After Ohio State eked out a 14-point victory over UAB in 2012, Urban Meyer put on a happy face for his team, the fans and media. But it was all a façade. In reality, Meyer knew there were issues.
“I walked in front of the podium deep in my gut knowing we’re horrible,” he said last week. “We had a horrible football team. But I couldn’t tell the media that, I couldn’t tell the public, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re God awful. We have a major problem at Ohio State.’ So we kept working and kept working.”
Eventually, they’d finish undefeated. A loss wouldn’t arrive until 25 games into the Meyer era. A reshaped offensive line with Ed Warinner’s signature on it provided Ohio State with the foundation for a record-setting offense.
When Meyer steps into the third-floor interview room in the southeast tower at Ohio Stadium Sept. 13, he could have similar feelings. On that afternoon, the Buckeyes host Kent State, an opponent that should be easily dispatched. And they might be. But four new starters on the offensive line leaves open the possibility of a slow start.
In Saturday’s spring game, Jacoby Boren, Billy Price, Antonio Underwood and Darryl Baldwin showed they can bridge the gap. They also made fans long for four departed seniors who will sign NFL contracts in May.
The defenses combined for five sacks and eight tackles for loss, while the offenses only mustered 170 yards rushing on 38 carries, an average of less than 4.5 yards per touch. The longest run was 21 yards – and it came from the third-string quarterback.
“The offense line, we have a lot of work to do,” Meyer said after the game. “We’ve got to really go from here. You’ve got [right guard] Pat Elflein and our left tackle, Taylor Decker, and everyone else is wide open. There are no other spots taken.”
Two years ago, all but one spot on the offensive line was decided in the spring. That was because the competition at right tackle was between a converted tight end and true freshman. In 2014, the mystery surrounding three offensive line positions is due to inadequate play.
Fifteen practices weren’t able to provide a picture that left Meyer and Warinner satisfied. It’s a dramatic difference from the unit Meyer referred to as “one of the best in the country” and a group he’d put up against any opposing defensive line. He’s not brimming with the same confidence as the 2014 season looms.
“Last I checked, Ed Warinner is still the offensive line coach.”– Tom Herman
“I saw Jamarco Jones [at the spring game], Demetrius Knox is coming in, Brady Taylor. Those are three bodies that are going to be coming in in June, and I looked them right in the eye and said, ‘You’re not redshirting; you’re playing.’” Meyer said. “That’s hard for an offensive lineman, so that’s an area that we have to get back maybe not where we were, but close.”
All three are talented and among the top offensive line recruits in America. Starting as true freshmen is a long shot, though. Underestimating Meyer’s ability to motivate players should not be overlooked. The University of Cincinnati graduate owns a degree in psychology and galvanizing has been a hallmark of his coaching career.
So throwing out names of three true freshmen at a position difficult to master acts more as a stern warning than demotion. Still, the players whose statuses remain uncertain took the message seriously. They’ll proceed with caution and gusto.
“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.”
That belief – or fact – can be found in every direction. Meyer’s spread offense is predicated on a power run game. Carlos Hyde’s 1,500 rushing yards and nine consecutive games of at least 110 yards wasn’t solely because of superior skills – the offensive line contributed. Even Barry Sanders needed an effective line.
Producing 500 yards of offense on Saturdays is made easier with talented skill players. But it’s possible because of grandeur along the offensive line.
“I’ve been saying all along that guys are just inexperienced, and with the O-line, it takes a lot of time to develop, more so than any other position,” Decker said. “But I think we’ll be fine. Coach Warinner is a great coach and we’ll get it going. But there’s a lot of work to do this offseason.”
Decker thinks the ongoing competition will spur more improvement among the unit because of a lingering sense of urgency. May, June and July will consist of few off days when starting jobs are on the line – literally.
For offensive coordinator Tom Herman, the concerns end at Warinner’s feet.
“I’d be a lot more concerned if I didn’t believe the talent was there, and I didn’t believe in Ed Warinner,” Herman said. “This group of O-linemen, whether we like to say it or not, is much farther ahead than the group of O-linemen our first spring. Ed Warinner basically took the weakness of the offense and within 24 months turned it into the absolute, hands down, not even close, strength and backbone of the offense.
“Last I checked, Ed Warinner is still the offensive line coach.”