COLUMBUS: The circumstances are eerily similar, so much so that Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has been talking about it for over a month.
The comparison requires a leap of faith — in the talent the Buckeyes continue to recruit, the work ethic of the players and the ability of Meyer and his staff to help them mature quickly.
It requires belief that the cupboard is not bare, but stocked with generic frosted flakes cereal that has yet to become GRRREAT!!!
It requires confidence that the Buckeyes are strong enough to survive adversity the season will surely bring.
With 16 starters gone as the No. 6 Buckeyes open the season Saturday at home against Bowling Green, many expect a down year. Twelve players left early for the NFL, 11 were drafted in the first four rounds. Some close to the program wouldn’t be surprised by three losses, including Sept. 17 at No. 3 Oklahoma.
But with three-time national championship coach Meyer scrutinizing the replacements since spring ball, his excitement has grown. He gets the feeling this could be another 2014, when OSU captured the first College Football Playoff with a team he initially thought was a year away.
While critics write off the Buckeyes, Meyer embraces his sense of deja vu and believes 2014 could happen again.
“Very similar,” Meyer said Monday of the 2014 and 2016 teams. “And I’m real excited about them. I’m trying to hold down the excitement. I can’t wait to watch them play.”
Going into 2014, Ezekiel Elliott had rushed for 262 yards and two touchdowns; he ran for 1,878 yards and 18 scores in carrying OSU to the CFP title. Those numbers seem unlikely for redshirt freshman tailback Mike Weber, but the product of Detroit’s Cass Tech High School was just as coveted as Elliott.
Going into 2014, linebacker Darron Lee hadn’t made a tackle; he finished with 80. H-back Jalin Marshall hadn’t caught a pass; he recorded 38 catches, six for touchdowns. Receiver Michael Thomas had three career catches for 22 yards; he finished the championship season with 54 for 799 yards and nine scores. Safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell had only one career interception apiece; led by Bell’s six, they totaled 10 of the Buckeyes’ 25.
At media day in Columbus on Aug, 14, defensive coordinator Luke Fickell wasn’t lamenting the loss of seven starters — he was raving about his defensive line and its depth. Just as enthused is right guard and co-captain Billy Price, who said of the defensive line Monday, “Guys have developed. In the spring they’d go two or three plays and cash it in. Now they run to the ball, they’re playing as a unit, they’re all locked in. The twos are just as good as the ones.”
Weber heads the list of inexperienced players who could follow in the footsteps of his 2014 predecessors. But there are plenty more, including receivers Noah Brown, Parris Campbell, Austin Mack, Johnnie Dixon, Terry McLaurin and James Clark; defensive ends Sam Hubbard and Nick Bosa (Joey’s brother); linebackers Chris Worley and Dante Booker; safeties Malik Hooker and Damon Webb; cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Denzel Ward; and defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle.
Junior middle linebacker and co-captain Raekwon McMillan tabbed Sprinkle as the most likely player to break out on the defensive line. Among the new starters, there will be others. If the number reaches the vicinity of six, injuries don’t ravage the lineup and quarterback J.T. Barrett is as good or better than he was two years ago, Ohio State could be a national title contender.
Meyer is brutally honest. If he believes his team has flaws, he reveals them, at least in general terms. But given an opportunity to downplay the Buckeyes’ chances to win the Big Ten championship at the league’s media days on July 26, Meyer resurrected 2014 instead.
“I see that potential,” Meyer said. “I think 2014 was the template that everybody wants. J.T. Barrett was buried on the depth chart, Darron Lee, Eli Apple, Zeke Elliott, Mike Thomas — those guys were no-names, and they became very good throughout the course of 2014. Cardale Jones was buried in the depth chart.
“A lot of pressure on our assistant coaches and myself to get them game-ready. I would say going in this is as talented a group top to bottom as we’ve had. Now how do we get them game-ready?”
With Meyer trying to quash his excitement, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to believe the Buckeyes can peak at the end of the season. It doesn’t seem farfetched that they can make a run like the 2014 team, which survived a Game 2 home loss to Virginia Tech.
Offensive coordinator Ed Warinner also sees the parallel and shares Meyer’s enthusiasm.
“I’m excited to see their growth because there’s a lot of young, talented players that just have to grow up before our eyes,” Warinner said. “If they do that, it will be exciting to be a part of.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.