For two seasons, Ohio State enjoyed a luxury few college football teams experience. There was plenty of winning – 24 games to be exact. But it was the fashion in which the Buckeyes won – smashmouth with a punishing offensive line.
Those days are months in the rearview mirror. And during Saturday’s spring game it looked like light years since Jack Mewhort, Andrew Norwell, Corey Linsley and Marcus Hall were protecting Braxton Miller and opening holes for Carlos Hyde.
Antonio Underwood would like to correct that problem. He doesn’t want the line of yesteryear to be forgotten; he just doesn’t want them to be missed.
“I feel we’re a work in progress,” Underwood said. “Obviously, we have a lot of things we need to work on. We’re still getting better, but we’re nowhere near what we need to be or nowhere as good as last year’s offensive line. That’s the main goal – to be better or as good as last year’s offensive line. This is an offensive line-driven team.”
For three years, Underwood’s toiled in practices and been a bystander on game days. When (and if) he appears in the opener at Navy, Underwood will be playing in just his 11th career game. His time is arriving.
Underwood spent the spring in a duel with converted defensive lineman Joel Hale for the starting left guard position. When a torn ACL ended Underwood’s 2013 season prematurely, he vowed to return one year later – in the spring of 2014 – better conditioned and to give himself an opportunity to become a known quantity.
“I was just able to be more consistent and get my work ethic to where it needed to be, which really put me in a position to start,” Underwood said.
His spring game performance gave a glimpse of where he still needs to go. Underwood played on both teams. On Gray’s first offensive snap, defensive end Rashad Frazier got by Underwood and strip-sacked J.T. Barrett, leading to a defensive touchdown. Tyquan Lewis pancaked Underwood later in the game on a sack.
But it wasn’t indicative of Underwood’s entire spring. Ed Warinner offered an encouraging synopsis in March, while defensive linemen lauded him for his technique.
“When he gets his hands on you, it’s tough to beat him,” Michael Bennett said.
Magic is Warinner’s M.O. He reworked a group of linemen who had done nothing to distinguish themselves into one of the best units in school history. Now, he’s trying to write the sequel. Underwood said the culture is one of hard work.
The chopping wood and lunch pale mantra is perfectly suited for the blue-collar Clevelander.
“I decided I wanted to be a dude that could step up and help this team do this,” he said.
CATCH HIM IF YOU CAN: Malcolm Branson believed he could beat Dontre Wilson in a race. It left Ohio State fans scratching their heads. A student really believes he can run faster than a wide receiver said to be one of the fastest players in college football?
Branson, a senior criminology major, was a standout track and field athlete at Massillon Perry. At last week’s student appreciation day, he got the attention of coaches and players when he ran a blistering 40-yard dash, making him eligible for the finals of the fastest student contest.
The event was created by Urban Meyer at Florida to give students ownership of the program. It was re-introduced in Year 3 at Ohio State. Fernando Lovo, football operations coordinator, even said Ohio State’s students were faster than Florida’s.
Branson proved that on Saturday. He beat Wilson and fellow wide receiver James Clark. But Doran Grant kept pace, with the race ending in a photo finish.
“I personally thought I [beat him],” said Branson, who trained in the week leading up to the race. “They have video of it. We’ll see when we look at the video.”
In the video, it looked like Grant won by a half step. There was a race-off, which Grant won by about a yard.
“I knew I was catching up,” Branson said. “I started slow, but I knew I was catching up to Doran. “By the time I caught him it was too late. It is what it is.”
Still, win or lose, Branson savored the moment of running in front of 61,058 fans in Ohio Stadium.
“It was fun, it was electric,” he said. “I can’t even explain it. It was a very good time.”
DEFENSIVE TURNAROUND: Ohio State’s defense has been under fire for the better part of two years. Fans have called for Luke Fickell’s dismissal and a complete overhaul of the pass coverage, especially in light of last’s season crash landing.
Half of that equation was completed during the offseason when safeties coach Everett Withers left to become head coach at James Madison. In came Chris Ash, who revamped the secondary by instituting press coverage. The more aggressive style has been embraced by all.
Under sunny skies, fans left the Horseshoe with a sunny outlook on the pass defense. Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett combined to throw for just 277 yards. There were 10 pass breakups, with Eli Apple and Armani Reeves each recording two. Apple and Reeves, along with Gareon Conley, are battling for the starting cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant.
“We are more aggressive and everyone is making plays,” sophomore safety Tyvis Powell said. “The defense is more condense now than we were last season. We only have about six defensive calls. We had too many last year.”
The linebacking corps, including true freshman Raekwon McMillan, was as good as they’ve been in several seasons. A handful of offensive starters were missing, making it difficult to judge the good and the bad, but McMillan, Chris Worley, Darron Lee, Joshua Perry, Curtis Grant, Trey Johnson and Cam Williams had a combined 30 tackles.
“I hope the reaction was that they looked quicker and that they looked faster and that they trigger on the ball much quicker than we have in the past,” Meyer said. “If that’s your perception, it’s mine as well.”
The starting defensive line – Noah Spence, Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washing ton and Joey Bosa – totaled zero tackles. Because they didn’t play. No need to suffer an injury on a unit that’s among the best in the country.
“I’d be disappointed if we’re not one of the better defensive lines in America with those four guys,” Meyer said. “They had a good spring. Their coach [Larry Johnson] is really coaching them.”