Ohio State football is again a nationally ranked team and appears to be entrenched as a squad worth paying attention to in 2012, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t uncertainty among its personnel.
OSU, which The Associated Press announced Saturday was ranked No. 18 in its first Top 25 poll of the 2012 season, begins its third week of preseason preparation Monday and is less than two weeks until its season-opening game Sept. 1 against Miami University (Ohio). Several key position battles are yet to be sorted out for the Buckeyes, though.
Senior tight end-turned tackle Reid Fragel and freshman Taylor Decker are continuing what coach Urban Meyer called a “battle” for the starting right tackle position while both the running back and wide receiver groups are jockeying for position up and down their respective depth charts.
Perhaps chief among the position competitions is the one being waged between Fragel and Decker. During OSU’s Aug. 12 media day, Meyer said the Buckeyes weren’t functional at right tackle, a position Fragel volunteered for after Meyer arrived at OSU in November.
“I knew when coach Meyer came in, his offensive philosophy was different from (former OSU coach Jim) Tressel,” Fragel said at
OSU’s media day. “Being a pro-style tight end, I knew I couldn’t fit in as a spread tight end. I also knew I had some blocking ability and size to work with.”
For his offer to switch positions, Fragel was rewarded with a fight for playing time with Decker, a 6-foot-10, 310-pound first-year player from Vandalia, Ohio.
By Friday, the final day of a week that included eight practices and three two-a-days, Fragel said he feels that he’s been put up against a wall.
“I tend to respond pretty well to pressure,” Fragel said. “Taylor’s a great kid, a great player, so, he’s going to be a great player in the future and this year I’m just trying to get the No. 1 (right) tackle spot, and whoever that is in the way, I look to compete against them. In the end, I plan to win.”
The competition at running back is a bit more complicated than the straightforward, one-versus-one battle between Fragel and Decker.
Senior running back Jordan Hall is the team’s No. 1 option at running back, but he could miss as many as three games during the non-conference portion of OSU’s schedule due to an injury.
Hall stepped on glass while walking his dog, a pit bull named “Cali,” in June. Surgery was needed to repair a torn ligament after the incident, and junior back Carlos Hyde might be called upon to fill the void.
Hyde carried the ball 106 times for 566 yards, six touchdowns and an average of more than five yards per carry in 2011. Perhaps his strongest outing of the 2011 season came in the electric atmosphere of Nebraska’s first-ever Big Ten conference home game where he rushed for 104 yards and two touchdowns.
Through nearly two full weeks of fall camp, running backs coach Stan Drayton said Hyde has stepped his game up and “answered the bell.”
“I didn’t coach Carlos last year, I coached those wide receivers. And just kinda (through) side vision, I thought he was a little lazy as a football player, quite honestly,” Drayton said. “I’m sure he’ll tell you the same thing. And the one thing that he’s improved upon is his approach to the game and his passion and energy level is through the roof right now. He’s really escalated his value to this football team.”
For Meyer’s part, he said during Big Ten Media Days that he feels this is the defining moment in Hyde’s career.
“It’s either yes or no (for Hyde),” Meyer said. “There can’t be any more gray area. He’s had too much gray in his career, and he’s got talent.”
There’s no room for complacency for Hyde – there’s a competition brewing for the backup position once Hall returns.
Included in that competition, Drayton said, is redshirt sophomore Rod Smith and freshman Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball.
“That’s a competition. You know, you’ve got Bri’onte Dunn who’s really had a physical camp. With the ball in his hands, he’s really good. Just the other stuff – he kinda needs to get honed in on protections.” Drayton said. “That’s going to take a little longer for a back. You know, and Warren Ball just got off the boat, man.
“You know, he’s hearing this stuff for the first time, getting a feel for the intensity for the first time. You know, but again, he’s a guy that goes from Point A to Point B as fast as he can go.”
Finally, the receivers are battling for catches and playing time under the supervision of first-year receivers coach Zach Smith. Smith told the assembled media on Friday that he feels senior receiver Corey “Philly” Brown has emerged along with sophomore Devin
Smith, calling Brown “unbelievable” while adding that Devin Smith has made the most progress of any player in that position group.
After Brown and Devin Smith, it might be a thin group – Zach Smith declined to rank his receivers, choosing instead to continue complementing the two standouts he had already noted.
Smith said the pressure has been mounting on him and his players since he came on the job. After all, the Buckeyes’ passing offense finished 116th in the nation last season according to multiple sources.
“There’s definitely pressure. I mean, obviously, it’s been world renowned from (Meyer), beneath him to anyone that talks about it (the passing offense),” Smith said. “There’s pressure on the group. I think that really gives them an opportunity. You kind of see who thrives under that pressure and who doesn’t.
“A lot of them have embraced that as an opportunity. You know, some of them kind of crumble depending on the kid. But it’s a very, very positive thing for the group and the kid because they see it as an opportunity to go out and be more of a focal point of an offense and catch footballs and actually touch the ball.”
These battles will continue into this week and Fragel has confidence in the system for both his personal battles as well as those of his teammates.
“The way it should be in any system is the better player will play,” he said.
OSU’s season-opening game against Miami University (Ohio) kicks off Sept. 1 at noon at Ohio Stadium.