The calendar reads March, which brings average temperatures in the 50s in Columbus. But snowy owls remain a more common sight than cardinals. In a winter that’s contained few breaks from gruesome weather, spring suddenly sprung on the campus of Ohio State.
Tuesday marked the first of 15 spring practice for the Buckeyes. And just three days removed from brain surgery, head coach Urban Meyer oversaw a group with the usual expectations – win, and win often.
Using a soft voice and no whistle, Meyer offered encouragement to quarterbacks, observed the secondary and chatted up freshman kicker Sean Nuernberger. The past two seasons included frenetic activity and an unmistakable booming voice. The absence of yelling Tuesday was due to a procedure to ease headaches Meyer’s been experiencing from a cyst that was discovered in 1998.
There was still constant motion, but doctors told Meyer no screaming and no blowing a whistle. After years of being stubborn, he opted to obey orders.
“I had Fernando [Lovo] blowing the whistle today, but it didn’t sound very good,” Meyer said, with a smile. “It didn’t sound the same. So I’ll be back after spring break. You’ll hear it again.”
All Ohio State fans care about is whether Meyer will win the national championship again, this time at the helm of the Buckeyes. The first day of spring practice didn’t yield many results – especially without Braxton Miller. However, slowly but surely the team’s nucleus will be formed.
Meyer’s 24-2 in two seasons in Columbus. But when the two are the most recent games, it tends to cause issues.
“I felt we had a ‘what if’ defense last year. I saw it from our coaches, I saw it from our players.”– Urban Meyer
Another highly ranked recruiting class signals a surplus of talent, but Ohio State’s never been lacking in that area. Meyer believes attitude was the central cause of the Buckeyes’ late-season unraveling. They became entitled after a 12-0 year gave way to a school-record 24-game win streak, he said. This season, Meyer prefers an angry, blue-collar team.
“I felt we had a ‘what if’ defense last year,” he said. “’What if they did this or that?’ I saw it from our coaches, I saw it from our players. What I'm looking for is simplicity and four to six seconds going hard.”
Ohio State welcomes two new coaches – Larry Johnson and Chris Ash – to help sort out and correct the problems. But perhaps the matter can be solved with Meyer’s involvement. He said he’ll be an active participant. When Meyer helped out with the defense two years ago, the unit saw steady improvement.
Last year’s ghastly details are known, and coverage breakdowns, communication, etc. will be addressed during the spring, but Meyer’s more focused on setting a positive tone and witnessing his team play motivated and with a purpose.
“I felt like we lost something on defense,” Meyer said, referencing the past two seasons.
The process of finding their way begins with four new starters. The one who’s filling the biggest shoes turned the most heads. Darron Lee is charged with replacing Ryan Shazier, if such a thing is even possible. Shazier’s production the past two seasons put him on par with some of the program’s all-time greats at the position. Lee’s doing his best to smooth the transition.
“He deserves it,” Meyer said of Lee’s status as a starter. “He’s got all the skills. His negative was that he played quarterback at New Albany. We just have to get him ready to play.”
That should be a non-issue when it comes to true freshman linebacker Raekwon McMillan. It took all of one practice for Meyer to come away impressed by the nation’s top linebacker recruit.
“Very positive of what I saw,” Meyer said. “He did a really good job. Very mature. For a shorts practice, he did enough where I was.”
In all, Ohio State lost 10 starters from last year, with the most significant departures coming on the offensive line, where only Taylor Decker returns. Establishing a workmanlike approach on both sides of the ball is the objective during spring. A relentless effort wasn’t always noticeable last season, according to Meyer.
Finishing became a glaring weakness in the final two games. Consider it addressed. Winter workouts proved effective. For 30 minutes on Tuesday, the Buckeyes continuously ran a version of the hurry-up offense, rotating in fresh players as the defense huffed and puffed.
“I’m not going to be ignorant like I was before,” Meyer said. “If something happens, I’m going to get it fixed.”
That statement was about his health. But it also fits when interpreting Meyer’s view of the defense. He believes both concerns have been corrected.