COLUMBUS: Every college football team leaves spring with more work ahead to become all it can be in the fall, but there are signs that Ohio State is well ahead of schedule compared with this time a year ago.
Back then, first-year coach Urban Meyer had deep concerns about his receiving corps, the offensive line had been shuffled and he didn’t know who his right tackle was going to be, Curtis Grant was penciled in as the middle linebacker, the secondary was shaky, and Braxton Miller was a quarterback long on running ability but raw in the rudiments of the passing game and leadership.
That team proceeded to go 12-0 and finish third in the Associated Press media poll. Although banned from the postseason, the Buckeyes carved a deep niche as just the seventh team in school history to finish undefeated and untied.
Compare that with the group Meyer steered through the entertaining spring game last Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati:
• Miller, off limits to big hits and thus from running much, stepped up in the blustery conditions and showed the ability to throw all manner of passes, from a game-opening deep one to Evan Spencer, to the touch-lob for a touchdown to Devin Smith and the back-shoulder laser to Corey Brown for another touchdown. Just for show, Miller also outran the defense to the pylon for a touchdown.
• Those receivers were also no “clown show,” as Meyer called them a year ago. In fact, he now says Brown has all-Big Ten capability. Senior Chris Fields, almost a forgotten soul last April, now is considered a starter, Meyer said. Smith and Spencer made their mark, and Michael Thomas, though he might have a way to go in terms of consistency, proved during the spring that he can make big catches.
• Right tackle still is a worry. Last season’s fast-rising winner, Reid Fragel, a converted tight end, is now prepping for the NFL Draft. And neither Taylor Decker nor Chase Farris laid claim to the starting spot the past few weeks. But unlike a year ago, the other four starters on the line are back.
• Grant, shelved as the starter after a couple of games last season, was declared the bona fide starter in the middle by Meyer last week after a strong spring. Weak-side linebacker Ryan Shazier, the team’s leading tackler in 2012, missed most of spring drills recovering from sports hernia surgery, but he is expected to be full-go in August. If the team uses three linebackers — it didn’t do that a lot in the spring — Joshua Perry likely would be the other.
• With three starters back in the secondary, including all-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby, the spring was about finding the other starting corner, a job Doran Grant grabbed, and about building depth. Armani Reeves, Adam Griffin, Eli Apple and Cam Burrows had cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs excited about the future, as does nickel back Tyvis Powell.
Then throw in the fact that Meyer and his assistants are excited about the playmaking potential of the defensive line — even if it will include four newcomers — because ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington and tackle Michael Bennett have given it an athletic flair. And there is a confidence that running backs Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith, neither of whom played on Saturday, and tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett match up with any such tandems in the Big Ten. The offense returns nine starters.
The big question is whether the leadership void left by the departure of Zach Boren and company will be filled. But at last check, left tackle Jack Mewhort and center Corey Linsley, safeties C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant and even a once-reluctant Miller are stepping up to that challenge.
Coming out of this spring, the overall trend is upward.