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April 17, 2013
Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Four days after Ohio State's spring practice season came to an end in Cincinnati with the Buckeyes' annual spring game, members of the team's coaching staff met with the media to provide an update on their respective position groups. Ohio State may be four months away from the start of its second fall camp, but optimism for Urban Meyer's second season as the head in Columbus looms large inside of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
Looking for leaders
The Buckeyes are returning a combined 13 starters on offense and defense alone from last season's undefeated team, but that doesn't make the voids left in the OSU lineup any easier to fill. Defensively, the Buckeyes will not only attempt to replace seven starters, but the leadership that was lost with the departure of seniors John Simon, Zach Boren, and Etienne Sabino.
"We try to do that each day in our meetings. We try to talk about things that are going to help them become better leaders," defensive line coach Mike Vrabel said. "To me, leadership is about being consistent in your message and commandment to other players."
Offensively, the Buckeyes are relying on quarterback Braxton Miller to step up as one of the team's primary leaders. Meyer has stated that his signal-caller's growth in that area has been dramatic, something which wide receivers coach Zach Smith confirmed on Wednesday.
"He's a different kid and player and person on the field. I think that position innately draws players to follow. They're the focal point of the offense. As the quarterback goes, the offense goes," Smith said. "Not only that, but Braxton has those qualities that make people gravitate to him. He's always had that ability, now what we've seen this spring is that he's more functional and more effective at doing it the way we need him to do it."
Fighting for the right (tackle position)
Perhaps the biggest question for the Buckeyes leaving fall camp is that of who will replace Reid Fragel at the team's right tackle position. Sophomores Taylor Decker and Chase Farris battled all spring for the spot, but Meyer declined to name either the definitive starter at the position.
"We have guys there that will do a fine job and they're coming along," offensive line coach Ed Warinner said. "I think what coach is trying to say is that there's no, 'This is the guy, clearcut, your starter.'"
At this point, Warinner said that while not the starter, Decker currently holds the edge over the converted defensive lineman heading into fall camp.
"I like everything about him in terms of what his upside is and his ability and his mindset," Warinner said of Decker. "He just needs experience and consistency. Those are the two things."
Widening their options
A position group that came under much scrutiny a season ago, the Ohio State wide receivers appear to have taken great strides over the past 12 months. Now looking to add depth, Smith has been pleased with the development of senior Chris Fields, who Meyer named as one of the team's starters following the spring game.
"Chris is a guy that really was not as good as he could be the last 12 months. Coming out of last season, he saw the writing on the wall that it was his last year," Smith said. "He was always talented enough to play here, and there was just a different level of commitment by him both in learning the offense, understanding the offense, and developing himself fundamentally as a wide receiver. He did a great job this spring."
Another player who the Buckeyes are counting on to add depth behind Fields, Corey Brown, and Devin Smith is sophomore-to-be Michael Thomas, who led the team in catches with seven in the spring game, but still has a way to go before becoming a regular contributor.
"Michael Thomas is still developing. He's still a young kid," Smith said. "He shows flashes of his ability and flashes of improvement, but he's not where he needs to be yet ... it's on him and me and really the leaders on offense to get him where we need him and where he should be."
Depth at D-line
For the first time in 28 years, the Buckeyes will be replacing all four of their starters across the defensive line, although after the spring game, that adjustment seems to be going just fine. Sophomore defensive ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington tallied seven combined sacks in Saturday's exhibition, and what's scarier is that their position coach said that they performed even better in closed scrimmages this spring.
"I don't think they're putting a whole lot of stock in that spring game," Vrabel said. "Throughout the scrimmages and Saturdays, they were productive and that's what most of their grade in my evaluation came on."
Another player who Vrabel said has developed this spring is nose guard Chris Carter. A converted offensive lineman, the 341-pounder hasn't contributed yet in his Ohio State career, but Vrabel said that he's noticed a recent improvement in Carter's play.
"Chris Carter, the last two weeks, looked like a nose guard. He looked like a legitimate force inside," Vrabel said. "He's somebody who we're going to have to continue to coach and continue to push to give his full potential."
After going undefeated in 2012, expectations could not be higher for the Buckeyes heading into the upcoming season. Co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell said that success can be a double-edged sword, but that last season could pay dividends for this year's squad.
"When good things happen, it's easier for people to believe in them. It's just like seeing. When you see something, it's a little bit easier to believe in it," Fickell said. "That may be the best thing for all of us. For the strength program, for us as coaches. It's a different way of doing things when guys see, well obviously it worked, so they don't question it as much."
Having helped coach successful teams at Florida with Meyer, Smith has seen first-hand the effect that success can have a program, and said whether it's used for better or worse this year will depend on how Ohio State replaces its lost leadership.
"A lot of the time, a class leaves that really built the foundation for that success, and everyone else thinks, 'Oh, that wasn't that hard.' They don't realize what went into it," Smith said. "Adversity or failure, it's not easy to deal with either depending the mentality and maturity of your team."