All posts by marcushartman

For NCAA, True Reform Trumps TNT

I thought the USA Today piece about potential changes in – or abandoning of – the NCAA model that could be coming down the pike was excellent in a lot of ways, but the No. 1 reason is that it acknowledged the possibility major problems would endure regardless of who was in charge.

That is the main thing people miss when they start squawking about the NCAA.

“Change, ah say, change!”

Yes, reform is needed in many areas, but talk of burning the whole thing down is counter productive and borders on blindly stupid.

Perhaps the greatest truism in our society is this: We hate whoever is in charge and we know we would do a better job if we had the chance.

The United States of America was formed out of a desire to get out from under a monarchy, and that spirit lives on in us more than two centuries later.

The first time I noticed this was when I was about 12 and there was a revolution in my 4-H club. A change in leadership occurred but few of those inconvenient things we had to do to maintain a functioning club went away even though someone new – popularly chosen to run things – was telling us we had to do them. In the end, everyone’s hogs, cattle, arts and crafts still made it to the county fair, we all got our sale checks and the end-of-the-year potluck went on like usual. Then falls sports started so we (parents included or maybe specifically, as with 4-H) could all be put out by some different set of rules and regulations that were evil but nonetheless necessary in most cases.

The greatest enemy of the NCAA’s effectiveness (let alone efficiency) and therefore its popularity is without a doubt bureaucracy. It is not stupidity or greed, though some who don’t understand capitalism or most real alternatives elite athletes have today might see it that way.

I fail to see how any new organization with more than about a dozen schools would avoid similar bureaucratic problems because the bottom line is this – the NCAA is its members. That would not change if a different title were on the marquee of the new group’s headquarters. There would still be lots of mouths to feed, egos to stroke and agendas to serve.

As stated in the USA Today story, most people are generally happy with how the NCAA runs the lower level championships, and I’ll presume the same is true of Division I nonrevenue championships such was wrestling, volleyball, soccer, etc. The challenges of such undertakings should not be underestimated.

Yes, the Division I-FBS schools operate in much different circumstances than the rest, but that is not because of some NCAA mandate.

Do you know why Ohio State spends more than $30 million on the football team? Because it wants to, the same reason it also spends a pretty (though admittedly much smaller) penny on all the other sports, too.

Furthermore, the current NCAA model already treats the revenue sports differently in multiple ways. Football and basketball both have some of their own recruiting and practice rules. They’re also the only sports that require full-ride scholarships.

That specialized rules already exist would seem to be a pretty good indicator more can be made, perhaps some lifting restrictions on athletes’ ability to receive money for endorsements? What about compensation for their likenesses? Maybe a reasonable side job to make a little extra coin? Everything does not have to be one-size-fits-all.

Passing any or all of those new practices could alleviate some of the inconveniences in what is actually a really good deal for just about everyone involved in intercollegiate athletics, from the highly paid administrators and coaches to the anonymous athletes who receive far more in value of their education, training and life experiences than they receive via thousands of dollars in scholarship money. Let’s not forget the local economies in college towns across the country, either. I like these reforms (suggested by Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated, among others) because most of the new money they would generate and/or redistribute would go to the high-profile athletes who have big enough names to actually profit from them, and they represent the relatively few who lose much of anything in the system as it stands now (Although football and basketball players still get big paydays at an earlier age than most or all of their baseball or hockey counterparts, but I digress…).

Might a smaller working group be more manageable? More agile in dealing with problems that arise? Sure, that’s possible, but I don’t believe the current one is beyond becoming more responsive even if real change will not be easy. Neither would starting over.

And while the smaller schools and the big boys might have different sets of problems, they still have a lot of similar interests as well.

McGuff Charged With Leading Buckeyes To Next Level

The process might have taken longer than they hoped, but Ohio State administrators finally got their man to lead the women’s basketball team.

Kevin McGuff was introduced Wednesday in a press conference at Value City Arena and represented himself well in front of the OSU press during his first appearance as head coach of the Buckeyes.

A native Ohioan who built Xavier into a 30-win team and mid-major power before two solid years at Washington, he brings a lot to the table as the new leader of the Scarlet and Gray.

He promised to field a defense-minded team that will hit the boards while playing an aggressive, attacking style on offense. The latter is probably what will appeal most to Ohio State fans, who used to grouse about the post-oriented, sometimes plodding style of predecessor Jim Foster.

Foster, of course, tried to change with the times by recruiting flashy point guard Samantha Prahalis from the New York City area five years ago and giving her some athletic wings to fill the lane, but by then it might have been too late from a perception standpoint. Stung by disappointing postseasons in 2006, ‘’07 and ’08, the Ohio State fans were skeptical Foster would really give a guard the keys to the attack and let her go.

He did just that, however, and the early returns were promising as the precocious East Coast native helped carry the Buckeyes to the Sweet 16 as a freshman in 2009, a tournament run that came to an end at the hands of a powerful Stanford team that was not only awarded a No. 1 seed in the tournament but ranked No. 2 at the end of the season. The Buckeyes hung tough for about 35 minutes in that game before succumbing, but the future looked bright, especially when they signed five-star prospect Tayler Hill less than three weeks later.

Hill was supposed to put the Buckeyes over the top, giving them a third elite player to go with Prahalis and All-American post player Jantel Lavender. It didn’t work out that way, though. Ohio State earned a No. 2 seed in the 2010 tournament but bowed out to No. 7 Mississippi State in the second round, another disappointing showing that had fans howling for Foster’s head despite an existing six-year string of Big Ten titles.

In many ways, that was the beginning of the end for Foster’s program in Ohio State. The big three came back for one more season together, but the 2011 team suffered through a rough patch in the middle of the season brought on by chemistry problems and a young, unreliable bench. They did not recover in time to preserve their Big Ten title streak, but they got rolling at the end of the season, crushing three consecutive opponents to take the Big Ten tournament title and earning a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.

That squad earned Foster’s third Sweet 16 at Ohio State, but a trip to the Elite Eight was denied by No. 1-seeded Tennessee. A look at the Lady Vols’ roster was an easy enough indication of what difference still existed between the Buckeyes and the best of the best – Ohio State had four McDonald’s All-Americans while Tennessee countered with nine.

The trio of stars didn’t draw great crowds to OSU home games, either, as attendance began a three-year decline that continued to this past season.

Hill, whose brother being a Buckeye probably helped her conclude Columbus was the place for her college years, was the seventh and final McDonald’s All-American to sign with Ohio State during the Foster regime. She just finished her career as a four-year starter and was drafted fourth overall in the WNBA draft after leading the Big Ten in scoring the past two seasons.

Foster pulled in highly rated Ohioans Kalpana Beach, Raven Ferguson and Ameryst Alston in the past two classes but lost McDonald’s All-Americans Ally Mallott and Malina Howard, among others. He signed no one in the early period of this recruiting cycle, though the Buckeyes were in the running for a handful of highly regarded national prospects as the state of Ohio’s crop was unusually thin.

McGuff takes over a team that went 18-13 last season and lost Hill to graduation as well as fellow starting guard Amber Stokes. Beach missed the past season with a torn ACL and could be out another year after she suffered the same injury again this week.

Ferguson and Alston give him two nice building blocks who can score, but he will have his work cut out for him getting this team back to the NCAA tournament in a transition year. Those two have All-Big Ten talent, but they will need some help from a group of post players that has played inconsistently to this point in their careers.

McGuff has a chance to hit the ground running, though, with a very deep and talented class of juniors available in Ohio. The headliner is Cincinnati Princeton’s Kelsey Mitchell, a guard who preps in McGuff’s old stomping grounds from his days as head coach at Xavier. Also highly coveted are athletic forwards Makayla Waterman (whose grandfather was an OSU men’s basketball assistant under Fred Taylor) and Kathryn Westbeld of defending Division I state champion Kettering Fairmont along with forward Alyssa Rice of Reynoldsburg.

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Kevin McGuff talks about taking the Ohio State women’s basketball coaching job

He did not rule out adding someone in the spring signing period, but that is probably unlikely. That would mean he has seven scholarships to give out for 2014 if he so desires, though he may bank some for 2015 and ’16 classes that are already receiving rave reviews from recruiting analysts in and around the state.

Despite some trials and tribulations since letting Foster go, Ohio State appears to have found a great fit to lead its program. A proven winner at the mid-major level, McGuff had Washington going in the right direction with a pair of WNIT appearances and two McDonald’s All-America signings. That was without the luxury of recruiting in his home state, where he spent a lifetime building relationships not only in Ohio but also Indiana during his tim as a Notre Dame assistant.

For all the postseason frustration, Foster left the program in better shape than he found it. He ended an 11-year Big Ten title drought by winning six in a row, an unprecedented run that left no doubt Ohio State is the pre-eminent program in the conference, at least as far as the regular season is concerned. The Buckeyes’ 14 Big Ten championships are five more than anyone else.

Postseason success has not only eluded Ohio State but been relatively scarce for the rest of the conference as well. Purdue has the only national championship for the conference, and the Boilermakers are the only Big Ten team to make multiple Final Fours. They have two while Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State and Iowa all have one apiece.

Can McGuff make a difference in college basketball’s most important month? Only time will tell, but he had all the right answers on his first day on the job.

Ohio State Football Coaches Clinic: Mike Vrabel talks leverage

Previously I posted remarks from Urban Meyer as well as assistants Kerry Coombs and Tom Herman.

Here is what Mike Vrabel had to say about how they teach leverage and preventing big plays:

OSU defines explosive plays as runs of 15 yards or more and passes of 20 yards or more. Vrabel showed an internal study that found they have averaged allowing 15 explosive runs per season in the past 12 years, then noted the 2011 team that finished 6-7 gave up 25. In contrast, the 2009 team that won the Rose Bowl only allowed nine. (NOTE: They count bubble screens and the like as runs.)

They stress five things in teaching players how to play defense: effort, leverage, tackle, retrace and pursuit.

Effort is covered by the of-repeated mantra from Meyer about going hard for 4-6 seconds every play. The don’t coach effort – they demand it. Meyer runs a high-energy program. They want to get guys out of their comfort zone and don’t mind keeping guys on edge.

For part of this section, he put Ohio State’s goal line stand at Wisconsin last season on the big screen to emphasize that really only effort was going to make that happen. The offense is going to scheme up something to cover gaps and get a yard, so someone has to whip somebody’s ass and make a play. The Montee Ball fumble was made possible by guys up front winning their battles so someone could meet him at the pile and knock the ball away.

Leverage is the most important concept. They only need one leverage guy, though. One person turns the play back in and everyone else should be running to the ball.

Every day they do a leverage drill with four parts – string out, “hat and hands”, “rip and run” and angle tackle. Stringing out the play and angle tackling are self-explanatory. “Hat and hands” is what they call delivering a two-handed blow to the blocker and controlling him to establish position. “Rip and run” is what happens when they brush by a blocker either in pursuit or to get to an outside point to turn a play back in if no one has leverage. (So engage the blocker to maintain leverage abut rip and run to get it back if lost.)

Defensive backs, linebackers and linemen all practice all of these drills, and coaches should see them expressed in games or that means they aren’t being done correctly.

Of course then tackling was a big emphasis. He put up a chart showing a 12-year study that revealed they have averaged 9.7 missed tackles per game in that span. The number in 2002 was 8.2. In 2011, it was 12.5.

They break tackles down into three categories: in the box, angle and open field. Obviously, angle are the easiest and open field are the hardest. That is why the offense – especially now – wants to create open field opportunities.

OSU coaches expect leverage and effort. They coach up tackling by emphasizing keeping the ball on the outside shoulder, breaking down 3-4 yards from impact (too soon gives the ball carrier too much time to change direction), coming to balance in a football position and getting a guy on the ground.

In the open field, they don’t care about blowing a guy up. That’s not the time to do it. Just get him down. They also tell guys, “Don’t go off the diving board,” meaning keep proper football position – reverse arch the back, feet shoulder width apart, head and chest up, shoulders pinched.

Retrace is for dealing with things like screens. It’s how they teach players to recover after getting pressure. For defensive linemen, they work on planting the feet, pointing playside and driving down the line of scrimmage while keeping low hips.

Pursuit is simple – run with great effort to the ball, having confidence everyone is doing their job. That means someone has established leverage and everyone else just has to clean up.

 

Urban Meyer talks turning point of, lessons from Buckeyes’ unbeaten season

I was able to catch a few minutes of presentations by Tom Herman and Kerry Coombs as well as all of talks by Everett Withers, Mike Vrabel and Urban Meyer last week at the OSU football coaches clinic.

I’ll break down those things later but thought I’d share Meyer’s speech first.

Meyer called the 2012 season the most refreshing of his life because it involved relearning some important lessons.

He needed that because he had spent too much time paying attention to the bad stuff that goes on in college athletics and began to be convinced that’s what it’s all about when in reality it is still about relationships and team-building.

Last year (going back to his first days on the job) started with a bit of a conundrum because he was following “arguably one of the greatest coaches” in school history, and Jim Tressel’s methods are a lot different than his. Neither are better or worse than the other, they are just different.

But what the players knew was Tressel’s ways, so Meyer knew there would be some pushback from the veterans on the team. Tressel recruited a good group of kids, so they were always respectful, but they still had questions about why the new staff including strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti was doing things in these tough, new ways.

At that point, Meyer took an aside to tell the coaches they should never blame their players for problems. He hates to hear that. If things aren’t going well, there has to be a problem in the system. It’s the coach’s job to find that and fix it.

So they entered spring ball off of an offseason he rated “average”, and there was more pushback. He responded to that by pushing them harder.

That was again the case in the fall, and it got worse. There were some players who tapped out at practice, just stopped working because it was too hard. Again they went harder, but problems persisted into September.

Although they were able to out-talent those teams they played early and figure out ways to win close games, he felt like they were not a very good team. He and Marotti talked frequently about how they could get the pulse of the team, figure out what was wrong and how to fix it.

As he has done before, he mentioned how important the seniors were because they stayed around even though they could have left thanks to the postseason ban. “How cool is that?” he wondered aloud, adding he is blessed to be able to work with those type of guys.

He also praised his staff, but he still could not figure out how to fix the chemistry problem that was there.

With Michigan State and Nebraska coming up, he saw a team headed for an 0-2 start to the conference season and was really worried about what that would do to the momentum of the program. Coming off a sub-.500 season, that could be really damaging. He was especially concerned about what that would do to recruiting.

Then he came to the conclusion of what the problem was thanks to defensive lineman John Simon’s now-famous speech after he played the Cal game with a severely injured shoulder.

The passion Simon showed for his teammates made Meyer realize that he and his assistants lacked the connection with the players that could let them feel that way and let the players reciprocate, but he still wasn’t sure what to do about it. He had a hard meeting with his coaching staff where he got this message across to them, but that wasn’t enough. Going harder wouldn’t fix this, either, as he thought it had previously.

He ended up getting help from an outside source via a previously scheduled talk from former Ohio State running back Butler By’not’e, who told them there are three keys to exhibiting a true love for something: choice, sacrifice and time. They apply to teams, relationships – everything.

Choices have to become commandments – so, not choices anymore – while people have to sacrifice the things that are creating a negative influences. Then they have to put in the time to show their commitment.

So they started coming together at that point, and it clicked prior to the Michigan State game. He told the team they would lose to the Spartans if they didn’t open up to each other, coaches and players alike, because they were spending too much time evaluating what they were doing and wondering why. Then he instituted a “championship water toast” for those intent on committing to each other, and the season really took off from there.

Meyer called the 2012 team the best group of kids and leaders he has ever been around.

The defense wasn’t very good at the start of the season, but it got better in the second half because of something that is undervalued and underdeveloped these days – leadership. He credited the coaching staff and the players with that evolution.

He defined leadership as setting a standard and demanding everyone else meets that, calling it the Michael Jordan approach.

Ohio State’s best group of leaders last year was the offensive line, a group that had to go through a metamorphosis from the start of the year. Then those four returning starters were able to whip Reid Fragel – who Meyer described as a pain in the ass previously – into shape and get him to turn himself into a productive offensive lineman and potential NFL draft pick.

He closed out his speech by telling the high school coaches he was sorry if they showed up to hear about the spread offense but he hoped they would take some of the leadership lessons back to their teams.

Ohio State Football: Winter Practice?

Ohio State resumes practice today 101 days after beating Michigan to close out a perfect season, and the school’s official release notes this is the earliest start on record for Buckeye spring football.

It might not be the first time the men of the Scarlet and Gray hit the practice field with snow on the ground in Columbus, though.

Head coach Francis Schmidt decided to hold winter practice in February 1935 and informed the players via letter.

“We have several new ideas including plays, formations, shifts, etc. that we want to try out, and this looks like a fine time,” wrote Schmidt (via Brett Perkins’ 2009 book, “Frantic Francis“). “Two months is long enough to lay off from football anyway. I want to get all the preliminary stuff out of the way so that when spring practice rolls around, and we can get out we will be ready to start mapping out our attack. We will spend most of the time on lateral passing and forward passes, and we’ll spend a whole month on it.”

According to Perkins, this was an unusual move, but then Schmidt was far from a usual man (even for a football coach).

Francis Schmidt

There was hardly a time he wasn’t thinking about football, and he had a manaical devotion to developing his “razzle-dazzle” offense.

Schmidt was in his second year at Ohio State in 1935, and he had good reason to want to get a jump start on season preparation. The Buckeyes would play host to Notre Dame in November in what was then and remains one of the most heavily anticipated college football games in memory.

He was probably more concerned with the vaunted Fighting Irish than he was Michigan. After all, the Buckeyes had shut out the Wolverines 34-0 the previous year after Schmidt declared, “They put their pants on one leg at a time, same as we do.”

Ohio State would blank the Wolverines again the following season – the 38-0 score remains the largest margin of victory ever for the Buckeyes in the series – but things did not go so well against the Fighting Irish, who scored two late touchdowns to stun the Buckeyes 18-13 in Ohio Stadium.

Memories of Woody Hayes

In my years at Buckeye Sports Bulletin, I have had the privilege to talk to many of Woody Hayes’ former players for various stories, and those interviews yielded all kinds of nuggets about the man.

A statue of Woody Hayes stands outside the Ohio State football facility

On what would be the 100th birthday of Ohio State’s greatest football coach, I thought I would share a few of the best.

Tom Matte played quarterback at Ohio State from 1958-60 before becoming a star halfback in the NFL. As a Baltimore Colt, Matte used to play host to Hayes when the coach would be on the East Coast for recruiting trips, and he made no bones about his feelings for Hayes now more than 50 years later.

“I loved the guy. I hated him when I played for him because he was tough. He was tough on me, and I was a little bit crazy at the times, so he straightened the hell out of me.

“When I got away from him, he made sure I graduated. He called me three times during the season and told me I had to go back and make up six hours to graduate. I had gotten hurt my rookie year – someone jammed my neck and I crushed a couple of vertebrae – and I went back and not only did I graduate winter quarter but spring quarter he said, ‘You know you might not be able to play. What do you want to do?’ He got me into law school. I had to take some prelaw classes for spring quarter and if I wanted to come back for the following quarter he said he would make sure I had a scholarship to go to law school. That’s the kind of the guy he was.”

“He was tough to love sometimes, but when you got away from him you learned to appreciate that what he was doing was trying to help you grow up is all.”

Rex Kern, an All-American quarterback who led the Buckeyes to a consensus national championship in 1968, two Rose Bowls and a share of three Big Ten titles, laughed when I asked him what it was like to be the quarterback at Ohio State.

“It was a little more difficult to deal with Woody than it was to be the star quarterback.”

“Woody was a very unique special person to deal with. Many people saw probably a different side of Woody than what we as quarterbacks saw. We got to see the benefits of the good and the bad. The quarterbacks spent lots of time with Woody. You had to know your game plan.

“Woody had the tremendous scope of keeping us focused. Being the quarterback at Ohio State put you in the spotlight – maybe a neon light – but I was more concerned about the Michigan State Spartans or Minnesota Golden Gophers than anything off the field, and Woody always had us focused in on those particular games and those particular people. I think it’s a matter of being focused on the task at hand and that was winning football games.”

The late Bill Mrukowski was also a quarterback along with defensive back for Hayes. Suiting up for the Scarlet and Gray in the late 50s and early 60s, he like many had his ups and downs with the coach but came away with positive feelings.

“I really enjoyed playing for Woody. We had our disagreements my junior year and my senior year because I didn’t play quarterback. I was playing defensive half. I’ll never forget my senior year he didn’t take me to Iowa. I didn’t go. I stayed home, and in the first quarter he yelled out Mrukowski get in there, and I was at home. Someone said, ‘Coach, you left him at home.’ They got beat pretty bad that game.

I got back to college that night and he called me on the phone and said I want you to know you’re my quarterback for the rest of the year and I expect you to be over here within the hour. I want to go over some stuff.

“He was up and down that way, but he got me into the East-West Shrine Game and the Hula Bowl (all-star games) after my senior year. He had his way of paying back. I didn’t play enough that year at quarterback to really be honored with that, but he got me in it anyway.”

“There was a lot of good stuff and very, very little bad stuff. He treated you rough. He treated the team rough, and if he liked you, you played. If he didn’t like you, you might not play. That’s just the way he was.”

Bill Conley walked on as a lineman at Ohio State in 1968 and was later an assistant coach at his alma mater. The current head coach of Ohio Dominican recalled, “One thing that I really got from him was work ethic. I remember he always said I may not be the smartest coach in the world but I can outwork anybody.”

Bruce Jankowski was a wide receiver for the Buckeyes in the late ‘60s and said his old coach is often a topic of discussion when there are reunions. “The funniest thing in life is when we got back and start telling Woody stories. If they could put it on tape, they could sell it by the millions. He was a great man, but there are some funny stories.”

Having played basketball for Hubie Brown in high school and Hank Stram in the NFL, he felt blessed to have been exposed to such great minds.

“I had a good home life, but Woody had such a huge impact on me in life as far as doing the right things, being there, being on time, living the right way, doing what you say you’re going to do. I was just very lucky on that one.”

“He really took an interest in my parents. He talked to me, sure, but he took a very strong interest in my parents and my high school football coach.”

“It made me feel good that he showed such an interest in my family. It was different than a lot of others. He spoke about an education. He said, ‘Sure, you’re going to play football, and we’re going to work you hard, and we’re going to make sure you get an education.’ He always instilled that to us. Things like that stood out to me.”

“He was a caring person. He used to always tell us go talk to elderly people. They’re lonely. They don’t have a lot of family typically, so say something. Say hello to them. Ask them how they’re doing. I do that today still.”

“It’s a shame they remember what happened on TV. He was not healthy. He shouldn’t have been coaching at that point, but people who know him, who have really had an opportunity to know him and have been around him love the man. They really do.”

Paul Warfield turned into a Hall of Fame wide receiver in the NFL, but he was a halfback for most of his career at Ohio State. He recalled Hayes focusing on more than just football.

“The great thing about playing for Woody Hayes for me was, No. 1, he never allowed us to forget the reason we were going to school there, to gain what he called a quality education. That was his commitment to all of our parents that he would make sure we got the best we could out of Ohio State University.

He would support us however we needed it, but by the same token he never let us forget that we were there to get an education. He always was concerned with how we were doing in classes

He saw himself as a coach and a teacher but also a teacher and developer of young men at a very important time in our lives. He understood perhaps better than any of us…. that the real job was preparing us for the life once we got out of the university,  preferably if we were going to stay in the state of Ohio and be productive in society as a whole.

“Sometimes all of us didn’t understand it because he was so demanding, but we knew that he was in our corner. And as a result many of my former teammates who once thought he was too tough sent their sons to play for him.”

Ohio State Signing Day Roster Analysis: Offense

After breaking down the defense previously, it’s time to take a look at the offense.

The 2012 season was a fascinating one on that side of the ball for Ohio State as the Buckeyes worked to absorb the new spread offense of head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who also serves as quarterbacks coach.

It will be no less interesting this year with that pair hoping they have more parts to allow the unique and innovative attack to truly take flight.

Meyer expressed frustration regularly last season about the lack of playmakers on offense even as the Buckeyes led the Big Ten in scoring and finished just four touchdowns shy of tying the school record in a single season (they had 60).

He hopes to have tackled that problem this winter by adding a trio of players that are tough to bring down in the open field: Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson and James Clark.

Marshall was the first to commit (in January 2012) and might have faced a heavy load as the Buckeyes’ slot receiver if not for the recent decisions of Wilson and Clark to jump on. The top-rated player in Ohio, Marshall is a solid 6-0, 190 pounder who played quarterback at Middletown and brings a variety of skills to the Buckeyes. Wilson (5-10, 174) and Clark (5-11, 170) are smaller, scat-back types whom Meyer hopes can stretch defenses horizontally with pure speed and make yards after the catch with their agility.

The youngsters probably won’t be able to walk right into a starting role, though, as the addition of a couple more athletes might result in a re-shuffling of the wide receivers already on hand. In addition to the slot receivers, Meyer secured signatures from Corey Smith and Gareon Conley, two bigger prospects (6-1 and 6-2, respectively) who can go down the field and battle corners for catches, creating space for the others to work underneath.

A four-star cornerback prospect, Conley could end up on the defensive side of the ball, but Smith is expected to compete immediately for playing time on the outside. A junior college prospect, the 180-pounder’s presence could allow senior Corey “Philly” Brown to move inside to the slot. The speedy Brown led the Buckeyes in catches last season but might be miscast as the possession receiver he essentially became as the 2012 campaign wore on.

Tight end Marcus Baugh figures to find playing time hard to come by this season, but the 6-4, 245-pound Californian might be able to carve out a niche as a change-of-pace when compared to veterans Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett. The elder players don’t lack athleticism, but they are more traditional Big Ten tight ends who excel as blockers while Baugh is known for his ability as a receiver in the open field.

The only traditional running back in Ohio State’s class of 2013, Ezekiel Elliott will not be lonely when he shows up for his first position meeting. Thanks to Jordan Hall’s medical redshirt, the Buckeyes have six running backs on scholarship for the coming season. The group includes power backs Carlos Hyde (who will be a senior after running for nearly 1,000 yards last season), junior Rod Smith, sophomore Bri’onte Dunn and redshirt freshman Warren Ball as well as the smaller, shifty Hall.

Offensive line is the only area Meyer expressed some disappointment, admitting the ability to sign only two players puts the coaching staff on notice to stock up on big uglies in 2014. Neither Evan Lisle, a four-star prospect ticketed for tackle, or Tim Gardner, a three-star who seems fit for guard, figures to be pressed into duty any time soon as four starters return for 2013 and the staff is high on the potential of rising sophomores Chase Farris, Taylor Decker and Jacoby Boren. However, four starters will graduate after next season, so a strong freshman campaign could set up one or both of the new signees for a run at major playing time as a sophomore or redshirt freshman. The 6-6, 290-pound Lisle in particular is considered a major prospect for his long, athletic frame.

Lastly there is quarterback. There is no spot less primed for an immediate impact than signal caller, but that is probably fine with everyone involved. J.T. Barrett is a four-star recruit who enrolled in January, but the 6-1, 225-pound Texan is still rehabilitating a knee injury that cut short his high school career. Meyer and Herman have already observed a work ethic and leadership they love in the youngster, who will find himself fourth on the depth chart this fall and is likely ticketed for a redshirt.

All in all, it should be fascinating to watch the staff put together the new pieces. Herman spoke at the signing day press conference about using the additional speed and shiftiness at receiver (out wide but especially in the slot) to “protect” the running game that revolved around dynamic quarterback Braxton Miller and Hyde last season. That represents something of a twist on the old “run to set up the pass” mentality, and it is a reality of playing spread football in the 21st century.

Michigan and Wisconsin provided a blueprint for slowing down the OSU attack last November by crowding the line of scrimmage on early downs and doing just the opposite when the Buckeyes fell behind the chains, but speedsters in the slot could create new ways to punish such strategies in 2013.

Ohio State Signing Day Roster Analysis: Defense

National Signing Day is over for another year. The presents have been unwrapped. Letters have come in and been filed. Now what?

Well rather than haggle over ranking and ratings, why don’t we take a look at where the newest Buckeyes fit on the roster for this and coming seasons?

Two positions jump out: Wide receiver and linebacker. From those two groups it is fair to judge the most immediate impact could come, although head coach Urban Meyer and defensive coordinator Luke Fickell agreed they viewed the whole defense as in need of upgrade or support.

We’ve got to start somewhere, though, so how about linebacker? Ohio State picked up a pair of highly sought players in Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson, both of whom committed just after the start of the new year.

Mitchell is considered the superior physical specimen (6-4, 225), but Fickell praised Johnson’s football acumen. The pair join a group that will be very young this season as only one starter (First-team All-Big Ten selection Ryan Shazier) returns from 2012. Shazier is also the elder statesman of the group, joining fellow junior Curtis Grant as the only linebackers who will be more than two years removed from high school this fall. The rest of the group consists of five sophomores who had little-to-no impact on the defense last season, though several of them are highly rated prospects of whom much was expected when they were in the shoes of Mitchell and Johnson (6-2, 220) one year ago.

Mitchell could prove to be too talented to keep off the field while Johnson’s sense of how to play the game might appeal to Fickell, who wants a middle linebacker who will take charge of things when the bullets are flying on the field. Fickell will have little choice but to put an inexperienced player in the middle, so it’s hard to bet against either frosh earning a spot if he does something to stand out when camp commences in August.

While the linebackers are relatively new, the majority of the star-studded defensive line class was in place for most of this recruiting cycle. It started with Billy Price of Austintown (Ohio) Fitch right after Signing Day 2012 and continued in the spring with commitments from ends Tracy Sprinkle of Elyria, Ohio, and Joey Bosa of Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas. Tackle Michael Hill committed in June with end Tyquan Lewis jumping in late in September. The class closed with tackle Donovan Munger in December.

The freshmen frontmen will find all four starting spots open (something that has not happened at Ohio State since the move to a 4-3 defense in the early 1990s), but there figures to be heavy competition at all of them thanks to the presence of last season’s highly touted defensive line class.

Lewis (6-3, 223) and Sprinkle (6-2, 241) might have the best shot to make an early impact as they are the only linemen to enroll early. They join a group of “Leo” rush ends headed up by sophomore Noah Spence, who flashed star potential last season in spot duty.

At tackle, Ohio State does not lack space-eaters to play on the nose, but line coach Mike Vrabel figures to be on the lookout for an athletic option to put at the 3-technique following Johnathan Hankins’ decision to skip his last year of eligibility. That could be where Price or Hill (both of whom go 305 pounds) could find a spot pending where Adolphus Washington lines up (inside or out) for his sophomore season.

There is a glut of players for the other end position, where Bosa figures to end up eventually unless he is done growing now at 6-5, 270. Washington could also line up there, but Michael Bennett and Se’Vonn Pittman provide two more intriguing options there after both had their 2012 seasons marred by injury.

As for the secondary, only one spot is open for 2013 but lots of playing time figures to be around the corner in 2014. Starting safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett as well as top reserve Corey Brown are all seniors with only sophomores Ron Tanner and Devan Bogard behind them. That means five-star Vonn Bell as well as four-stars Jayme Thompson and Darron Lee could be in the mix in year two and will want to spend the upcoming season positioning themselves for a run at the starting lineup.

Cornerback does have an open spot, though that is likely to be filled by Doran Grant, a highly touted recruit who had an up-and-down sophomore season in 2012. Four-star prospects Cam Burrows and Eli Apple enrolled in January and will take part in spring practice, where they can expect to fight for a spot in the two-deep if not Grant for a starting role. Four-star prospect Gareon Conley, a former Michigan commit, could join the mix in preseason camp if he is not playing wide receiver.

Then there is the ever-popular Star position, a hybrid linebacker/safety that replaces the Sam linebacker in the nickel defense Ohio State has run for more than a decade.

There figures to be an open competition here with Orhian Johnson, the only player who filled the role even somewhat capably last season, having used up all his eligibility. Lee and three-star linebacker Christopher Worley both bring the body type to play there. Perhaps they have the intangibles, too. The coaches loved the competitiveness Lee showed at a pair of camps last season, and Worley has been compared to fellow Cleveland Glenville alumnus Jermale Hines, a heady player who spent two years at the Star position.

Bryant has experience at Star, leaving open the possibility of a move there if Brown or one of the young safeties shows well this summer.

We’ll take a look at those incoming wide receivers and the rest of the freshmen on offense in our next post.

A Last Look at the Big Ten Bowls

Earlier, I took an overview of the Big Ten and what it needs to bounce back from a very poor 2012 football season. I take a lot more from the regular season than the bowls, but another sub-.500 record in the postseason certainly doesn’t help the cause of the league.

As far as the games themselves, I’m not sure we learned a whole lot.

  • The 2013 Capital One Bowl was really a quintessential 2012 Nebraska performance as the Cornhuskers gained 443 yards of offense but allowed 146 more than that. They put up 31 points (including an interception returned for a touchdown) but lost by two touchdowns. In short, the offense and defense were both spectacular, one good and one bad. I’d say personnel is the main explanation on both sides – Taylor Martinez progressed significantly (but still has more room to improve even more as a senior) and Nader Abdallah stepped up in the wake of I-back Rex Burkhead’s injury-plagued senior campaign. Aside from Burkhead (whom they’ve shown they can live without), the only real weapons they lose are a pair of talented tight ends, so the offense should continue to hum. Defensively, a bunch of seniors are walking out the door, but I’m not sure that is a bad thing. The talent has steadily dropped on that unit for three consecutive years, and the production has followed. Some new blood could be good, although I would rate Will Compton, Baker Steinkuhler and Eric Martin as players who will be missed. I also think the season and the game demonstrated the double-edged sword that is the multifaceted Bo Pelini (and coordinator John Papuchis) defense. A two-gap defensive line and pattern reading secondary gives the scheme a lot of flexibility, but it also leaves a lot of potential seams that can burst in the case of bad communication. To make matters worse, I don’t think Nebraska had enough guys with the talent to erase mistakes.
  • Michigan’s defensive numbers were largely a mirage. I like their young linebackers a lot, but the defensive line needs a serious upgrade. The secondary was better than it had been two years ago, but that doesn’t say much. The gaudy numbers they had as a secondary in the regular season were mostly a result of the weakness of Big Ten passing games and the weakness of the Michigan defense of line. Teams were plenty happy to run on the Wolverines until they were stopped. I thought Al Borges bounced back with a better game plan against South Carolina and he did, although it could have used some more Denard Robinson. Devin Gardner has a lot of talent, but he is still raw. Michigan has a playmaking wide receiver in Jeremy Gallon, but it remains to be seen if anyone else will step up to join him. Who knows if they will find a playmaker in the backfield, but the offensive line could be a major liability. It will definitely be young. Getting Taylor Lewan back could be a good start, but he’s not actually as productive as his accolades would indicate. That’s probably why the Michigan coaching staff barely gave him any chances to match up one-on-one with Jadeveon Clowney, who only played about half his team’s snaps anyway.
  • I suppose we learned Michigan State does not have unending confidence in Andrew Maxwell, but I guess that shouldn’t be a shock after the season he had. Of course he was made a captain before the season started. Are young quarterback in the expected to struggle, but I think the larger issue was with play calling that did not help them out. Of course, it’s hard to call plays when you can’t block anybody. The Spartans just have to get better up front if they want to be good enough to be an upper-echelon team. They should continue to be very good on defense next year even with the loss of William Gholston early to the pros. Depth is very good on the defensive line for MSU.
  • Northwestern sucked it up and got it done, actually riding a hot start to a postseason victory for a change. The Wildcats’ woeful secondary feasted on Mississippi State for four interceptions and showed some playmaking ability with six tackles for loss, including three sacks. Kain Colter and Venric Mark are wonderful skill players around whom to build an offense, but the offensive line started three seniors who will be missed. The quarterback rotation seems to need some bugs worked out, but a win is a win, especially considering the program’s postseason history.
  • Minnesota showed that it at least belonged in a bowl (for what that’s worth these days) but giving Texas Tech everything it wanted, but the Gophers couldn’t hang onto a late lead and lost on a last-second field goal. Only seven seniors started for the Gophers, who might have something in freshman quarterback Philip Nelson and sophomore running back Donnell Kirkwood. Leading tackler in the game Brock Vereen is due back at safety next year, as is defensive end Rashede Hageman (six tackles, one sack).
  • Purdue was kind enough to leave no doubt it made the right move in letting go Danny Hope. My only other thought on that game was that it will be refreshing to evaluate their 2013 roster with the impression any apparent talents won’t be wasted like they were under the Hope regime, which was plagued by injuries and undisciplined play. There are some dangerous skill guys on the roster if they all come back to play for new head coach Darrell Hazell, a former Ohio State assistant.
  • Rare is the Rose Bowl that feels like an afterthought, but it was hard to take much from Wisconsin’s loss to Stanford. Kudos to the Badgers for hanging tough after falling behind 14-0, but the Cardinal did not exactly lower the boom. Both teams were very conservative, owing to the total of 37 passes thrown and 34 points scored (not that I don’t love a good slugfest and the many varieties of running plays each team came out with). The game did serve as further validation to me of the improvement of the Wisconsin front seven, a group I was not high on at all entering the season but that turned in a really nice campaign. Most of it should be back, so that is a good building block for the new coaching staff in Madison. Nine seniors started on offense or defense for the Badgers, so they will be young and/or unproven at a lot of places in 2013.

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Taking Stock Of The Big Ten and the Nation

Well, another college football season has come and gone and all we learned was that Alabama is still really good and Notre Dame isn’t back yet. Oh, and following NCAA rules is a good idea just in case you happen to go undefeated unexpectedly some year. Failing that, at least don’t get caught if you happen to bend the rules.

As for the finale on Monday night, I was able to watch the national championship game without remorse for the carnage or taking any particular joy in it, either.

I respect the SEC for what it has done in terms of hiring coaches and recruiting and developing players rather then hate it for its success, and being born in the ’80s, I don’t have any strong emotions about Notre Dame.

I see the pros and cons of the whole Fighting Irish thing. There’s some arrogance there, yeah, but that’s true of many programs. My first really vivid memory of Notre Dame is Gary Barnett telling his Northwestern players to expect victory and not carry him off the field when the Wildcats win. That was almost 20 years ago. They haven’t really been good enough to be annoying ever since.

The degree to which some Irish teams have been overrated in the meantime probably helped the Big Ten, if anything. It helped vault John Cooper’s still fledgling OSU program onto the national scene in the mid-90s and many a Michigan season was set up for ultimately being disappointing thanks to a thrashing of the Irish in September.

Of course, Michigan and its in-state neighbors in East Lansing returned the favor this year, going down to Notre Dame in the first month of the season when the Irish were still trying to gain a spot in the national title picture.

As for the conference of the Wolverines and Spartans, I found the reaction to the Big Ten’s most recent bowl performances a bit puzzling. Or at least over the top.

Yes, the league won only two games, but I’m not sure if you noticed but that was what was supposed to happen. Nor was it surprising that several of the games were competitive. It’s not as if the Big Ten has been getting blown out in every game every New Year’s Day for the past five years. Yet both of these happenings this year produced a lot of hot air that missed the main point.

The problem for the conference remains what it has been since at least the middle of the past decade: inferior coaching. That is exacerbated in the postseason by systematically poor matchups that can be attributed to no other than Jim Delany.

The conference – presumably intentionally – signed up to play the best team in the Pac-10, and a bunch of team from the SEC every year. This is no excuse, just a fact. Delany is correct when he says they haven’t ducked anybody when it comes to postseason matchups. I have no problem with that, but it probably should be acknowledged when we go about wondering what’s wrong with the league.

Of course this year it did not send its best team (Ohio State), and another 8-win squad (Penn State) had to stay home as well. That kept Wisconsin out of a more winnable matchup and basically assured a Rose Bowl loss. So strictly in regards to the postseason, it’s really been a death by 1,000 cuts now for going on more than half a decade, and reiterating that doesn’t serve much purpose.

The larger problems certainly lie with general program strength from top to bottom, and those come almost exclusively from a lack of quality coaching hires in the past decade or more.

Big Ten teams and Big Ten fans can complain all they want about Ohio State’s string of high-profile nonconference losses in the middle of the past decade, but until they build a program of their own big enough to knock the Buckeyes off they don’t really have a leg to stand on.

Bad coaching hires have a tendency to create a ripple effect, too, as they can set back roster building for years.

Delany wanted his teams to face the best and play on New Year’s Day. Now he’s reaping what he sowed. But the commissioner is certainly not the main culprit here (and based on an interview he gave to the ESPN Big Ten Blog, he plans to address some of the issues). He also gave every school in the conference a financial leg up with its last TV deal and the brilliantly forward-thinking creation of the Big Ten Network, but few of them have done much to take advantage.

Despite worry about the great migration of population to the South and west, there are enough players to stock plenty of solid-to-good programs in the Midwest. Ohio State, the only school sitting in a talent rich state, might be the only one with the resources to be a consistent national power anymore. Michigan is back in the discussion thanks to its history and proximity to Ohio, but it is too early to tell what the ceiling will be for Brady Hoke’s program.

Regardless of the status of the unbeaten Buckeyes and the rebuilding Wolverines, the rest of the league needn’t be as weak as it has been for the majority of the past seven seasons, and there is unfortunately a lot of uncertainty yet on the immediate horizon across the league.

With or without Bret Bielema, Wisconsin’s days of regular double-digit wins were probably over with Ohio State’s return from NCAA purgatory and Michigan’s return from its self-imposed Rodriguezisation. Darker days may be ahead for Michigan State, too, if it gets more competition for local players it has been getting in the past few years who would have traditionally been more likely to be Buckeyes or Wolverines.

Penn State is in limbo, and Nebraska has some serious soul searching to do, but all is far from lost in Lincoln.

All of those schools – along with Iowa – have the money, fan bases and name brands to be tough outs every year even if they have little chance of being true national contenders.

I think Indiana is moving (slowly) in the right direction with Kevin Wilson, and Purdue could be, too, with newly hired Darrell Hazell.

Illinois should be better based on the population base it’s near and the popularity of football there, but it remains to be seen if they are far from needing yet another reboot.

That Northwestern can be in a bowl and be competitive every year shows anything is possible.

The league just needs coaches (including assistants) who can build and develop stable rosters. That means identifying talent throughout the region and getting it to stay home. Coaching it up wouldn’t hurt, either.

The SEC has done a better job of keeping its best players in the region going to SEC schools than has the Big Ten in the Midwest, and that is a real issue. It includes not only the handful of elite guys who have gone to Texas or Alabama or USC from Ohio but also the next-tier prospects who slip through the cracks and end up as stars in the MAC or the Big East. I respect the coaching being done in those leagues, but there is no reason for a Big Ten team to lose in recruiting to them. The difference in exposure thanks to the disparity of television contracts (and resulting revenue) should provide a major advantage for a coach when he goes into a kid’s living room.

Recruiting is an inexact science, but consider that of the eight players from the Mid-American Conference drafted last season, five were from Big Ten states. Two more were from New Jersey, a contiguous state traditionally recruited by Penn State.

Of the 12 Big East players drafted, half were from Big Ten country. That includes four from the University of Cincinnati who grew up in Big Ten country but not very near the Queen City. The Bearcat program has grown quite nicely in the past decade, but other than hometown pride, what does it offer that betters any Big Ten program? Not every Big East game is even on real television.

It is unlikely many – perhaps any – of those kids turned down Big Ten programs to go to the MAC or Big East, but that hardly absolves anyone. There are always surprise success stories, but the best coaches find and develop them consistently. Danny Hope and Tim Brewster and even Rich Rodriquez might still be in the league if they did a better job of identifying who can help them and offering them rather than letting them end up elsewhere.

Then the league might have more to look forward to next bowl season.