As Clemson was jubilant in celebration at the Orange Bowl, the Ohio State football team trudged off the Sun Life Stadium turf, somber in defeat. In just one month’s time, the Buckeyes went from national champion contender to loser of consecutive games.
Immediately, thoughts focused on the future. How could the Buckeyes replace four starters on an offensive line that anchored an historic unit? The past two seasons included a school-record 24-game win streak and unprecedented production on offense – 1,083 points, 12,252 total yards, 41.6 points per game and 471.2 yards per game.
The offensive line fueled all of it.
Jack Mewhort, Corey Linsley, Andrew Norwell and Marcus Hall walked off the field in South Florida and embraced for one last time. The quartet who helped Ohio State win 24 games over two years, opened holes for Carlos Hyde and contributed to Braxton Miller becoming one of the top quarterbacks in college football shed their scarlet and gray uniforms, never to be worn again.
“It’s going to be tough leaving these guys,” Mewhort said. “These three other seniors are my best friends in the world. I love them, and I think that’s part of the reason we’ve been so successful as a unit. Off the field, we love each other so much that you don’t want to let each other down on the field.”
Will the next crop of linemen have that same relationship? Will they enjoy the same amount of success and acclaim? Those are two of the biggest questions surrounding Ohio State during the summer months. If the spring game provided answers, they weren’t altogether positive.
The Silver Bullets combined for five sacks and eight tackles for loss, overwhelming the rebuilt line and harassing inexperienced quarterbacks. Miller was injured and Hyde is off to the NFL, but a backfield that averaged 250 yards on the ground a year ago could only muster 170 on 38 carries. The longest rush was 21 yards – and it came from the third-string quarterback.
“The offensive line, we have a lot of work to do,” Meyer said after the game. “We’ve got to really go from here.”
So much so that Meyer told incoming freshmen Jamarco Jones, Demetrius Knox and Brady Taylor, “You’re not redshirting, you’re playing.” Fifteen practices weren’t enough to provide a clear picture beyond Taylor Decker and Pat Elflein.
Miller, Dontre Wilson and other skill players might be the definition of excitement – much more so than overweight linemen – but the big guys up front dictate the outcome of games more often than fast, elusive playmakers. It’s an open secret that not everyone wants to believe. The evidence is sprinkled around the sport’s history.
“We definitely have some big shoes to fill, but we’re capable of it,” 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.”
Ohio State’s wunderkind offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Tom Herman, understands the magnitude of losing four stalwarts on the offensive line. He also understands what line coach Ed Warinner did with the previous group, molding them from unproven and unheralded to among the best in school history.
“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, the strength and backbone of the offense.
“Last I checked, Ed Warinner is still the offensive line coach.”
Indeed. Decker, Elflein, Antonio Underwood, Chad Lindsay, and Darryl Baldwin are Warinner’s latest project. Knox, Joel Hale, Jacoby Boren, Billy Price and Evan Lisle remain contenders for starting spots when fall camp begins.
Energy givers are what Warinner desires. Only Decker and Elflein have played meaningful minutes for the Buckeyes. Lindsay, a transfer from Alabama, proved his worth for the Crimson Tide. But he must mesh with Miller and develop a rhythm with new teammates. Miller has that gear to make all those around him better, and it’s no different with linemen. Underwood and Baldwin are the wildcards.
Underwood, coming off an ACL injury, spent the entire spring working with the first-team line. That doesn’t mean competition won’t exist in August. Hale and Knox, a true freshman, will push the big fella, but Underwood is a clear favorite to be the Buckeyes’ left guard when they take the field against Navy in Baltimore.
“If you watch him practice, you wouldn’t even know that he hurt his knee,” Baldwin said. “He’s doing really well. Everyone can see it.”
The injury and subsequent rehab, which coincided with Ohio State’s run for a national championship, was a difficult time for Underwood.
“It was a long time coming,” Underwood said. “This is my fourth year here, so it’s definitely past due for me to start contributing. I just feel like it’s now or never.”
Underwood wasn’t alone in those feelings. Baldwin came to Ohio State as a defensive end before being flipped to offense by the new coaching staff. They believed Baldwin’s future was on the offensive line. Three years later, that faith has led to Baldwin being penciled in as the starting right tackle.
He wasn’t always onboard with the switch. Sure, he trusted the coaches, but he feared being lost in the shuffle and withering away on the bench. Warinner knew Baldwin’s potential was too great, which is why he requested the move from defense to offense.
“It’s my third year on offense,” Baldwin said. “I’m finally out there with the first unit getting a lot of reps. It’s pretty exciting, actually. I haven’t done it since high school, getting all these reps. I’m really excited for the opportunity I have, really thankful. I just have to make the most of it.”
An attitude of toughness, aggression and efficiency floods the Ohio State locker room. When the offensive line enters the picture, it’s ratcheted up another notch. They’re programmed by Warinner to succeed and always push forward with maximum effort.
While the mood in South Florida was somber, there was also a sense of confidence and conviction that the legacy of the 2012 and 2013 line would be passed down.
“I’m really not worried about the future of the offensive line here,” Mewhort said. “I think it will be fine. Darryl Baldwin’s going to be leading the room, and he’s going to be a great leader. I’m excited to see where these guys go.”