The first game week of the season brings with it the first 2014 edition of my “Cus Words” column at BuckeyeSports.com.
After an eventful offseason that took a surprising turn toward the end, where do the Buckeyes stand heading into the Navy game?
I am curious to see the effects of Urban Meyer’s intense efforts to remake the culture of the program. Although he took responsibility, I think at least some of it is residue from the Jim Tressel era. That’s not to say it is from something Tressel was doing wrong but rather that these two coaches were not necessarily looking for the same attitude in a recruit.
Ohio State did not allow media to watch any part of day two of preseason football practice, but the school published a YouTube video of highlights.
Because this is the Internet and pixels cost little compared to ink and paper, here are about 30 seconds worth of takeaways from two minutes of clips:
Braxton Miller can still throw, and Devin Smith can still make one-handed catches.
Cardale Jones can throw interceptions. Related: fellow Cleveland Glenville alum Marshon Lattimore can catch interceptions. Lattimore is a youngster to keep an eye on defensively.
Also making an appearance: Super talented redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall, a receiver who had his first season wiped out by injury and could be a big-time player for an offense that figures to be somewhat retooled.
Cornerback Gareon Conley, another redshirt freshman the Buckeyes probably could have used something from last season, makes a diving interception on an out pass by Miller.
And in what can only be read as a nod toward Jim Tressel, the video concludes with a punt.
So there you go for now. We’ll be allowed in Wednesday afternoon for day three, so be sure to check back for details here, on Twitter and at BuckeyeSports.com.
While Hilliard’s hop on board highlights one issue of interest in regards to recent recruiting (Ohio State in Cincinnati), Cornell’s commitment has its own significance. The 6-3.5, 270-pounder is in line to be the first player from Minnesota to pick Ohio State since Willie Mobley in 2008 and only the third since 1988 (but probably much longer). When eventual All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis signed with Ohio State in 2005, he was believed to be the first scholarship Buckeye football player from the Land of 1,000 Lakes since the great Sid Gillman in the early 1930s.
Justin Hilliard of Cincinnati St. Xavier is the 11th verbal commitment for Ohio State’s 2015 recruiting class and the second linebacker, joining Nick Connor of Dublin Scioto.
He is the seventh recruit from southwestern Ohio in Urban Meyer’s three-plus years as head coach of the Buckeyes and the third from Cincinnati, joining Adolphus Washington (Taft) and Sam Hubbard (Moeller). That makes a pair of Greater Catholic League pickups for Meyer in as many years with Hubbard having been the top-rated player in the state last year. Continue reading →
So nearly a week has passed since Ohio State lost 34-24 to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game. The end of football season always comes about suddenly – like ejecting from a plane, it brings a floating feeling before landing somewhere that never feels quite as familiar as it should upon returning to ground level. Even though it was predestined to happen this week if not sooner, it still brings a shock to the system.
I like to give life a few days to get back to normal, but then again sometimes I wonder if football season is the norm and the rest is just passing time. What we learned last week: How hollow 24-0 can be, at least when it becomes 24-1.
Forgive me if this seems overly negative, but it is a hard conclusion to avoid when stepping back to assess the situation.
The Buckeyes won all their games for two regular seasons, but they have no national championships or even Big Ten championships to show for it.
Yes, they can claim two of the three Leaders Division titles of all time (I think there’s even a trophy for that), but has anyone ever considered those anything more than consolation prizes?
The past two seasons weren’t all for naught, of course.
When Urban Meyer officially took over in January 2012, Ohio State had lost four consecutive games, after all, and the Buckeyes’ reputation was in a state of disrepair.
Many felt it wouldn’t take a miracle to fix the program, but there was certainly work to do.
Maybe I shouldn’t have led with “Jason Whitlock” because I’m sure he is a divisive figure to some, but he often has an interesting perspective on a variety of sports topics whether you or I agree with him much. This piece on the Wolverines is unique because while Whitlock repeats something he’s never tried to hide – he loves Hoke and they have a personal relationship – he then proceeds to rip apart the state of the current Michigan team.
I agree with his observations about what is wrong with these Wolverines, though you probably won’t be surprised to learn I am far more skeptical about his ability to turn the program around than Whitlock. The author’s main justification is, “He’s Hoke,” which I guess could turn out to be all it takes but isn’t really based on what I’d call facts. Continue reading →
B.B. King brings us the inspiration this week as we examine the state of the Buckeyes following a 35-28 defeat of California last Saturday at Ohio Stadium.
What we learned last week: This Ohio State team is talented, but it is not so good it can relax too often.
This is a lesson that has been building for three weeks, if not longer. The Buckeyes kicked around the Big Ten for the better half of a decade by overwhelming the opposition with talent more than anything else. Yes, discipline and strategy played significant roles, but the overall domination of the league was mostly tied to having better players than the rest of the conference. That was especially true in the “down” years when the talent level probably remained about the same but the majority of the lineup was young and so what the team could do was more limited.
Jim Tressel’s ballclubs were always opportunistic, and while his “win the surest way” strategy grated on some fans, it was undeniably effective when all was said and done.
Things started to catch up with the Buckeyes last season, however, and they have not been much different to start 2012 despite a mostly new coaching staff being in place. This team is still young, and it is learning a completely new scheme on one side of the ball while a combination of new coaches and familiar faces in new roles learn how to operate together on the other.
The early returns have been uneven, but the team is 3-0. Again this has a lot to do with raw talent first and foremost. The Buckeyes were much, much better than Miami (Ohio) and held enough advantages against UCF and California to make enough big plays to hold off their advances.
So Ohio State won, in many respects, in spite of itself. All three of their so-far vanquished foes could still find themselves playing in bowls when the season is over, but none are going to be confused with national title contenders.
Perhaps this is holding the Buckeyes to too high of a standard, but that is the world in which they live as members of a perennial powerhouse program. The fans hold this standard – at times more realistic than others – and to a certain extent, so do the coaches. Ohio State hired a national championship winning coach to do just that again in Columbus, and that is what Urban Meyer no doubt envisioned when he accepted the job.
They are not going to beat every unranked team they play 42-0, but at the same time there is no denying that Ohio State mistakes have had more to do with opponents’ successes so far this season than have outstanding efforts from the visitors.
What we can expect to learn this week: Well, I think this is pretty obvious, but it’s how the Buckeyes evolved after seven more days in Meyer’s football laboratory. Sometimes there is not much more to it than that, especially at the conclusion of four straight home games against inferior competition to start the season.
The upshot of attributing problems to mistakes is they can be fixed. While working to uphold a standard such as the one established through the years in Columbus can be difficult, it has to beat going out on that field and realizing the players just aren’t there to win the game.
We sometimes forget that while having great players is prerequisite for winning, teaching them how to harness their gifts is almost as important. Getting caught up in semantics is easy here, but what we sometimes forget is being physically gifted and being a productive-to-great football player are not mutually exclusive.
There is a small window – only four or five years – in which college coaches get to apply their methods to the talented young men they convince to play for them, and rarely do we truly see a college player fully blossom while he is still a member of the world of academia.
Many of the best stars – particularly those with the higher levels of talent, the ones most highly recruited who will go on to NFL careers of some note – often pass through without doing more than flash some of their gifts in college. The unique challenge is to get enough of them to channel their energy and still-budding knowledge consistently enough to win more games than everyone else.
The balancing act never ends, and sometimes its success is still determined by a fortunate bounce here or there.
Woody Hayes said luck is often the result of hard work, and that rings as true now as it did when he was stalking the Ohio Stadium sidelines more than three decades ago. But Woody had better players than just about everyone else, too. He didn’t have them learning as many ways to do things on the field as this coaching staff did, and that turned out to be both for better and for worse. The limited strategies Hayes put in place made for great efficiency and did not allow for many errors, but they also limited his team’s successes when they went west for the Rose Bowl. We will never know if his basic approach had a greater impact on the every-day success or the postseason struggles (and I tend to think it was the former), but I know there are some who feel Hayes’ hall of fame career could have been even better if he had branched out more from his off-tackle power offense. (He did evolve over the years, adding the I-formation to his beloved T, but at its heart the Buckeyes always more ground and pound than anything else.)
Tressel faced many of the same questions, but the world of college football is much different in the 21st century. The talent is more evenly distributed even though a clear distinction remains between the haves and the have-nots. The former group is not quite so strong – certainly not as deep – and the latter are peppered with a few more dangerous weapons, so there is more parity and less margin for error. The margin still exists, though. Tressel often lived in the margin, and for the past two weeks one could argue Urban Meyer has, too.
Tressel and his staff never lacked ideas, but they struggled in their application at times. Now we are seeing early in the Meyer era the challenge of applying a different set of plans aimed at achieving mostly the same goals, but beyond that the greater question is whether or not a great enough percentage of this team will grow up enough to do what the coaches ask without so many lapses in concentration and judgement along the way.
The next chance to fine-tune the attack on both sides of the ball comes this week against what will surely be an overmatched bunch of Blazers from UAB. Then it is time for the conference slate to begin, at which point the fallout from mistakes figures to grow much larger.
Thoughts on the rest of the Big Ten: I didn’t think it would come this early in the season, but it’s time to give up the league for dead in 2012. There should be better days ahead, but exhibition season is on in the Midwest.
So far the main culprit is a lack of quality production in the trenches. Michigan State and Wisconsin (of all programs) can’t block anyone right now while Michigan is soft inside on defense, and they have all paid the price already.
Nebraska has not been bad up front on offense, but the Cornhuskers depend more on scheme and guile than pure ability there. Talent in the back seven on defense is the biggest question for the league’s newest member, which is a little bit interesting given some of the criticism the Big Ten has faced in the past decade or so about its speed or lack thereof.
The conference race starts next week, and it has all the makings of a wild one despite the hits that have come on the national stage.
The weekly “Cus Words” column returns with a Zeppelin song to kick things off as the Buckeyes look toward facing Miami University in Urban Meyer’s first game as head coach of his home state’s flagship university.
What we learned last week:Change has a way of highlighting all kinds of good and bad things about a situation. It also changes the perception, swinging some things from one category to the other.
The offseason was certainly the most fascinating I have been a part of covering college football as the new Ohio State staff learned what to make of their new faces and put the players through their paces.
I could try to sum up the last eight months in a tidy little package, but I’m not sure that’s possible. Besides, I’m sure you’re as ready to look forward to an actual game sason as I am, so let’s just get on with it, shall we?
What we can expect to learn this week: How someone else constructs a game plan, and how Urban Meyer adjusts to his personnel.
As I wrote last week, the spread offense has arrived at Ohio State in an advanced form, and Buckeye fans should realize that and be grateful.
One thing that often struck me when studying and reading/hearing people talk about various types of spread over the years was that many of the “early adopters” of the offense were pretty much predisposed to think they couldn’t win at the line of scrimmage so there was no point in even trying.
That is definitely not the point of view of Meyer and co-offensive coordinators Tom Herman and Ed Warinner, although I think they are completely against doing anything when outnumbered. When in doubt, they would rather have space to work with than anything else. That’s why they are always in the spread instead of switching back and forth like the old staff here.
Some spreads don’t give you any more to think about at one time than does a double-tight I team, but that is not the case with Meyer.
Jim Tressel, Jim Bollman, et al were very clear they saw the pros and cons of spread and “tight” football, and they had a playbook that had enough stuff in it to give teams a lot to think about and prepare for, but they weren’t very good at balancing those things from week to week. The result was their plans could be read pretty easily.
The way defenses generally align against each look, tight formations can actually produce more big plays, but spreads tend to be able to create more consistent short and medium gains. It’s not always bad to face a loaded box if you have the ability to take advantage of it.
If the I-formation were a person, I would kind of feel bad for it based on the way Tressel and his staff sometimes treated it. I can’t blame anyone who came to the conclusion it was a dinosaur of a formation because they often only used it in prehistoric ways. If they were in the I, it was going to be a power run, an iso handoff, or a drop-back pass. Sprintouts and bootlegs were mysteriously rare, even with athletic quarterbacks such as Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor.
Other Big Ten teams like Iowa and Penn State were often more creative within the realm of the I-formation and its close cousins because they lived more exclusively in that world.
Ohio State, on the other hand, would flip flop between the I and shotgun sets with three (rarely more) wide receivers in both passing situations and when it wanted to free up some room for the quarterback to run.
I always found that a bit curious because Dick Tressel himself said once that a quarterback can be more dangerous as a runner if he begins the play under center. Why? The defense is generally more mindful of him keeping the ball if he is in the shotgun. They never really used that to their advantage despite that stated opinion.
Their version of the shotgun was not really tricked out, either, but it was a little more versatile than their pro sets.
All in all, the entire deal was just strange because they would show off just about every play anybody involved with football ever dreamed up (not only in practice but also in games), yet there rarely was much cohesion with how everything was used. (I did not intend to go off on a long screed about the past decade at Ohio State, but it doesn’t hurt to relive some parts of it as we look toward the future.)
I’d say pretty much everyone expects an upgrade in the offense with Meyer’s attack in place and Herman calling the plays. Though the I-formation will probably be seen only rarely, if ever, the staff insists there will be no loss of physicality.
The commitment to the shotgun spread (which does nothing more than promise the quarterback won’t be under center and at least three guys won’t be attached to the five offensive linemen) figures to bring with it the opportunity to more easily package plays.
That in and of itself should make the offense a little less predictable, but I also am convinced pretty much every fanbase suffers from the thought that it can tell what is coming from its coaches on a regular basis, so predictability can be a bit overrated at times. (Guess run or pass and you’ve got at least a 50/50 chance of getting it right, yeah?)
First, that whole idea about predictability being overrated probably has merit, and even diversified schemes can fall back on safe choices at times.
I have often wondered since Meyer took over here if the unique state of the offensive personnel – several big backs, a quicksilver quarterback and some long-striding wide receivers – could actually serve to force him and his staff to learn more about how their offense works than if he just had a couple of guys to rely on play in and play out.
He clearly wants the latter as he has talked endlessly about looking for another Harvin (of course this is fed by his being asked about it regularly, too) even as he salivates at the possibilities Braxton Miller presents. Meyer also one day acknowledged Harvin-type guys are few and far between, so I wonder how often he’ll ever even have one at all. That would make learning to adjust that much more important.
However it all shakes out, this should be a fascinating year.
Meyer not only brings a new offense but also many new ways to run a program. Regardless of the effectiveness of the old ones – Tressel’s teams almost always got better as the season went on, and I think he really did make an extreme effort to bring in high quality people for his team and staff – Meyer’s ways of cultivating a locker room culture are really interesting. Clearly, they are not for everyone, but I have talked to plenty of people who really respect the ideas he has with treating players like adults while understanding they are kids who make mistakes. It can be a fine line, and there will be those who fail to see the nuances and write him off as playing favorites, but I think overall it’s a good strategy for this day and age.
Tressel was very conscious of dealing with the modern athlete. He commented often about how kids these days are more interested in knowing why they are doing something as opposed to simply following orders. I think that’s a change that has been going on for decades, but he gave the impression he felt things weren’t the same even since he took over at Ohio State. I think ultimately he gambled and lost with who he brought in towards the end, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Meyer is here having gone through his own ups and downs. The scars are there for everyone to see, but now he has a new set of challenges.
Tressel had already reinvented his program a couple of times, as any good coach has to do if he is around for three decades. This is really the first time Meyer has had to do that, and that makes it even more interesting to see how this whole Ohio State experiment works out.
It’s not just a new place. It’s home. It’s where he was forged, where he came from. There are feelings involved that you can’t just find anywhere. He also comes from a scary place not that long ago, something that surely colors his approach to this redux.
When we have talked to him in preparation for this season, he definitely looks like someone ready to get back to football.
But there is a tangible reason why Ohio State’s influence matters in Cincinnati, and it relates to football recruiting.
In that realm, there can be no debate that Cincinnati takes a backseat to Cleveland when it comes to producing future Buckeyes, at least in the past 10 or so years.
Jim Tressel is a native of the Cleveland area with extensive ties throughout northeastern Ohio (although he was an assistant at Miami University for two years), and he leaned heavily on those while recruiting at Ohio State.
From 2002 (his first full year on the recruiting trail) through 2011 (his last), he offered roughly as many players from one school in Cleveland (Glenville) as he did the entire greater Cincinnati area. Continue reading →