With Ohio State football camp set to open Friday – can you believe it’s finally here? – there’s surely no time like the present to look back at all that went wrong during last year’s 6-7 campaign.
OK, I know most people really wouldn’t want to do that. But don’t click away, there’s a reason for this exercise. Looking back at what happened a year ago and looking at this season’s roster – both on the field and the sideline – leads me to believe the Buckeyes are in for a bounce-back year in a big way.
In fact, I think the Buckeyes are going to be better in 2012 in just about every way a team can be better. Am I predicting a 12-0 campaign? No, I’m not. I’m thinking 10-2, though my official prediction will appear in the upcoming football preview edition of Buckeye Sports Bulletin (and no, I can’t tell you which teams OSU will lose to right now).
No matter what, though, I expect the Buckeyes to have patched just about every hole they had during the 2011 season. For example:
There will be more experience on defense: It’s hard to put into words how young the Buckeyes were a year ago on the defensive side of the ball. I think there was plenty of talent, but the lack of experience really showed as the performances of some key players were simply inconsistent, swinging from great individual efforts to game-changing mistakes.
Though players like Johnathan Hankins, Garrett Goebel, Etienne Sabino, Travis Howard and C.J. Barnett had earned experience before last season, only Johnny Simon went into the campaign having truly played a full-time starting role before once end Nathan Williams went down.
The results were predictable, as some players showed flashes of greatness, others floundered with their increased levels of experience, and some placed in between. Add in relatively inexperienced but clearly skilled pieces like Ryan Shazier, Bradley Roby and Christian Bryant, and the recipe for hits and misses was there. The end result was a team that gave up 20 or more points in each of its last six games.
Many of those players should be much better in 2012, which means the game will slow down for them, Sabino said at the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. That should also result in more big plays for a team that sorely needed them a year ago.
More pass-rushing options have arrived: Speaking of big plays, the Buckeyes simply didn’t get to the quarterback enough, which let opposing receivers’ patterns develop – certainly not a plan for success given the young secondary.
Defensive coordinator and line coach Jim Heacock expected his team would have the ability to rush the passer, but starting Williams hurt his knee in the season opener and was lost for the season. With no reserve ready to jump into Williams’ role at “Leo”, Simon had to be moved into the position, and the domino effect on the rest of the line was obvious.
Knowing that was a major issue, the coaching staff went about addressing it, and did they ever. In addition to still having Simon and the underrated Hankins back, the Buckeyes hope Williams will be able to go at some point early in the season. Meanwhile, players like Michael Bennett and Steve Miller have improved, but the real bounty came on the recruiting trail.
Ohio State enticed highly rated defensive ends Adolphus Washington, Noah Spence and Se’Von Pittman to Columbus, an amazing haul that should keep opposing quarterbacks from sleeping for years to come. As for the now, you’d have to expect at least one of those three guys, if not more, to make their stamp on the 2012 campaign.
The quarterback position is better: No offense to Joe Bauserman, but the fifth-year senior and former walk-on was pushed into a role for which he never was intended when he took over the starting job. His rough numbers – especially on the road – meant the Buckeyes had no option but to go to true freshman Braxton Miller, who showed the kinds of ups that excited fans and the kinds of downs that resulted in a seven-loss campaign.
Now, the whole show is Miller’s, and early returns are he’s ready to take over. He had more polish as a passer in spring – though there was still progress to be made – while retaining the scrambling and rushing skills that made him such a highly regarded dual-threat recruit.
Miller also reportedly responded well to the urging of Meyer that he needs to be more vocal and serve as a leader. That isn’t always easy for the naturally reserved Miller, but players and coaches maintain he’s growing in that role.
It’s probably a little too early to put his name in the Heisman race, but Miller seems ready to take a step forward, especially as he enters an offense set to take advantage of his skills.
The receivers can’t be worse: This might sound a bit harsh, but I don’t think anyone would argue that 14 catches as a team high – the worst since the “three things can happen when you pass and two of them are bad” days of the 1970s and head coach Woody Hayes – is an acceptable number at a place like Ohio State.
However, one had to know the passing game would struggle a season ago. The Buckeyes not only had no experience at quarterback, there were zero upperclassman receivers on the roster available to play the first 10 games, the length of the suspension for clear No. 1 target DeVier Posey.
Some players tried to fill in, but injuries and flat-out youth really hurt. Now, though, that tough season has the Buckeyes set up for a major improvement.
Corey Brown – “Philly,” if you will – looked to be putting things together near the end of the last campaign, while Devin Smith and Michael Thomas are worth watching. Smith showed his athletic chops at the 2011 state track finals and made some big plays last year, while Thomas announced his presence while making 12 catches in the spring game and looks to have a solid combination of size and speed.
Add in some nice talents like Chris Fields and Tyrone Williams, and the Buckeyes have plenty of weapons here. There are probably no All-Americans at this point, but the passing game should be better from a personnel standpoint.
The offensive game plan should be more cohesive: Jim Bollman took a lot of shots from Ohio State fans during his tenure. I always liked and respected Bollman, but it’s fair to say he was never comfortable with a spread offense, especially without receivers coach Darrell Hazell around.
As a result, the Buckeyes never hit a good offensive balance a season ago. The power looks that helped take pressure off Terrelle Pryor during his tenure never seemed to mesh with Miller’s skills, especially given the personnel situation at running back.
Now, that won’t be a problem. Meyer, offensive coordinator Tom Herman and line coach Ed Warinner all have a history of success operating a spread offense, and the Buckeyes are married to those principles. The result will be less confusion and more chances to work on exactly what the Buckeyes will be good at, which can’t do anything but help.
There is more gameday experience on the sideline: I’m not going to slam last year’s coaching staff. Given the turmoil that took place last year – from the December news breaking about player suspensions to the May dismissal of Jim Tressel to the continued NCAA violations talk throughout the season – I think the staff deserves to be commended in many ways.
There were plenty of opportunities for the team to break apart a year ago, and Luke Fickell and his crew never let it happen. The 2011 Buckeyes never wavered in their commitment to the cause.
However, the staff did seem to struggle between the lines on Saturdays. While the group of coaches faced a stacked deck personnel-wise, it’s hard to say the Buckeyes improved throughout the season to the level necessary to have a successful campaign.
It’s also fair to say the little things – such as end-of-half management and the special teams disasters vs. Purdue and Florida – that went against OSU last year should be fixed with a more mature gameday staff on hand.
There are still reasons to be skeptical of the Buckeyes. The summer suspensions of left tackle Jack Mewhort and tight end Jacob Stoneburner and the injury to starting tailback Jordan Hall won’t help a unit that needed a lot to go well from May to July. While Meyer has called the offensive line a much improved unit, that spot is still a wild card. The lack of depth at linebacker is also a concern, especially given what that might mean for special teams coverage units.
But all in all, I think it’s going to be a very good campaign for the Ohio State Buckeyes. Just how good remains to be seen.