By Bill Rabinowitz
COLUMBUS: The process is still in its early stages, and many pieces of the puzzle remain unknown, both in identity and ability.
The one proven star — quarterback Braxton Miller — has spent spring practice strictly as an engaged observer while he recovers from shoulder surgery.
The Ohio State offense of March 2014 is vastly different from the record-setting one from 2013. Running back Carlos Hyde is gone, as is receiver Corey Brown. So are four-fifths of the offensive line that provided the foundation for the 24-game winning streak that started the Urban Meyer era in Columbus.
Coaches know that the offense they’ll use when the season starts in five months against Navy will require tweaks and a feeling-out process. The past two years, Meyer and his staff have had to adapt his preferred scheme to the traits of players he mostly inherited. Sometimes, that was a benefit — it was a comforting thought to know Ohio State could gain needed yardage with the bruising Hyde running behind an experienced line.
But in other ways, the transition to the spread offense the way Meyer wants it run has been incomplete. Now, three of Meyer’s recruiting classes are, or soon will be, on campus. They comprise a majority of the roster.
“Maybe what I am most proud of the first couple years, especially the first year, is we didn’t fit a square peg into a round hole,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “It’s hard. It’s hard to not say, ‘This is our system. This is what we do, so we’re going to do it because that’s what we know how to do,’ when you have to figure out what everybody can do and do well and mask the deficiencies while you’re improving them and yet play to the strengths.”
Herman said certain tenets will always be a part of the Buckeyes’ offense. It will remain based on a power run game as its foundation and is intent on stretching defenses the width and length of the field.
Meyer said he envisions an offense this year that might rely more on attacking the perimeter of defenses. With a maturing Dontre Wilson playing the hybrid position and speedy young players such as Ezekiel Elliott, Jalin Marshall and Johnnie Dixon poised to emerge at the running back and receiver spots, the Buckeyes should be better equipped to do that.
Much of that talent is unproven. Ohio State’s coaches are hoping that the competition at almost every spot will speed the maturation process.
“There’s no spot guaranteed,” receivers coach Zach Smith said of the competition among his players.
Seniority matters little.
“Everybody’s got to compete,” three-year starting receiver Devin Smith (Massillon) said. “I understand his philosophy and how he wants to go about things, but I’m going to go out there every day like I’m a starter and perfect my craft.”
Probably the most important competition is on the offensive line, where only left tackle Taylor Decker and right guard Pat Elflein have earned starting spots, according to Meyer.
“We’re just trying to put that thing together,” Meyer said. “We don’t have enough depth there.”
He said he hopes that incoming freshmen such as Jamarco Jones and Demetrius Knox can help when they arrive in the summer.
Herman acknowledged that the offensive line is a big concern, but he said the current unit is ahead of where the 2012 line was at this point, and things turned out quite well two years ago.
“You want to talk about some dudes that needed some molding and culture?” Herman said. “[Line coach] Ed Warinner basically took the weakness of the offense and in less than 24 months turned it into the absolutely hands-down strength and backbone of the offense.
“Last I checked, Ed Warinner is still the offensive line coach. Is it frustrating a little bit that it doesn’t look like it did in two-a-days last year? Yeah, it is. But when you take a step back and have some perspective and understand the talent that’s in that room and the guy that’s coaching them, you’re confident in the future.”
That’s the prevailing thought about the offense as a whole. When Miller returns at quarterback and the competition at other spots sorts itself out, the Buckeyes believe the production they had in 2013 can be duplicated.
“It will have a different taste to it, though, than last year,” Meyer said.