“O-H” - Random thoughts on the Buckeye scene

On the unseen OSU class of ‘15...Harbaugh as media star...Pace in bronze
MLB Raekwon McMillan

Loaded, But Green

The 2016 season looks like it could be a developmental (don’t say “rebuilding”) year for Ohio State football. Urban Meyer has been among the first to point out that people were saying the same thing about 2014, and that worked out pretty well, after all. But several challenges loom, not least the fact that Meyer has set the bar so high...a berth in the 4-team College Football Playoff - or bust.

Player turnover is the first and most obvious hurdle for the 2016 Bucks. Just six starters return this fall, three on each side of the ball. There is experience up the middle, as their center (converted guard Pat Elflein), quarterback (J.T. Barrett) and middle linebacker (Raekwon McMillan) are among the returnees, but nearly everywhere else, the Bucks will be green as grass.

The good news is that while they may be green...they are loaded. Meyer and his staff have been stockpiling talent with their relentless recruiting machine, and if he has a secret weapon coming into the new season, it may be the virtually unseen class of 2015...last year’s true freshmen. Of the 26 newcomers last fall, only four saw the field (CB Denzel Ward, CB Eric Glover-Williams, LB Jerome Baker, and OT Isaiah Price), and they only in very limited spot duty, or on special teams. This from a recruiting class that was ranked among the very best in the nation.

What that means is that Meyer has not one, but two highly rated recruiting classes to unveil to the nation this fall...a total of 46 out of his 85 scholarship players will have four years of eligibility remaining.

“Play ‘Em All”

Meyer says he didn’t mean for it to go this way. He has insisted that he doesn’t recruit kids with the thought of redshirting them, and there’s no reason to doubt that. Of course he had an excuse in 2015. His team was the defending national champion, and returned 15 starters to the unanimous preseason #1, and they were the prohibitive favorite to repeat. A lot was at stake, and Meyer played his cards conservatively. (Some would say it was this conservative approach that cost them the one loss, and thus the playoff berth...but that’s history)

Meyer and his staff saw this winter how stockpiling can hurt them in the long run, most notably when they lost starting defensive backs Eli Apple and Vonn Bell to the NFL after getting just two productive seasons out of them as Buckeyes. Both young men sat as freshmen behind more experienced players in 2013, but left after three collegiate seasons anyway, carrying their various postseason awards with them. Granted, these are problems faced mostly by teams such as Ohio State, that are always shuffling around a surplus of talent, but it hurts a program to miss out on even a third year from players as talented as Bell and Apple.

The other issue is that kids want to be assured that they can play right away when they are deciding on a college program. It doesn’t help the Buckeyes when rival schools can show them that 22 of 26 freshmen at Ohio State never got on the field in their first year. In his press conference a few weeks ago, Meyer insisted that this year he’s “going to force the issue” with his assistants, and that his guiding principle will be to “play ‘em all”. So we’ll see.


No Non-Conference Cupcakes

The 2016 schedule is another reason to remain sober about the playoff chances for the Bucks this year. All three non-conference opponents played in bowl games a year ago, and the Big Ten moves to a 9-game conference slate from the traditional 8-game schedule, eliminating one open slot for a home game with some pushover looking for a payday.

Early September home contests with Bowling Green and Tulsa might not strike fear into the hearts of Buckeye Nation, but when Meyer takes his 16 new starters on the road to Norman, Oklahoma in Week 3 for a nationally televised night game against the Sooners, some of those hearts might just skip a beat.

Then in Big Ten play, Wisconsin and Nebraska return to the OSU slate after two and three-year absences respectively, and the game against the Badgers is in Madison, which is never a cakewalk no matter the relative strength of the teams. Road trips to Penn State and Michigan State follow, and finally, the Wolverines may well come into “The Game” at the Horseshoe feeling feisty at the end of their amazingly soft schedule.

And speaking of our rival to the north…


Golden Boy

Say what you will about Jim Harbaugh, but he sure knows how to keep his mug in the media, even (especially?) in the off-season. Never a shrinking violet, Harbaugh has become even more of a media darling as Michigan’s coach, with his recruiting sleepovers, his shirtless camp appearances, and his star-studded Signing Day extravaganza. (I think Urban Meyer should make the point that his “extravaganza” is called OSU Pro Day...and suggest that recruits note the difference.)

No telling what may happen to ESPN’s coverage of its new boy toy, now that he appears to have run afoul of the SEC...the place where ESPN’s bread gets buttered, as it scheduling Michigan’s spring practice in Florida. Harbaugh’s transparent recruiting ploy (no, it’s not so his players can go to Disneyworld) has SEC officials and coaches up in arms. One of their arguments is that spring break should be the players’ private time...for rest and relaxation, and that this mandatory practice time places an undue emphasis on football.

Consider for a minute that this is the SEC talking...and then try to stop laughing.

The site for Harbaugh’s camp is IMG Academy, a noted high school football factory, where...not coincidentally....two 2017 Ohio State commits and at least two more high priority OSU recruiting targets will be playing this fall.

Now, all major programs hold spring practices, and most hold spring games, although they don’t coincide with “spring break”. And you can be sure that Harbaugh checked all pertinent NCAA rules before announcing this move. So even if there is about to be a rule prohibiting this sort of “remote site” camp, there doesn’t appear to be one right now, and Harbaugh has to be terribly satisfied with himself that he has the SEC so out of sorts.

My initial reaction on hearing of the plan was to ask who will be paying to transport and house 100 or so football players for a week in Bradenton. But if Harbaugh is honest enough to admit that this is all about recruiting, maybe the expense will be covered under Michigan’s contractual obligation to supply Harbaugh with the use of a private plane...a perk he used recently to rack up $136,000 worth of expenses in a 12-day period while putting together his Top-10 rated recruiting class.

With all the recruiting success, and a solid first season under Harbaugh, Michigan partisans are sure that, finally...Michigan is all the way back. For my money, Michigan will be “back” when they, at the very least, make their first Big Ten Championship Game. And to do that, they will probably have to beat the Buckeyes...a matchup in which they are currently 0-4 since Meyer came to town, and 2-13 since the turn of the century..

Maybe they should concentrate on trying to be the best team in their state, for starters. And if they can’t come home with the Big Ten title anytime soon, maybe their coach can win an Emmy.


Defining Elite

A tip of the hat is in order to former Buckeye Orlando Pace on the occasion of his selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Pace’s utter dominance as a left tackle in college and the NFL meant that his selection was a foregone conclusion...a matter of when, not if his bust would be cast in bronze for Canton.

So many supposedly “can’t miss” prospects never live up to the hype. Pace was one of those who did...and then some. I recall first hearing about him when he was still an underclassman at Sandusky High School, starring in basketball as well as football. Under pressure from day one as “the next big thing”, he started as a true freshman in Columbus, and quickly became known for perfecting the “Pancake” block.

Two first team All-American awards, an Outland Trophy, two Lombardi Awards, seven Pro Bowls, and a Super Bowl championship later, Pace was named to Sports Illustrated’s  All-Century Team.

Ohio State has a rich history of producing NFL offensive tackles, with names like Jim Parker, Dick Schafrath, Dave Foley, Chris Ward, Jim Lachey and Korey Stringer prominent among them.

Orlando Pace now sits at the head of that distinguished class.


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