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COLUMBUS — No pressure, guys, but Urban Meyer can isolate one unit as the fulcrum of this anticipated Ohio State football season.
“If our offensive line develops, we’ll be very good,” he said.
And no pressure, guy, but Meyer can take it further and identify one position as the hinge of the unit.
“Left guard,” he said. “ If I had to say where’s the focus, all of the focus is on the left guard. What are we going to do with the left guard?”
This is what keeps Meyer awake, the micro issues that will disproportionately decide the Buckeyes’ fate this fall.
No question is bigger than the offensive line, which provided the foundation of Ohio State’s 24-game winning streak the past two years.
The Buckeyes must replace four multiyear starters — including NFL-bound captain and St. John’s Jesuit graduate Jack Mewhort — while their one holdover, junior Taylor Decker, is on the move from right to left tackle. Only Decker and sophomore right guard Pat Elflein are assured starting roles. The other spots remain to be claimed.
Still, as Ohio State opened training camp this week, coaches remain confident. While offensive line coach Ed Warinner said, “We have a long way to go,” it does not feel as long as the road traveled for the line’s last rebuild.
Recall the early hand-wringing over the hulks up front in 2012, only for the unit to hold its own among the best in the country. This time, if the line still faces a lot of questions, it also has a whole lot more answers.
“The biggest difference [in 2012] was that I didn’t think that we had more than four guys, and we went to Reid Fragel to get the fifth,” Warinner said this week, referring to the tight end turned emergency right tackle. “Now we’re looking at nine, 10, 11 guys.”
He added: “We’ve got a lot more choices. We have to see who rises to the top.”
Guessing the last three starters is a crapshoot. At right tackle, senior Darryl Baldwin appears to hold the next-strongest grip on a starting job, though even there, Warinner said junior Chase Farris remains squarely in the mix.
Battles at left tackle and center are being waged by no less than five players. Junior Jacoby Boren — a 4.0 student and the third in line of Boren brothers at OSU — has a narrow edge at center over graduate Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay, who did not come to Ohio State to sit.
Warinner said the 6-foot-2, 302-pound Lindsay, a career backup who started four games for the Crimson Tide last year, is fighting some “rust” after not participating in spring drills.
Left guard, meanwhile, remains up for grabs between Antonio Underwood — a fourth-year junior coming off a torn ACL last year — and senior defensive line convert Joel Hale. Redshirt freshman Billy Price, billed by strength coach Mickey Marotti as the strongest player he’s ever trained and by Warinner as “talented a guy on the offensive line as we have,” is also in play at center and left guard.
“I’m fighting for my life, man,” Hale told reporters Thursday as players checked into camp headquarters at Hyatt Place in Grandview. “We’re fighting every day.”
MILLER LIMITED: Star quarterback Braxton Miller is on an early-camp pitch count as he returns from offseason shoulder surgery.
Miller made only a few throws during live drills of the Buckeyes’ only practice open to reporters this week, leaving most of the first-team repetitions to backups Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett.
“We’re kind of bringing him along slowly,” said Warinner, who also serves as the Buckeyes’ co-offensive coordinator. “I think we have a really good plan to get him where he needs to be Aug. 30 [for the season opener], and we don’t need to rush it.
“The guy has played for three years, so just bring him along like a pitcher in spring training, you know? An inning, then two innings, then three innings, and by the time opening day comes, he can pitch seven innings for you or eight innings. So I think we’re doing that the right way.”
Miller underwent surgery for a partially torn labrum in February, but said last week his shoulder feels stronger than ever.