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Is It Good To Be King?

For Urban Meyer and his Ohio State Buckeyes, that “underdog” thing that worked effectively for
them as a motivator last season is so over. The defending national champions will return 15 starters and a truckload of talented young backups to the field this fall, and unless some crazy streak of injuries relegates them to their 3rd string quarterback…(oh, wait...forget that)...they will be the consensus No. 1 team in the preseason polls this summer.

(Jeff Heuerman selfie)
Meyer, who is polishing his reputation as the game's best motivator, will have to come up with a new angle for the 2015 Buckeyes, because the idea that they are somehow disrespected or under-appreciated just isn't going to fly this time around. The coach is already trying out some novel approaches in his comments to the media during spring practice.

“We’re not very good right now,” Meyer dead-panned the other day, no doubt hoping his coaches and players were listening. Because they - not the media or the fans - are the intended targets for the negative motivation this time of year. If they don’t look very good, it may be because Meyer is resting many of his returning starters this spring, some coming off injuries, plus those members of what he’s calling the 2000-Rep Club, players that already have more than 2000 combined reps in practices and games over the last season or more.  

Give Meyer all kinds of credit here for practicing what he preaches. He was vocal last December with his concerns about the playoff system adding yet another game to an already long college football season, with the wear and tear on players that could result. So in addition to the monitoring of the situation that he recommended then, he is easing up on his veteran players this spring, a practice that has the added benefit of giving valuable practice reps to the young Bucks he’ll be counting on in 2015 and beyond.

Discomfort is a Good Thing

When Meyer took the Ohio State job, the program was under sanction and reeling from a year of scandal and controversy. The new coach insisted that he wanted an “angry” bunch of Buckeyes. The larger the chip on their collective shoulder, the better.

But it’s much harder to play angry when you've got a national championship ring sitting back in your locker, which makes battling complacency perhaps the biggest challenge for Meyer and his staff heading into the 2015 campaign. Making sure players don’t get too comfortable is one way to keep the competitive fires burning, and the Buckeyes' relentless success in recruiting assures even the most entrenched starter that there’s an underclassman or incoming freshman stud out for his job. Another way is to tell them repeatedly that they’re “not very good right now”.

Sure, coach.

Tell Me About It

Urban Meyer has some concerns about his football team in much the same way that Bill Gates has a few things to worry about. It’s all relative. Did I mention the 15 returning starters, plus his kicker, punter and long-snapper?  

Well, it is college, and kids graduate, so there are some holes to fill. Let’s take a look at some of them...

DL: Pressed for an actual concern, Meyer has pulled no punches about his backup defensive linemen not developing as well as he would have liked. I’m betting Jim Harbaugh wishes he had problems like picking some guys from a full stable of blue-chip recruits to play alongside Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington this fall.

Defensive line coach Larry Johnson’s depth issues probably have more to do with his defensive tackles than with his defensive ends. DE’s competing to play opposite Bosa include Tyquan Lewis, converted linebacker Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes, and Darius Slade, as well as incoming 4-star recruit Jashon Cornell. Lewis appears to have the inside track this spring, but Hubbard looks like he’s ready for a breakout season too, and Johnson should have a very solid 4 or 5-man rotation at the ends.

At tackle, finding a replacement for the departed Michael Bennett to team with Washington has been more worrisome. That is not to say, however, that approximately 13 Big Ten head coaches wouldn’t like to have their choices of Tommy Schutt, Donovan Munger, Michael Hill, Joel Hale and Dylan Thompson, plus several incoming freshmen to fill one starting spot and groom some backups. Again...relative. My guess is that Munger will emerge this spring and win the starting spot. Besides, Urban Meyer can ease his concerns over player development on the defensive line simply by repeating this two-word mantra: “Larry Johnson”

DB: If there is another concern on defense it may be in the depth at cornerback, where redshirt sophomore Gareon Conley appears to have edged ahead of sophomore Damon Webb in the competition to start opposite Eli Apple. The fourth corner is likely to be Marshon Lattimore, who sat out his first year on campus after hamstring surgery and is being held back from full participation in spring ball. In a pinch, any one of three young OSU safeties...Vonn Bell, Erick Smith or Cam Burrows could be pressed into service at corner...or nickel...without a major dropoff. Again, we’re talking about young 4 and 5-star recruits battling for positions. Nice problems. No doubt their coaches will keep telling them they’re not very good right up to the kickoff in Blacksburg.

LB: As pleased as the OSU staff may be about their projected starting linebacker corps of Joshua Perry, Raekwon McMillan and Darron Lee, there is a shortage of experienced depth behind those three. Camren Williams and Chris Worley played mostly special teams a year ago, and the staff is relying on sophomore Dante Booker and a trio of heralded incoming freshmen to round out the position group. The return to full health of redshirt freshman Kyle Berger (knee) is still a question mark. Perhaps at no other position is it as important for the starters to stay healthy.

OL: After his first season at the helm, Meyer made the offensive line his top recruiting priority. The staff has put together back-to-back classes of stellar recruits for that group, and it’s safe to say that the 3-4 year run of concerns about talent and depth on the offensive line in Columbus is decisively over. Add to that the presence of Ed Warinner, considered by many to be the nation’s best offensive line coach, and Meyer is finally sleeping well again. Warinner has just the right tackle spot to fill from his outstanding line of a year ago, and senior Chase Farris looks like he’ll hold off budding sophomore Jamarco Jones to win that spot.

Elsewhere on Meyer’s record-setting offense there just aren't any problems, let’s be real. The logjam at quarterback that you’re already tired of hearing about can scarcely be considered a problem, unless you’re coaching an Ohio State opponent. Yes, they graduated a starting receiver and a tight end, but the talent and depth at all the offensive skill positions is nothing short of ridiculous...and getting more so with each recruiting class. We’ll detail those areas in an upcoming column, but in the meantime...chill.

It appears then, that the biggest challenge facing Urban Meyer and his staff this year will be that dread complacency, and its cousins overconfidence and arrogance. As noted above, the coach has already shifted gears in his motivational tactics to suit the occasion, and to keep the Buckeye juggernaut rolling. The smart money says Meyer will be able to convince his players to leave their rings and their confetti memories in their lockers, and come out with a renewed sense of purpose on September 7th.

Meyer and his staff may be able to recycle the “Us Against the World” posters this season, but they’ll have a whole new meaning for a team that is now wearing the bullseye on their backs, rather than indignantly fighting for the respect of the college football world.

That respect is now in the bank, but a different set of challenges awaits.
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