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Commentary: Urban Meyer takes practice field for the first time as Buckeyes’ head man

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Ohio State’s new head football coach Urban Meyer took sole leadership of the football program on Jan. 3, but Wednesday will mark the first time Meyer coaches his players on the football field. At 4 p.m. Wednesday, OSU opens its spring football season with its first of 15 practices.

He and his coaching staff have been hard at work with the team’s players ever since, leading the Buckeyes through conditioning drills during Winter Quarter. That said, Wednesday will be a huge step for Meyer in discovering what he can do with the talent he has to work with for the 2012 football season.

The Buckeyes finished last season with a 6-7 record, their first season that finished with a losing record since 1988. However, the new coaching staff has brought optimism into the spring football season, and the team has considerable experience to draw from, with the return of 21 seniors.

Throughout the spring football season, the focus of many Ohio State fans will be upon quarterback Braxton Miller, who is entering his sophomore season. Miller had mixed results in 10 starts as a freshman, but should hold a firm grip on the position headed into the spring. The questions surrounding Miller are not whether he will start, but how he will continue to improve as he adjusts to a new offensive system under Meyer and Tom Herman, the team’s new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

Miller’s development is crucial to the improvement of the Buckeyes’ passing offense, which ranked 115th nationally, but another key is the development of the receivers he will pass to, one of the biggest concerns on the roster. No receiver caught more than 14 passes last season, a mark which was attained by two returners, Jake Stoneburner and Devin Smith. Stoneburner, who is entering his senior season, is likely to start at tight end, while Smith is an upcoming sophomore who will try to establish himself as a top wide receiver in spring football.

Other wide receivers to watch include upcoming juniors Corey Brown and Chris Fields, both of whom were starters last season, and sophomore Verlon Reed, who was among the team’s most productive receivers in his freshman season prior to a season-ending knee injury.

The Buckeyes also face the task of replacing four senior starters from last year’s offense. Daniel “Boom” Herron must be replaced at running back, but returning senior Jordan Hall and junior Carlos Hyde combined for 974 rushing yards last season, which helps decrease the void of Herron’s graduation. The offensive line is a bigger area of concern, where the team graduated offensive tackles Mike Adams and J.B. Shugarts along with center Mike Brewster.

With no clear choices for who will take over as new starters on the offensive line, the spring will be an important time for development and competition under new offensive line coach Ed Warinner. Last year’s starting guards, returning juniors Andrew Norwell and Jack Mewhort, should remain starters, although they could end up moving to new positions along the line. Another player entering his junior season, Marcus Hall, started five games at guard last season, and is a likely candidate to earn a starting position this season.

Two intriguing candidates to work their way up the offensive line depth chart this spring are senior Reid Fragel, who is transitioning from tight end to offensive tackle, and incoming freshman Taylor Decker, the Buckeyes’ top offensive line recruit, who has enrolled in classes for Spring Quarter and will have a chance to earn one of the two starting offensive tackle positions.

Defensively, the Buckeyes are very experienced, with nine returning starters, including four defensive linemen and four in the secondary. The defense’s key returner is defensive end John Simon, who is entering his senior season after being named a captain for the 2011 season. Simon led the Buckeyes with 16 tackles for loss last season, and was named a third-team All-American by the Associated Press.

Another key returner on the defensive line is defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, who is entering his junior season after coming up with 10 tackles for loss last season. The defensive line group that will be coached by Mike Vrabel this season might be the deepest position area on the team. Garrett Goebel and Adam Bellamy are also returning starters, while Michael Bennett enters his sophomore season after coming up with five tackles for loss as a freshman.

The Buckeyes return three linebackers who started games last season. Storm Klein, who started 10 games last season, and Etienne Sabino, who started five games last season, are entering their senior seasons. The key returner in the linebacker corps might be sophomore Ryan Shazier, who ranked sixth on the team with 57 total tackles last season despite only three starts.

The key returner in the OSU secondary is sophomore Bradley Roby, who led the Buckeyes with nine passes defended last season. The Buckeyes’ other starting cornerback from last season is Travis Howard, another experienced OSU defender who enters his senior season with 11 starts under his belt. At the safety position, the Buckeyes have a combined 39 starts between last year’s two starters, C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant, both of whom are entering their junior seasons, along with senior Orhian Johnson.

For OSU to bounce back from a losing record, they have major work to do this spring, a time during which Meyer and his coaching staff should be focusing upon developing and improving the players they are working with, while also evaluating the talent of their roster and setting up the team’s depth chart for the fall. The coaches will be making determinations upon which players deserve bigger roles in the upcoming season, and who can fill the voids left by those players who are no longer with the program.

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