Since Urban Meyer arrived at Ohio State, much talk about the Buckeye football team has centered on talent and strategy. Fans are excited to see how the new head coach’s celebrated spread offense mixes with the unique blend of players left behind and optimistic a defense that suffered with youth and injuries last season will be able to rebound from a disappointing season.
Despite a 6-7 record last season, most feel as though there is enough ability for a bounce-back year on both sides of the ball. That was reflected in the depth chart released in mid-May as it consisted of a starting lineup consisting of a dozen veterans coming from recruiting classes in 2008 and ’09 that ranked fourth and first in the country as well as several youngsters looking to step up from a 2011 group that began impressing the coaching staff and program observers from the start of preseason camp last season.
Meyer at times expressed concern about having the exact type of ability he is looking for in certain positions at this point in time, but he confirmed that he sees enough talent for a winning season at the minimum.
The head coach punctuated his last spring meeting with local reporters with something else, however.
“Talent? I’d say there’s enough talent here to win some games,” Meyer said. “Discipline? We’re still improving that. Leadership is not where it needs to be. You saw that last year with some issues that took place. So often a team that prepares from now until August is on the leadership of the team because we’re not allowed to coach them.”
As far as potential leaders, there seems to be no lack of candidates.
Meyer has lavished praise on seniors John Simon and Zach Boren since practically day one on the job in January, but they are not alone.
Boren is one of four seniors – joining running back Jordan Hall, right tackle Reid Fragel and tight end Jacob Stoneburner – listed as offensive starters on the post-spring depth chart. That group also includes fourth-year junior offensive linemen Jack Mewhort, Corey Linsley and Marcus Hall.
Defensively, the starters are younger overall but nine are back from last season, including Simon and classmates Travis Howard (listed as a co-starter at cornerback) and nose tackle Garrett Goebel. Additionally, Etienne Sabino is expected to become a full-time starter at linebacker for the first time in his fifth year in the program.
Age is not the only determining factor in leading for one of Meyer’s teams, however. There is an unmistakeable onus on quarterback Braxton Miller to take the reins. Meyer looks for him to follow in the footsteps of Josh Harris, Alex Smith and Tim Tebow, standout quarterbacks and key leaders at Meyer’s previous coaching stops of Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, respectively.
That requires some growing up from Miller, a player whose soft-spoken demeanor belies his considerable physical gifts. He has been challenged to be more vocal as opposed to merely leading by example.
“I’m very pleased with Braxton Miller’s progress.,” Meyer said. “He’s come a long way.
“I hate to stereotype a guy who is a really good high school player, but I got that sense when I first got here he was kind of a ‘cool guy’ who was just going to go lift weights and take care of his business as opposed to, ‘No, you’re going to finish first in every drill. You’re going to be the first one in the office. You’re going to do extra work here. You’re going to come in and ask for (film) cut-ups of spring practice. You’re going to really push yourself to be the best,’ and he’s doing that now.”
Miller admitted to being reluctant to step to the forefront last season as a freshman starter.
“I was just trying to fit in and work my way in and do the best that I could do,” the quarterback said. “Coming in this year, I have a year under my belt. I'm just growing older and more mature.”
However, Miller’s reticence was just one of several issues the Buckeyes faced a year ago. Along with a first-year signal caller, Ohio State was saddled with a group of veterans stripped of many of its voices by NCAA suspensions for much of the season.
In calling for better leadership this season, Meyer acknowledged those challenges the team faced a year ago. He also expressed confidence that the old staff left in place plenty of building blocks he can use.
“The good thing about Ohio State is the first time they’ve heard about leadership wasn’t from me,” Meyer said. “The previous coaching staff was a hell of a coaching staff so we’re walking into a situation where there’s been some great things said about an emphasis on leadership. I might be doing it a different way – I don’t know and I don’t really care because we’re doing it our way – but I think our guys are buying into the fact that there were some failures a year ago because there were some leadership issues. That doesn’t mean they’re bad people. Guys weren’t there. How can you lead a team as an upperclassman if you’re not playing? I think they understand that. There are some very smart players around this program.”