When Urban Meyer surveyed his first Ohio State team in spring practice, he had to temper his expectations.
Sure, Meyer could flash two national championship rings on the recruiting trail. Sure, he had a history of winning wherever he went. But the Buckeyes were 6-7 the previous year, banned from the postseason in 2012.
Ohio State needed a full rebuild to get back to title contention. Meyer would begin with the offense.
"Installation of the offense, then identifying the playmakers, in that order," Meyer said his plan was after several practices. "We are in a sprint for that. We are in a journey for the other stuff. The immediacy is installation of the offense and identifying a guy who can take the ball and do something with it."
There was no trouble identifying the quarterback who would do something with the ball in 2012: all of Ohio State's eggs were in Braxton Miller's basket. The only other quarterback on the roster was Kenny Guiton, a skinny kid from Texas who hadn't done anything. Several years later, Ohio State's quarterback troubles are the envy of offensive coordinators everywhere.
Besides this year's Miller/Jones/Barrett hydra, the Buckeyes have followed the wise strategy of adding at least one quarterback in each recruiting class. The young trio of Stephen Collier, Joe Burrow and Torrance Gibson will ride the pine this season, and the latter two may redshirt despite being four-star talents.
In 2012, the Buckeyes were searching for a running back. Jordan Hall, Carlos Hyde, Rod Smith and others were a running back by committee in spring practice, with Carlos Hyde only establishing himself partway through the season.
In the present day, The Man is firmly established. Ezekiel Elliott will be the feature back, bare abs or not; Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson split time as changes of pace. Warren Ball, Bri'onte Dunn, Michael Weber et al will compete for any remaining scraps of playing time.
Ohio State's pass-catchers in 2012, headlined by Devin Smith, Philly Brown and tight end Jake Stoneburner, were frequent targets of Meyer. Now the team has receivers better-suited to the outside/inside/h-back scheme like Michael Thomas, Corey Smith, Jalin Marshall and Noah Brown.
Defensively, the Buckeyes had less room for improvement. Even so, they are a bit better off now than they were three years ago.
Ohio State's linebacker situation bears some striking similarities to 2012: the young, hot linebacker (Darron Lee/Ryan Shazier), the steady hand (Joshua Perry/Etienne Sabino), and a concerning lack of depth. In 2012, that manifested in Zach Boren, a converted fullback, getting significant starting time; in 2015, it's having two upperclassmen and a mess of freshmen and sophomores. Raekwon McMillan has more potential, though.
If there's any area in which the 2012 squad had an advantage on the 2015 team, it's defensive line. John Simon, Johnanthan Hankins, Garrett Goebel and Nathan Williams led a killer unit, one with underclassmen like Michael Bennett and Joel Hale for depth. This year's line features all-everything Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington, a senior Hale, but it lacks depth. Meyer has expressed concern about the development of the young guys.
In 2012, it made sense to aim for a slow rebuild. Three killer recruiting classes and a national championship later, lowered expectations are a thing of the past.