COLUMBUS — They are four men and a baby.
Or, more accurately, four seniors and Baby Huey — one of countless nicknames Ohio State’s veteran offensive line has given the newest addition to their old boys club.
For sophomore Taylor Decker, it is the rite of passage he must cross to become a card-carrying member of the Buckeyes’ most close-knit unit. The four returning starters call the 6-foot-7, 315-pound right tackle their “little brother” and treat him like one, wisecracks about Decker’s shoulder-length locks and all.
“We’ve got to mess around with him a little bit,” guard Andrew Norwell said. “We have to get him on the same page with us and our type of humor.”
As Ohio State went through its third day of preseason practice Tuesday, coaches said the battle to fill the offense’s biggest vacancy technically remained open. So far, Decker has made the loudest case.
Decker has taken a majority of the snaps with the starters, and he appears firmly ahead in a competition with redshirt sophomore Chase Farris, among others. His focus is not to simply be viewed as a default fifth wheel but another reliable spoke on a stalwart line.
“I don’t want to be the right tackle just because I’m the only one there,” Decker said Tuesday. “I want to earn the coaches’ trust, earn the guys on the line’s trust, because they’re great players. I don’t want to be detrimental to their season. I want to help them because they deserve a great season.”
Decker is in an unusual place: The one question mark on a line filled with resounding answers.
Coach Urban Meyer said he expects OSU to have the best offensive line in the Big Ten, and for good reason. Left tackle Jack Mewhort, center Corey Linsley, and guards Norwell and Marcus Hall have 78 combined career starts, and they were on the field together for all but 10 snaps last year — clearing the way for an offense that ranked 10th nationally with 242 rushing yards per game.
This year, though they lose NFL draft selection Reid Fragel, the line expects to be better. The four seniors are hailed as the team’s most respective voices — Meyer called Mewhort “without question, the guy, the pivot of our team” — while they continue to enjoy the benefits of strength coach Mickey Marotti’s training.
A year after the offensive line reported 450 pounds of fat lost and 500 pounds of new muscle, the numbers continue to grow. Hall, for instance, has slimmed to 308 pounds and, as offensive line coach Ed Warinner said with a smile, had trouble keeping his shorts up during practice Tuesday.
“I visit coach [Marotti’s] office to thank him for making me lighter,” Hall said with a smile. “I definitely sneak a couple looks in the mirror. I’d be lying to say I didn’t.”
Point is, Norwell said, “we expect to be great.”
Decker expects the same from himself ... eventually. Though it is rare for a freshman offensive lineman to start, the former four-star tackle from Vandalia said he was humbled after Fragel won their battle.
“It was rough to sit on the bench all year when I was told I had the opportunity,” he said. “But I was happy for him, and happy for the amazing season the guys had.”
This year, though, he plans to be one of those guys, and he appears to be on course. Mewhort said Decker has come a long way since last season, playing with more of an edge, not to mention improved technique in pass protection.
Warinner called Decker a highlight of the Buckeyes’ first day in pads Tuesday, though he needs to see more of the same before making official what appears to be a formality.
“In order to be a starter here, you have to show more than glimpses,” Warinner said. “We’ve told him we’ll call him a starter when you do it day after day after day with consistency. That’s a trademark with some of the other guys, and that’s how they established themselves as starters. Taylor is heading in that direction. He’s had what I would call three good days in a row. After we have six days of hitting in a row, let’s see if he’s consistent.”
Decker will eagerly attempt to show he can be. Of the four linemates to his left, he said, “To be mentioned in the same sentence as them would be an honor. They’re great guys.”
At least most of the time.
“It’s our responsibility as his adoptive big brothers to make sure he feels the heat a little bit,” Mewhort said. “We’re showing him the way.”
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.