Offense is what Urban Meyer is known for as a football coach.
His spread system has helped him win two national championships, and win 83.7 percent of the games he’s been a head coach.
But after watching Ohio State’s defense get torched in its final three games — two of them losses, to Michigan State and Clemson in the Big Ten Championship Game and 2014 Discover Orange Bowl, respectively — Meyer has said he is putting more of an emphasis on that side of the ball. He said the defense had to undergo an “overhaul” after last year — and so far, he likes what he’s seen after bringing in co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash and defensive line coach Larry Johnson.
“It’s going well,” Meyer said Tuesday on how Ash is working with fellow co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell after OSU’s sixth spring practice. “We’re completely revamping the entire back end of how we do our business, and so far it’s been pretty good.”
The Buckeyes finished 112th in the country last year in defending the pass, giving up 268 yards per game. That group lost leaders like linebacker Ryan Shazier, cornerback Bradley Roby and safety Christian Bryant to graduation or the NFL Draft, but Meyer likes what he’s seen from their replacements so far in spring ball — particularly junior linebacker Joshua Perry, who is looking to fill Shazier’s shoes.
“He’s really, he’s without question one of our top five most improved players,” Meyer said of Perry. “Demeanor’s always been there, work ethic’s been there and the toughness element is something that’s really improved. Love of the game and he’s a wonderful guy to coach.”
Offensively, however, OSU has the task of replacing four offensive linemen as well as stud tailback Carlos Hyde, who were all big parts of OSU rushing for 4,321 yards last season.
One of the replacements on the offensive line has already been set according to Meyer, who said redshirt-sophomore Pat Elflein has earned a starting spot. Elflein played admirably during the Michigan game last year, as well as the Big Ten Championship Game.
As for running back, Meyer said Tuesday that between redshirt-senior Rod Smith, sophomore Ezekiel Elliott, redshirt-sophomores Warren Ball and Bri’onte Dunn, “no one’s really separated themselves yet.”
Starting senior quarterback Braxton Miller hasn’t been taking snaps all spring because of a shoulder surgery Feb. 21, but he’s been taking mental repetitions with a camera on his hat and reviewing them with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman.
Not getting the actual reps with Miller on the field is “frustrating,” Herman said Tuesday, while also noting that the team has to replace four starters on the offensive line.
Herman isn’t worried too much about that, though.
“It’d be a bigger concern if I didn’t believe the talent was there, and if I didn’t believe in (offensive line coach) Ed Warinner,” Herman said. “This group of O-linemen, whether we like to say it or not is much farther ahead than the group of our O-linemen our first spring.”
Another player who has improved is sophomore running back Dontre Wilson, who Meyer said “is the starting H at Ohio State,” as he looks to fulfill that hybrid position the offense so desperately needs.
“But we’d like that hybrid position is really a key guy if we can do that,” Meyer said.
Herman echoed Meyer, saying the reason Wilson’s role was simple last year was because he wasn’t ready for anything more than that.
“He couldn’t play receiver last year — he didn’t know what the hell he was doing,” Herman said of Wilson. “Didn’t know how to do it. He was 175 pounds or whatever the heck he was. So him and his ability limited us. And ability doesn’t just include running fast and making guys miss. There’s a lot that goes into and usability in the offense. Has had a great offseason and really took to the position and it still learning.”
The Buckeyes are set to take on Navy in their first game of the season Aug. 30 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Kickoff is set for noon.