In the years preceding Urban Meyer’s arrival at Ohio State, the offensive line underwent a series of growing pains, never quite becoming the strength envisioned. Success was always close by, but a void still existed in an area where the Buckeyes had achieved so much throughout their storied history.
Names like Orlando Pace, John Hicks, Jim Lachey, Korey Stringer and Jim Parker dot Ohio State’s past. Once Meyer strode into Columbus, he and Ed Warinner zeroed in on the offensive line and resurrected the floundering unit.
Throughout the past two seasons, which included a school-record 24-game win streak, the Buckeyes relied on one of the best offensive lines in the country. They created unprecedented production, fueling 1,083 points and 12,252 yards of total offense, averages of 41.6 points and 471.2 yards per game.
Now comes another rebuilding project, a search to identify and restructure the foundation of a national championship contender.
“We definitely have some big shoes to fill, but we’re capable of it,” sophomore guard Pat Elflein said. “We have good chemistry, a good culture on our offensive line. Some guys have to step up big time, and we definitely have the talent to do that.”
Carlos Hyde is gone. Bradley Roby is gone. Ryan Shazier is gone. All three replacements are under the microscope this spring. Can Ohio State duplicate its vaunted run game? Will the pass defense improve? What about the linebackers, is there finally hope?
Instead, attention should be squarely on the competition to replace Jack Mewhort, Corey Linsley, Andrew Norwell and Marcus Hall. Elflein and Co. say they aren’t worried about who was lost, only who’s listed on the current roster.
“We’re just focused on getting better every day,” he said.
Junior center Jacoby Boren conveyed a similar tone – praising the past but pointing toward the future. It’s become abundantly clear that the Buckeyes are keyed on restoring their supremacy.
“When you lose guys like that – Jack, Marcus, Corey and Norwell – those are freaking awesome players, hands down. You can’t deny that. We definitely miss them, no doubt about it,” Boren said. “But it’s something that we’ve got to pick it up and run with it.”
Taylor Decker, who it seems like yesterday was the rookie of the offensive line, is now the elder statesman and the lone returning starter. The junior will move from right tackle to left tackle. And he doesn’t just have a different position, there’s a new-look clean-cut hairstyle. Joining Decker is Antonio Underwood at left guard, Boren at center, Elflein at right guard and Darryl Baldwin at right tackle. But challengers remain in hot pursuit.
“We have a lot of guys pushing each other,” Boren said. “It’s going to be a good competition throughout the whole offensive line. It’s going to make the unit better.”
The most competitive position battles are at center and right tackle, where Billy Price – the strongest player Mickey Marotti’s ever coached – and Evan Lisle are pushing the presumptive starters. Competition often leads to a rise in on-field production. For Ohio State, there will be no shortage of pressure.
And expect it to rise along with the temperature in the summer months.
“I think there’s a definite sense of urgency,” Decker said. “Guys are flying around trying to make a good effort and make a good impression on the coaches. That’s good to have, guys working hard giving it all they have every play.”
Warinner doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to put pen to paper and finalize a starting lineup. He laughed when the subject was brought up after the Buckeyes’ second spring practice.
“It’s a fluid deal,” Warinner said. “We’ll let everybody have their shot and kind of let it sort itself out. We don’t have to know who the starting O-line is until about 10 days before the first game. You guys are going to want to know by the end of spring. We could know sooner, maybe later.”
Offensive coordinator Tom Herman gave a similar response when asked about his impressions, chiding the sports information director for trotting out Warinner and the offensive line after two days of practice without pads.
“I don’t know what they are,” Herman said. “They go really hard. I think the competition has made for some increased intensity. But we won’t know till we get pads on and guys are flying around. I know Taylor Decker can play. That’s about it.”
Meyer prefers position battles conclude with the end of spring practice. But it comes with the notion that a clear winner be decided. In Meyer’s first season, the starter at right tackle was unknown until August. He and Warinner won’t rush the process.
It’s possible, though unlikely, that highly touted freshmen Jamarco Jones and Demetrius Knox nudge their way into the conversation when they report to fall camp. Kyle Trout and Marcelys Jones, are already on campus for spring drills. Columbus native Brady Taylor, a late addition to the 2014 recruiting class, also will enroll in the fall.
“Marcelys Jones, wow,” Warinner said. “He’s got some ability. We’ve got some good ones coming in that will add depth. We’ll see, maybe one of those young guys can add some depth.”
Ohio State averaged better than 275 yards rushing the past two seasons. Sure, Hyde was a factor. But so too was the offensive line. That group also kept Braxton Miller upright more often than not. The injury-prone quarterback hopes that trend continues.
It would be easy to forget that at one time, the group that made up the Buckeyes’ accomplished line was nothing more than unheralded recruits who were miscast and changed positions with the movement of a revolving door. They would develop into a giant boulder that stampeded through the Midwest.
Two years later, Warinner is faced with a similar scenario, though he believes the current assembly of linemen is further along than his previous group.
“What we lack is experience,” he said. “But I think we’re going to have enough talent. I know we have a good work ethic. They’re tough. They train hard. We just have to get them up to speed. Experience comes from playing.”
Said Decker: “The biggest thing is they just need to develop confidence in themselves. They can do everything. They just need to realize they can do it play after play after play and be consistent with it.”
At the top of that list is Elflein, who filled in for Hall in the Big Ten Championship Game and performed with the knack of a veteran. He referenced that situation as a confidence booster and contributor in easing the transition.
“It should help a lot for this year,” Elflein said. “It’d be a little different [if I hadn’t started]. Having that experience under my belt is good.”
In the offseason, Ohio State’s offensive line nearly lost something more valuable than its four departed seniors: Warinner. The longtime assistant was a frontrunner for the Army head-coaching job, but the Cadets ultimately went in another direction. The big winner is the Buckeyes.
“Coach Warinner never takes it easy on us. That’s what I love about him,” Boren said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re jack Mewhort or whoever; he’s going to ride you every single day and make you better.”
The proof lies on the stat sheets from Ohio State’s past two seasons.