 15 yards better per game since Shugarts is no longer going to be on the field!

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

CowCat's picture

I dunno about "decidedly inferior opponents".   Sounds too much like Charlie Weis.  LOL

"We get paid to score touchdowns, not kick field goals"
-- Urban Meyer

Ahh Saturday's picture

I know this horse is dead, but every time I hear how well Decker is doing so far, I can't help but think that Bollman didn't even offer him.

Chad Peltier's picture

Every time I hear how well Nate Ebner is doing with the Patriots I wonder how he didn't see more time on defense. 

buckeye76BHop's picture

Agreed Dad and I were saying that all last year after watching Nate make every tackle or at least be in the pile on Kick Off (especially after watching live with my Dad against Colorado).  Never made sense to me either...

"There's nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you."

"I love football. I think it is most wonderful game in world and I despise to lose."

Woody Hayes 1913 - 1987 

CowCat's picture

Bollman had his faults, but I find it hard to hate on a guy that helped deliver 1 NC, 9-1 against TTUN, multiple Big Ten titles, etc.
He's moved on, we have a shiny new offense, it's all good.

"We get paid to score touchdowns, not kick field goals"
-- Urban Meyer

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Dorothy: "Shut up, shut up. You had me at 'Bollman had his faults.'"

Ahh Saturday's picture

I know, I know, but with Bollman it's like PTSD.  Every time his name comes up, it all comes back.  FWIW, he clearly had his role to play in the weird, voodoo magic that was a JT offense.

southbymidwest's picture

Best comment about Bollman and the offense ever, or close to ever.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

FWIW, my rational side agrees with you, but making fun of Bollman is too much fun.
This season, I will regularly check BC's box scores to see how many total rushing yds and rush yds/carry they got. Call it Walrus Watch, or something. Secretly, I'm hoping that BC rushes for 3,200 yds, just because that would be hilarious. 

Poison nuts's picture

I guess clubbing a Walrus just doesn't feel as bad as a baby seal... 

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

faux_maestro's picture

Yeah except he wasn't the play caller until last year, Tressel was. Bollman was the guy who took high rated O Lineman out of high school and made them below average college players  who didn't get drafted. THEY DIDN'T EVEN USE BLOCKING SLEDS IN PRACTICE FER GOD'S SAKE!!! Tressel was the man behind the offence until last year, once Bollman was counted on to do anything other than stand around in a straw hat we all saw how useless he was.

Your mom told me she wants a Dicken Cidar.

Buckeyejason's picture

To be fair, Mangold, Sims, Datish, and Adams were drafted.


faux_maestro's picture

True, I may be exaggerating a bit, though it is true that the O Line has underperformed, and he wasn't calling the plays or really directing the offense in game.

Your mom told me she wants a Dicken Cidar.

AGL's picture

on this site several mths ago was an article quoting Coach Fick about John Simons versatiity. Stating we could play him at MLB if needed.  Not discounting C. Grant or C. Crowell, would love to see that one game,  all things pending on how underclassmen develop.


Buckeyejason's picture

That would be interesting to watch, but rushing the QB and stopping the run from the D-end position is a lot different from having to do what a middle linebacker has to to like cover and read defenses..not to mention having side line to side line quickness which I think would be tough for Simon.


buckeye76BHop's picture

Better start praying now that you don't lose any B1G games...because you're going to in 96 days.  That you can count on. 

"There's nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you."

"I love football. I think it is most wonderful game in world and I despise to lose."

Woody Hayes 1913 - 1987 

DonkeyPunchAnnArbor's picture

I am guessing this comment is directed at Hail?  It seems as if you are telling all Buckeye fans to prepare for a loss in 96 days.  Next time use the reply button in the bottom right corner of his comment. 

"Michigan and "huge mistake" are synonymous"
-Mark Titus

buckeye76BHop's picture

Obviously's to Hail.  Captain obvious award goes to....and I did press reply...some others  replied before mine was posted.  I'm at work... Hey I like that name though for what it's worth.

"There's nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you."

"I love football. I think it is most wonderful game in world and I despise to lose."

Woody Hayes 1913 - 1987 

Maestro's picture

Oh the hours of the offseason go so slowly, then the season starts and it's over faster than you can say public urination.

vacuuming sucks

Crimson's picture

I urinated in public when I read this.

Buckeyejason's picture

Ahhh can't wait until sep 1st! The game vs Cal intrigues me. They always put a good number of players in the league, could be a tough one.


Run_Fido_Run's picture

The pace of time during the offseason:

The pace of time during Buckeye football season:

Nappy's picture

the vastly improved the existance of an offensive strategy.  FTFY

I never saw a football player make a tackle with a smile on his face

OldColumbusTown's picture

Who cares if a team keys on the run... Braxton should understand this enough to throw the bubble screen.
Who cares if a team keys on the pass... Braxton can pull it down or put it in Hyde's arms for a big gainer.
Finally, we will see a balanced offense that is not so bull-headed that there are no constraint plays built into the playbook.  Should be exciting to watch.

BME_Buckeye's picture

If OSU manages to go 6-0, they are gonna be hard to stop once division play comes around.

Look closely, because the closer you think you are, the less you will actually see.


OSUBias's picture

I honestly hope the first 4 teams do stuff like "100% key on the run" "force us to throw" and "spy Miller." The reality is that we should, barring a Purdue like plethora of turnovers, win these games on talent alone. So what we need for the games to be valuable is for our offense to learn how to deal with defenses throwing different things at them. Let them get used to the different reads and check downs and bubble screens. Let the defense find it's legs (LB's other than Shazier, and Travis Island, I'm looking at you) and develop some cohesion going into conference play.
"You can have 10 guys doing it right, 1 guy doing it wrong, and it's the worst thing you've ever seen in your life." - Urban Meyer (paraphrased). Let's hope we get any/all of those out of our system during the first 4 games too.

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

Jdadams01's picture

I can easily see 9-3 this season. Offensive growing pains, good teams on the road (Sparty and Wiscy), a lot of pressure in the UM game, a possible let down game against Nebraska, etc. I honestly would be very happy with 9-3, because it would show growth on both sides. '13 is the target.

Crimson's picture

I agree with this.  I'm more worried about learning a new system, and all of the coaching changes in particular, than most I have seen on this site.  I'm thinking 9-3, because I think 8-4 would be a fairly bad year, and because then I can be really happy if we win 10 or 11.

Buckeyejason's picture

I agree with both above. Not expecting 12-0, 11-1..would really just like to see a lot of momentum heading into 2013..hoping that Hankins and Roby return, could be a DEEP and TALENTED team!