At any level, success running the football begins with the offensive line.
Even the most talented running backs can only do so much if the big guys in front aren’t making space for them to operate.
Those big guys on Ohio State’s offensive line did more than their fair share of space-making in 2013, paving the way for two 1,000-yard rushers in then-senior running back Carlos Hyde and then-junior quarterback Braxton Miller en route to helping the Buckeyes tally 4,321 yards on the ground in a 12-2 season.
But that unit had four senior starters — Andrew Norwell, Jack Mewhort, Marcus Hall and Corey Linsley — who all returned from the undefeated 2012 season. Add in then-sophomore Taylor Decker, who grew into his spot nicely over the course of the year, and OSU’s big uglies received plenty of love from Hyde, Miller and coach Urban Meyer for the job they did.
“I would like to give all credit to my offensive line,” Hyde said after OSU’s 34-24 win against Iowa Oct. 19, a game where Hyde and Miller became the first players to rush for at least 100 yards against the Hawkeyes’ defense all season. “They did an incredible job today. I’m proud of those guys.”
Meyer was never shy about showing his appreciation for the unit either.
“I see an offensive line that’s one of the best in the country. I’m willing to say that,” Meyer said the following week after OSU’s 63-14 win against Penn State. “I’ll take my offensive line anywhere.”
But with those four starters now out of eligibility, one has to wonder if Meyer and company are going to be willing to say the same sort of things about the players who will be blocking for Miller and the running backs in 2014.
If spring practice is any indicator, the early answer to that question is a resounding no.
“Offensive line is the one (area) that we gotta really go. We gotta really go from here,” Meyer said after the Spring Game Saturday. “That’s an area that we have got to get back where … maybe not where we were (last year), but close.”
While the defensive units dominated in the annual Scarlet and Gray scrimmage — with five total sacks between them in the low scoring affair that ended in a 17-7 Gray victory — the two starters Meyer has already named for next year, Decker and redshirt-sophomore Pat Elflein, didn’t play.
Competing for the other three starting spots on the line, in what Meyer called a “wide open” contest, are redshirt-senior Darryl Baldwin, senior Joel Hale, redshirt-juniors Antonio Underwood and Chase Farris, redshirt-sophomore Kyle Dodson and redshirt-freshmen Billy Price and Evan Lisle in addition to a crop of true freshmen. Those four players — Brady Taylor, Jamarco Jones, Marcelys Jones and Demetrius Knox — need to be ready to contribute right away, Meyer said.
“I saw Jamarco Jones down there (at the Spring Game) and Demetrius Knox coming in, Brady Taylor — those are three bodies that are going to be coming in June and I looked at them and said, ‘You’re not redshirting, you’re playing,’” Meyer said. “And that’s hard to do as an offensive lineman.”
Keeping Miller’s jersey clean from grass and dirt stains is likely to be top priority for the newly minted offensive line when the season opener against Navy rolls around Aug. 30. But even though he called the unit a “big concern,” co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman said he isn’t too worried about it because of the unit’s leader: offensive line coach Ed Warinner.
“I’d be a lot more concerned if I didn’t believe the talent was there, and I didn’t believe in Ed Warinner,” Herman said March 25 after OSU’s sixth spring practice. “This group of O-linemen, whether we like to say it or not, is much farther ahead than the group of O-linemen our first spring … Ed Warinner basically took the weakness of the offense and within 24 months — less than 24 months — turned it into the absolute, hands down, not even close, strength and backbone of the offense.
“Last I checked, Ed Warinner is still the offensive line coach and we’re farther along in that room than we were two years ago … you’re discouraged at the present, or frustrated at the present, but certainly confident that the future will take care of itself.”
After practice March 22, Baldwin said the competition on the line in spring was where it needed to be, but the group as a whole is excited to step into the big shoes left by the departed seniors.
“Especially losing four guys, that’s almost the whole line. Four new guys are going to have to step in along with Taylor Decker,” Baldwin said. “And we’re going to have to go where they left off. Try to be even better.”
Whoever wins the remaining starting spots are to be determined once fall camp opens, but Decker said getting back to where the line was last season will just take time. But it’ll get there.
“I’ve been saying all along that guys are just inexperienced, and with the O-line, it takes a lot of time to develop, more so than any other position,” Decker said after the Spring Game. “But I think we’ll be fine. Coach Warinner is a great coach and we’ll get it going, but a lot of work to do this offseason, though.”