There were moments throughout 2013 during which it appeared that Carlos Hyde (7.3 yards per carry) could have pulled a jumbo jet down the field behind him.
That identity is gone – at least in theory. If you want to account for that offense’s startling efficiency in one word, that word is push. The offensive line got upfield on running plays so well and so consistently that it was at times completely unfair. The season-ending losses to Michigan State and Clemson were largely due to defensive breakdowns in crucial moments, not to a failure on the part of the punishing ground attack that propelled the Buckeyes to its second straight undefeated regular season.
Exit All-American tackle Jack Mewhort, All-Big Ten honorees Corey Linsley and Andrew Norwell, and 31-game starter Marcus Hall. Of the sixteen career starts this unit now sports, fourteen belong to Taylor Decker, who – to be fair – has talent, but hasn’t displayed elite ability. The rest of the unit not only lacks experience but also doesn’t feature any can’t-miss newcomers. Line coach Ed Warinner has his work cut out for him.
So while losing Hyde is a blow, the apparent drop-off in front-line explosiveness would appear to be the more impactful issue. His heir apparent, sophomore Ezekiel Elliott, averaged a team-high 8.7 yards per carry a year ago. He’s going to have a tough time duplicating that. Not a single qualified ball carrier averaged less than five yards a turn. Ohio State also ranked favorably (37th nationally) in sacks allowed (22), and Miller still found himself flushed from the pocket and taking contact more than anyone in his camp would like to have seen.
The answer to all this doom and gloom? Apart from Warinner coaching these greenhorns to greatness? Speed. After years of lamenting an overall lack of team speed, Meyer appears to finally have this roster groomed for the racetrack. They want to get the ball to the perimeter, stretch defenses out, then exploit interior gaps once the sentries have left their posts. Standard spread offense. It’s actually what they were supposed to have been running for years. The difference now is that, whether as a result of emerging talent or simple necessity, they have good reason to do it.
Braxton Miller, when healthy, is the best player in the conference. He is not healthy.
Enter J.T. Barrett, a largely unknown quantity due to his relative youth and inexperience. What we do know: he was very highly regarded coming out of high school, he earned his place on the depth chart through his play, and he is not Braxton Miller. He is likely not as electric a ball carrier, and he reportedly does not throw the deep ball with the same aplomb. As such, the offense will adjust accordingly, and the pieces around him become all the more important.
Of those pieces, tight end Jeff Heuerman and wide receiver Devin Smith are the most familiar and experienced. But if the Buckeyes complete 250 passes in 2014, Heuerman and Smith are likely to haul in less than a quarter of them. Sophomore Dontre Wilson saw less than 10 percent of the team’s targets last year (28 of 340) – that number will probably more than double. Veterans Corey Smith and Nick Vannett are solid, but it’s the youth movement at the skill positions that’s been getting the most press.
As is so often the case with incoming talent, there’s a lot of hype in camp. Then the season starts, and the cream rises. The Hullaballoo All-Stars are redshirt freshmen Jalin Marshall and James Clark, and first-years Johnnie Dixon and Curtis Samuel. Out of that list of names, it’s Samuel’s that’s trending most. Whosoever is still a factor come October is for the fates to decide: suffice it to say that there’s plenty of bread in the breadbox.
Personnel File: Offense
#2, WR, SO.
Wilson didn’t quite light the world on fire last year, but he’s in the starting lineup now. No more two to three targets a game. Expect to hear his name two to three times a drive. Every time he touches the ball is a reason to put down your drink.
#4, RB, FR.
May as well call the kid Gatsby for how often he’s being whispered about. Once again, things are different when the game is on the line, but he will get looks – if he makes good early, watch out. He’s a lively one.