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COLUMBUS — Ohio State opens preseason camp today as the Big Ten favorites based largely on three pillars.
■ Urban Meyer: A 101-17 record over his past nine years — including two national titles and another two perfect seasons — and a production line of top-five recruiting classes earn him the benefit of the doubt, no?
■ An elite quarterback: Las Vegas bookies give Braxton Miller the third-best odds (7:1) to capture the Heisman Trophy, behind only reigning winner Jameis Winston of Florida State and Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.
■ Elite quarterback eaters: Ohio State had a Big Ten-leading 42 sacks last season, and the defensive line will be better this season. All four starters return, including possible future first-round picks Michael Bennett, Joey Bosa, and Noah Spence.
Still, for a team billed as a top contender to storm the first four-team national playoff, the Buckeyes sure face a lot of questions. That’s where the next month of camp comes in handy.
Here are five points to watch as Ohio State prepares to open the season Aug. 30 against Navy in Baltimore:
1. Rebuilt offensive line: The biggest exclamation point last year is now the biggest question mark.
With OSU replacing four starters on its front, Meyer called the offensive line his biggest concern of camp.
“I was a little disappointed with what happened in the spring,” he said of the line last week. “We just didn’t see the growth we would like to see.”
How the unit looks in a month is anyone’s guess. The Buckeyes open camp with lone returning starter Taylor Decker on the move from right to left tackle, sophomore Pat Elflein locked in at right guard, and the other three spots open. Fifth-year senior Darryl Baldwin will get the longest look at right tackle, and junior Antonio Underwood looks to get the first shot at left guard, while Chad Lindsay, Jacoby Boren, and Billy Price are in the mix at center. Lindsay, a graduate transfer who started four games at Alabama last season, could also move to guard.
“They’re all nice players, nice people, who’ve been around for a while and haven’t played,” Meyer said. “So we have to get something out of them.”
2. Fixing the pass defense: A year ago, Meyer called a pass defense that ranked 110th nationally “alarming” and “awful.” So, this season, the Buckeyes upended everything.
Recall those five-yard cushions afforded opposing receivers? No more. Meyer hired new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash from Arkansas to teach just the opposite, which means trading the bend-but-don’t-break blueprint exclusively for press coverage. Defensive tackle Michael Bennett called the secondary “a lot more aggressive.”
“We completely have blown up and started from scratch an area that we were not strong in,” Meyer said. “Chris Ash has done an admirable job of installing a brand-new pass defense that we're going to test and see how it goes during training camp. It went very well during the spring.”
3. Return to Linebacker U? By Ohio State standards, the good news is its linebacker play can’t get much worse. The better news for OSU fans: Meyer said it’s a lot better.
Despite the loss of All-American Ryan Shazier, who tirelessly covered up for his teammates, Meyer is encouraged. Five-star freshman Raekwon McMillan is pushing incumbent senior Curtis Grant hard at middle linebacker, while coaches are high on sophomore Darron Lee, a high school quarterback who emerged as the breakout star of the spring, and Joshua Perry on the outside.
“I'm used to hearing about James Laurinaitis and A.J. Hawk and those guys, and we weren’t at that level,” Meyer said. “However, this is the best the group's been right now, as far as chemistry, as far as trust, as far as operating as a unit. ... So it’s about time we played linebacker ball, linebacker play the way Ohio State is used to. I think you're going to see it this year.”
4. Who gets the carries? How does Ohio State replace All-American running back Carlos Hyde and lighten the rushing burden on Miller?
First, the Buckeyes find a running back, with sophomore Ezekiel Elliott — who had 30 rushes for 262 yards last year — getting the first crack with the first team. Second, they reshape their offense.
A year after scorching the earth between the hashes — OSU ran 635 times and passed 368 — Meyer hopes for a 50-50 split. That depends on the continued evolution of Miller’s targets, including receivers Devin Smith, Evan Spencer, Jalin Marshall, and Dontre Wilson.
“We have to be much more balanced than we've been,” Meyer said. “Everyone's looking for a 50/50 ratio. ... We had Braxton, and especially last year, Carlos was so good, the offensive line was so good, and we were still trying to develop that receiving corps to be on par with the rest of the team. But I think we have. I'll be disappointed if the receivers aren't now ready to carry their own weight.”
5. Miller’s shoulder: Ohio State plans to monitor Miller’s throwing workload early in camp.
It was only in June that the two-time reigning MVP resumed tossing footballs after undergoing surgery for a partially torn labrum suffered in the Orange Bowl. But Miller said his shoulder has never felt better. He insists he will be at full strength by the start of the season.
All indications are he will. The key is keeping him that way.