The sunny skies that greeted Ohio State’s 2014 season on Monday turned gray Wednesday. The change of scenery could serve as a metaphor for the Buckeyes’ offensive line. Four starters are gone from a unit that helped establish a plethora of school records.
Ed Warinner, the offensive line’s mastermind, is encouraged by his position group’s steady progression. Taylor Decker and Pat Elflein displayed winning tendencies last season, and Chad Lindsay’s arrival brings in a competitive player who’s already been around a successful culture. In a statement after his transfer was announced, Lindsay spoke of a hard-working mentality and drive to win championships. Further developing that mindset is paramount.
“I think we’re an improved group from the spring to now,” Warinner said. “I still think we have a long way to go. The thing that’s interesting is we have a lot of different parts or pieces to choose from. We’ve got a lot more choices. We have to see who rises to the top.”
The O-line legacy isn’t limited to the Class of 2013 – it includes names like Hicks, Pace, Lachey, Parker and Stringer. The Buckeyes returned to that level in 2012, and their aim is to keeping adding to an illustrious list of offensive linemen. A tone has been set in the offensive line meeting room: praise the past but point toward the future. It’s become abundantly clear Ohio State is keyed in on restoring their supremacy.
“Our culture is very high effort. We’ve really taken that to heart,” senior right tackle Darryl Baldwin said during the spring. “We’re all high character guys. We just need to be very consistent. That’s what we need to be as an offensive line – develop a consistency and really play well together.
“I know what to expect. I know what I need to do. I just need to be the best I can be. I don’t need to do anything more than that.”
Junior center Jacoby Boren called the departing linemen “freaking awesome,” adding that you miss them, but move on and start a new foundation. Decker, who’s become the line’s elder statesman, has become a more vocal leader and opted to create a sense of urgency. It led to a competitive spring with high intensity and strong effort. It’s a trend that’s continued in the fall with the arrival of Demetrius Knox and fellow true freshman Jamarco Jones.
“Wow. They're pretty impressive,” Warinner said.
“What we lack is experience. 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.”
What they nearly lacked was Warinner himself. He’s never been a head coach, but during the offseason Army, an institution Warinner spent more than a decade at as an assistant, had a vacancy for its top job. He was ultimately passed over, saving Ohio State from an even bigger reclamation project.
Warinner’s signature has been on each of the Buckeyes’ 24 wins during the past two seasons. There’s an awareness of the line’s importance in the overall product on offense. Players are proceeding with gusto. Meyer’s spread offense is fully understood now, and it begins with power running – not flash and speed.
As Ohio State piled up victories, Carlos Hyde surpassed 100 yards time and again, before finally eclipsing the 1,500-yard barrier. He hit 200 yards twice and tallied at least 100 in nine consecutive games. In 2014, the offense will have a different flavor. There will be creativity in producing yards. Still, it will take a competent line.
Sensing the need to back up those numbers, the line’s summer was spent in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center instead of lounging at the pool.
“I feel we’re a work in progress,” junior left guard Antonio 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.”
Responsibilities will also center on keeping Miller upright. Offseason shoulder surgery only adds to the signal caller’s laundry list of injuries. And he’s already being limited in practice a la a pitcher and his pitch count. Health has betrayed Miller since high school, but toughness often perseveres. The idea for two years has been keeping contact to a minimum.
But Warinner doesn’t want to inundate his newcomers with information overload. Doing your job is where he wants the focus to be. When there’s a dose of unfamiliarity, the prospects of being overwhelmed are heightened. That’s when Warinner arrives with his guidance and brusque assurance.
“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.”
But Warinner can’t always be the spokesman. Someone must step up, unafraid of ruffling weathers with a knack for lifting teammates through ruts and inspiring greatness. It’s a duty that’s fallen on the suddenly short locks of Decker. So far, he’s drawn positive reviews.
Decker and all his cohorts were wide-eyed when Warinner arrived. It was Decker who transitioned from rookie to veteran in two years. His respect level is omnipresent inside the locker room. He’s willing to be coached, goes hard in practice and passes on knowledge to starters and backups.
When you’ve bought into a system and realized putting in the work leads to upbeat results, it’s easier to become that force among peers.
“Coach Meyer has said it before – I became a good player because of the culture created in the offensive line room. I believe 100 percent in that,” Decker said. “We have a culture in that room and I either had to become better or I wasn't going to play.”