COLUMBUS, Ohio — The first day of full-squad training camp Monday allowed Urban Meyer his first chance to have the whole 2012 Ohio State football team together.
For Meyer, it wasn’t just about his own return or his shiny new toys and their shiny silver helmets. It was about what his toy collection might look like a Christmas — er, Signing Day — or two from now.
To observe Ohio State’s practice, even from afar and even without full pads, is to notice that more than a handful of players with “freshman” listed next to their names on the team roster look more like second-year NFL players than guys who just walked the stage at high school graduation eight weeks ago.
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Meyer recruits well and promises nothing but opportunity. A few members of this highly-touted freshman class — seven players were Scout.com top 100 prospects — were on campus for spring football, but the bulk of the class has been here just a few weeks.
And this class has bulk. And muscle. And gifts.
“The best players are going to play,” Meyer said. “There will be some freshmen (on the field). From what I’ve seen so far there will be a bunch — maybe not a bunch, but a good chunk of freshmen playing that first game.”
Opportunity. And a challenge.
Let’s be clear: Bowl ban or no bowl ban, Meyer very much wants to win early and win big this season. But his grand vision includes the Big Ten Championship Game, the Rose Bowl and the new four-team playoff system that will replace the current BCS National Championship Game in 2014.
Thanks to NCAA sanctions, this year’s Buckeyes can’t play in any of those. But they can lay a foundation.
When Meyer watches Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Se’Von Pittman, just to name a few, he can realistically think about where this freshman class might one day go. Though he pointed out the Buckeyes “are just in shorts, so we’ll see what he can do,” he specifically mentioned Spence as a player who could fit in a hybrid defensive end/linebacker role.
He’s said many times that he’s building an SEC-type defensive line in Columbus. He has a pretty good start this year with senior John Simon and junior tackle Johnathan Hankins around to show the young guys the ropes. The young guys — a group that would also include sophomores Michael Bennett and Steve Miller — command attention and have obvious physical gifts. The ceiling is high.
These are the infant stages of Meyer’s whole grand vision. He’s installing a new offense, hoping a sophomore quarterback can grasp it and hoping players step up at just about every position. There’s always both hope and risk involved with playing freshmen; even the flashiest of five-star recruits will get served some humble pie sometime early in his college career.
How he responds will tell Meyer a lot. How quickly Meyer can get this Ohio State program where he really wants it to go might depend on this freshman class.
Running back Bri’onte Dunn, who had a legal issue in his hometown last week, is at least temporarily back in his head coach’s good graces. Fellow back Warren Ball looks the part, too. All of the freshmen are currently playing with third-team units. All of them are dealing with their position coaches, new terminology and the college game for the first time.
“It’s mental,” Meyer said. “In some phases we don’t have a whole lot of deep thinking involved. It’s Point A to Point B.
“(If) you say that to (freshman linebacker) Jamal Marcus, he doesn’t know which way up is right now but he knows Point A to Point B. He’ll run over anything in his way to get to point B. If we get the chance, we’ll find a a way to get him on the field.
“It’s more right now giving physical, relentless effort, Point A to Point B. You can’t learn the whole defense right now. It’s bit and pieces and we’re not going to waste time with guys who won’t play. We’re going to identify Point A to Point B right now.”
Due to the summer academic quarter still being in session, the Buckeyes had to split their first official camp practice last Friday — upperclassmen in the morning, freshmen in the afternoon — and have to practice in the afternoon early this week while the players take finals. Speaking on those Friday practices, Meyer said the “varsity” went first and the freshmen went longer because they have a lot to learn, starting with just how to keep up and keep themselves safe in practice.
“We teach them how to get taped, teach them to stretch… teach them how to do everything,” he said.
It won’t be long.
Judging by the earliest of impressions, it will be a process that’s awfully fun to watch.