CHICAGO –– To start his time at the 2014 Big Ten Media Days, Urban Meyer was ready to answer the first question before it was ever asked.
“Our quarterback –– I know we’ll get asked that question –– is ready to go,” the Ohio State coach said during his opening statement. “He’s full speed, in the best shape of his life.”
That quarterback, senior Braxton Miller, came in ninth in the 2013 Heisman Trophy voting before injuring his shoulder during OSU’s Orange Bowl loss to Clemson in January. Miller’s status heading into 2014 has been a lingering question mark, and the Buckeyes are without former-backup quarterback Kenny Guiton, who set multiple school records while filling in for Miller last season.
With unproven backups in redshirt-sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones and redshirt-freshman J.T. Barrett, Meyer said keeping Miller healthy, and improving the offensive line around him, is “concern No. 1.”
“There’s a bunch of concerns you always have. It’s A through F, A through Z, A through X, whatever it is,” Meyer said. “But the No. 1 on the list is development of that offensive line…among many others.”
With his coach’s focus placed on keeping him healthy going forward, Miller said he is nearing the end of his recovery process and that he has no concerns about his shoulder heading into the season.
“There’s no worries,” he said. “I take care of my body, everything is good.”
Miller said he has been throwing over the past two months after missing all of spring practice, on top of doing additional rehab.
Meyer attributed Miller’s history of injuries to his tendency to go “above and beyond what his body was telling him to do.”
With his quarterback on the mend, and more time to spend with his team than in summer’s past, Meyer said the offensive line has had a strong showing since spring practice ended. He said the unit disappointed him in the spring and didn’t show the desired growth.
“I really admire our coach, (co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Ed Warinner), and I know we have good players,” he said. “So they’ve had a very good summer.”
After the offensive line, Meyer said the second key area of concern for the Buckeyes is one of the same spots they struggled at last season. The OSU pass defense gave up 3,752 yards in 2013, compared to just 2,846 gained for the Buckeye offense. Opponents averaged seven yards per pass and scored 31 touchdowns through the air in 14 games.
“We completely have blown up and started from scratch, (in) an area that we were not very strong in: pass defense,” Meyer said of his new-look secondary. “(Co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach) Chris Ash has done an admirable job of installing a brand-new pass defense that we’re going to test and see how it goes during training camp.”
Meyer said the secondary looked good in spring practice, which was Ash’s first go around with the team since joining the Buckeyes after his lone season at Arkansas.
Outside of those top two concerns, there were bright spots highlighted during the first day of interviews in Chicago Monday.
Senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett said he felt like the OSU defensive line had the talent to become the best in the nation in 2013, and could fill the gaps and achieve that status this season.
“Certain parts, I don’t know if we had the maturity, there was just something missing,” he said about last season’s group. “And then you see us progressing throughout winter and you start seeing, ‘well, you know, we actually have a ridiculous amount of weapons.”
Bennett said as the players start to recognize their own abilities, the entire unit can keep progressing towards the goal of being unmatched. He added the line can’t become complacent, and has to prove they are the best each game.
“Through the summer, I think guys are really understanding now we can be the best D-line,” he said. “But we have to continue to work for it, and not just think we’re the best.”
One person who will likely have a big hand in the performance of the defensive line this season is another new addition the program’s coaching staff..
Longtime Penn State assistant Larry Johnson Sr., who was hired in January as the assistant head coach and defensive line coach for the Buckeyes, replaced former defensive line coach Mike Vrabel who took a job with the Houston Texans in the NFL.
“We replaced Mike with a top-shelf coach, a guy that has great respect, (a) very good recruiter, a very good coach,” Meyer said. “The players love him already.”
Bennett said a main part of what Johnson has done since arriving in Columbus is instill confidence in the younger players, helping to bring needed depth to the defensive line.
“You have to make sure that they understand that they’re here to play and that they have the ability to play,” Bennett said. “I think that’s the biggest thing that coach Johnson’s done for them…made them understand that they can play here, and we need them to be ready by this season.”
Out of 17 defensive linemen listed on the OSU roster, five are either freshmen or redshirt-freshman. Three are listed as sophomores and that same number are heading into their final year with the Buckeyes.
To start July, that total number was 18, but one player, Tracy Sprinkle, was dismissed from the team after an arrest. Meyer said Sprinkle’s status remains unchanged, and that he will reevaluate that status pending the resolution of his legal issues.
“If something happens, especially if you hear something serious, just remove from the program and evaluate at the appropriate time,” Meyer said. “So at this time he’s no longer part of the program.”
With the expected-to-be strong defensive line, depleted offensive line and revamped defensive secondary, the Buckeyes will be looking to avenge a loss to Michigan State in the 2013 Big Ten Championship game. That title push will be done in the new East Division of the reorganized conference.
The East consists of Indiana, new Big Ten additions Maryland and Rutgers, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. The Buckeyes are scheduled to take on the Spartans in a rematch of the Big Ten Championship Nov. 8 in East Lansing, Mich., in primetime.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, a former OSU defensive coordinator, said the night-game environment in the matchup will be good for the Big Ten and bring out a good game between the teams.
“It will be a national game, so I think it’s good for the conference, good for the two teams that are playing in the football game,” he said. “And we play very well at night, so we’re looking forward to a great game.”
While that matchup will be heavily talked about heading into the season’s for both teams, Dantonio said it’s important to stay focused one game at a time.
Ten weeks before their date with the Spartans, the Buckeyes are scheduled to begin their season Aug. 30 at noon against Navy at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Md.