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Leadership Key for Ohio State

August 28, 2013
By SETH STASKEY , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

COLUMBUS - Wherever Urban Meyer has been in his coaching career, it's always been in his second season at the helm when his teams really take off.

Unexpected by almost everyone, Ohio State expedited the process and finished a perfect 12-0 in Meyer's first season with the Buckeyes.

However, Ohio State was left to do nothing but wonder how it might have matched up against either Notre Dame or Alabama because of the NCAA punishment the Buckeyes were dealing with because of the transgressions from the Jim Tressel administration.

The Buckeyes are still on NCAA probation and short a few scholarships, but they're eligible for the postseason, which has caused maybe even a bigger buzz than normally surrounds the Buckeyes in August.

"I think everyone in Columbus and the state of Ohio is anxious to see what the 2013 Buckeyes have in order," Meyer said during Big Ten Media Days last month.

One aspect that Meyer, who is 116-23 in his career, knows is he and his staff will have to have leadership in order before Saturday.

Meyer didn't even hesitate when he spoke of what the biggest key to the Buckeyes' season would be.

"This year's team has high expectations, riding off the coattails of what those kids did last year, and it's very simple that if we get tremendous leadership from our coaching staff, but most importantly our players, then we'll have a successful season," Meyer said. "I feel strongly about this group having a successful season."

Leadership is the ultimate ingredient because many of last season's top leaders have moved onto the National Football League. The likes of John Simon, Zach Boren, Ettiene Sabino, Garrett Goebel, Jake Stoneburner, Travis Howard and Nathan Williams all provided the foundation the younger players bought into immediately after Meyer's hiring.

Meyer contends it was that leadership that allowed the Buckeyes to go on the road and win tight games at Michigan State and Wisconsin, or pull out the game against Purdue when it appeared the Boilermakers were about to defeat Ohio State for a second straight season.

"(Leadership) is going to be the difference," Meyer said. "The one common theme between the better teams I've been around hasn't been because of a style of offense, defense, height, weight, size, how fast someone is or how high they jump. It's the leadership within the program."

During the offseason, Meyer held leadership classes for 19 players and actually had outsiders come in and speak to the group about becoming better at showing the way.

"We spent a lot of time on it," Meyer said. "It was one of the most profound experiences I've been around as far as teaching these guys a systematic approach to teaching leadership, which we've always tried to teach. But, it's never been this systematic."

Though the Buckeyes had to sit home and watch teams play in postseason games last winter, don't think for a minute they had nothing to play for.

During his stints at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida as a head coach, Meyer had never been in a situation where his team wasn't eligible for a bowl game.

"I spent all (last) summer worrying about how to approach last season," Meyer said. "If you have a good group of leaders, that never comes up. You're going to try to play the game and try to win every game, so I'm hoping we're taking the same approach."

The Buckeyes were eligible for one championship last season. That being the Leaders Division within the Big Ten. Thanks to that victory at Wisconsin, the Buckeyes achieved that, brought home a trophy and eventually got championship rings.

"There's been zero conversation about anything other than competing for a championship in November," Meyer said. "We try to make training camp so focused and really difficult that the focus is on getting to the next day. If you do that, then that's really all you can worry about."

The Buckeyes opened camp Aug. 4, but prior to that, they'd already dealt with a few distractions.

In a three-day span in late July, four players (Carlos Hyde, Bradley Roby, Marcus Baugh and Tim Gardner) had run-ins with the law. Hyde was a person of interest in an alleged domestic violence case, Roby was arrested during a trip to Bloomington, Ind., Baugh was arrested in Columbus for possession of a fake ID and Gardner was charged with obstruction of official business.

Since then, however, Hyde wasn't charged, but was suspended for the first three games of the season, while Baugh had his summer financial aid stripped and will sit out the opener Saturday. Roby's discipline hadn't been announced and Gardner was sent home to Indianapolis.

"In the last 12 months, we've had three legal issues and it all happened in three or four days," Meyer said. "It drives you insane that you have to deal with that nonsense. I don't want to disrupt this team and I talk to them all the time about it. We have an incredible amount of resources and time spent educating players, so when something happens you have to react and get it done."

The Buckeyes received some good news, too, this summer. They're ranked highly in both polls. This will be the final season that the polls are utilized to help crown college football's FBS national champion.

Actually, the positives started in February when Meyer and his staff landed a Top-5 recruiting class for a second straight season.

Both preseason polls have the Buckeyes ranked second behind the defending champion Crimson Tide.

"I'm going to focus on all the positives," Meyer said. "We created a tremendous momentum from last year's team, to an excellent recruiting class, positive spring practice and one of the best academic performances in recent history at Ohio State."

One area that's expected to be a real positive for the Buckeyes is on the offensive side of the ball where nine starters technically return, but with Hyde sitting out only eight of those will be available for opening day.

The offense starts with junior quarterback Braxton Miller. The Huber Heights Wayne product is listed on nearly every preseason watch list for offensive players and also one of the favorites for the Heisman Trophy.

Miller blossomed last season as a runner and his passing improved from his freshman season, but still wasn't quite as sharp as Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman would like. Miller accounted for 3,310 yards and 28 touchdowns. He ran for 1,271 yards and threw for 2,039.

"Braxton is one of the best quarterbacks in America," Meyer said. "He has really grown as a quarterback and as a leader. He's a very humble young man that I have a lot of respect for."

Miller's primary backup will be senior Kenny Guiton. He saw limited action last season, but did engineer a game-winning drive against Purdue after Miller left injured.

Tailback is a position of depth for the Buckeyes. Hyde was expected to challenge to become the first 1,000-yard back Meyer's coached. However, his suspension could derail those hopes.

With Hyde, who ran for 970 yards and 16 touchdowns out, expect junior Rod Smith and sophomore Bri'onte Dunn to vie for the bulk of the carries. Freshman Ezekiel Elliott is a highly regarded prospect who could work his way into the mix.

The return of redshirt senior Jordan Hall is a big plus as he will line up at the H-back and is expected to play the role that Percy Harvin played for Meyer in the Florida offense. He'll be pushed by true freshman speedster Dontre Wilson.

Seniors Corey "Philly" Brown and Devin Smith are back as receivers. Brown caught 60 passes and scored five touchdowns last season, while Smith scored 10 touchdowns.

Junior Evan Spencer, who is the son of St. Clairsville product and OSU great Tim Spencer, was the fourth receiver with 12 catches for 136 yards. Senior Chris Fields is also seeking more action. He caught a game-winning touchdown against Purdue.

Junior JUCO transfer Corey Smith, freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark could also work their way into the rotation.

"Receiver is the one area we were weakest at last year and I think this year, with the injection of some speed in the recruiting class and development of guys we have, I am really counting on them to become one of the strengths of our offense," Meyer noted.

Tight end is certainly a strength with a pair of veterans returning in sophomore Nick Vannet, who played for John Magistro at Westerville Central, and junior Jeff Heuerman.

"Those two guys really developed throughout last year," Meyer said. "We've not traditionally been known as a two-tight end offense, but with these two talented players, you're going to see some."

Maybe the Buckeyes' biggest strength outside of the quarterback position, is up front where four of the five starters return. Together, the group has 80 combined starts.

"It would be disappointing if our offensive line isn't one of the best in the Big Ten," Meyer said. "I think there are some very good offensive lines in the conference and we should be right near the top with those other great lines."

Four seniors make up the bulk of the line in left tackle Jack Mewhort, left guard Andrew Norwell, center Corey Linsley and right guard Marcus Hall. The battle for the right tackle spot is between sophomore Taylor Decker and Chase Farris.

"I feel very strongly about where we could be offensively," Meyer said.

While the offense has a chance to be a juggernaut, the defense will have to grow up quickly on the fly.

The Buckeyes return four starters on defense and none of those are along the front.

The defensive unit will be led by a talented and deep secondary. However, Roby's legal issues could still play a factor. Roby was a first team All-American and flirted with the NFL Draft before opting to return for his redshirt junior season. He tied a school record with 17 pass defenses and had three touchdowns.

C.J. Barnett returns at a safety spot, along with Christian Bryant who has 24 starts on his resume. He was the team's second-leading tackler with 70 stops.

The other corner is expected to be Doran Grant, who saw a lot of action last season.

Sophomore Adam Griffin, son of Archie Griffin, will be asked to supply depth.

True freshmen Eli Apple, Cam Burrows and Von Bell could also be in the mix. Apple and Burrows took part in spring drills.

The linebacking corps was an area of serious concern last season, which forced Meyer and defensive co-coordinator Luke Fickell to move Boren to defense.

Ryan Shazier returns at one linebacker spot. He led the Big Ten with 17 tackles for loss and was second with 115 total stops en route to first team All-Big Ten honors.

"Ryan was very average as we started the season," Meyer said. "But, he became one of the best linebackers in the country as the season concluded, so we're very positive about that."

Junior Curtis Grant is expected to take on a much bigger role. He enjoyed a strong spring and is finally hoping to capitalize on the talents that made him a five-star recruit coming out of high school.

A pair of true freshmen could be thrown into the fire. Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson are both blue-chip high school recruits that Meyer may elect to go with.

Sophomore Camren Williams and Jamal Marcus are also vying for time.

Up front, the Buckeyes will be talented but inexperienced. True sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington are expected to start at defensive ends. Both saw spot duty a year ago after arriving at Ohio State as five-star recruits.

Michael Bennett and Joel Hale are slotted into the defensive tackle posts. Sophomore Tommy Schutt is another who could crack the rotation. Highly touted true freshman Joey Bossa also comes to Columbus with a myriad of credentials and talent.

"You need to have a rotation to have a quality defensive line," Meyer said. "We've recruited well for the defensive line and Mike Vrabel (defensive line coach) has done a very good job of developing."

Special teams is an area that Meyer preached about last season. He has assigned Kerry Coombs as the special teams coordinator. The Buckeyes' special teams gave up plenty of big plays, including having a few punts blocked.

Placekicker Drew Basil returns and was 8 of 11 last season on field goals.

A battle for the punting job, which was a definite concern, has been ongoing in camp. Frosh Cameron Johnston, who hales from Australia, appears to have a leg up for the job.

This is the second and final year of the Legends and Leaders Divisions in the Big Ten Conference. The league, which will expand to 14 members next season with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, will go to an East and West format.

Ohio State, which plays in the Leaders Division, opens its season Saturday at Ohio Stadium against Buffalo. It'll welcome San Diego State in Week 2. The Aztecs were a late add to the schedule in 2012 after Vanderbilt got out of its contract with the Buckeyes because of SEC expansion.

The Buckeyes' first road trip comes Sept. 14 when they fly to Berkeley to take on California in a game that kicks off at 7 p.m (EST).

OSU wraps up non-conference play Sept. 21 against Florida A&M, which has former Linsly standout Akil Blount on the squad.

The Buckeyes are already scheduled for three prime-time kickoffs in conference play, including home games against Wisconsin (Sept. 28) and Penn State (Oct. 26). They'll also play at night against Northwestern in Evanston.

Ohio State will visit Purdue, which has St. Clairsville product Dan Monteroso on its squad, Nov. 2.

The Buckeyes will close the regular season against arch-rival Michigan in Ann Arbor. This is the last time the Buckeyes and Wolverines could possibly meet in consecutive weeks if they're to see one another in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Ohio State was one of a handful of schools to have no coaching turnover. Meyer, who has said he likes at least a two-year commitment from his assistants, returned his entire staff from 2012.

While none accepted, several Buckeyes assistants were approached with other opportunities.

Herman is again the offensive coordinator, while Everett Withers and Fickell are the co-defensive coordinators. Fickell also coaches the linebackers, while Withers is the assistant head coach and works with the safeties.

Also on defense are Vrabel (defensive line) and Coombs (corners).

Working with Meyer and Herman on the offensive side of the ball are Strasburg native Ed Warriner (line), Tim Hinton (tight ends and fullbacks), Stan Drayton (running backs) and Zach Smith (wide receivers).

Mickey Marotti, who is a graduate of West Liberty State College, is the strength and conditioning coach.

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