Meyer era begins, bringing plenty of change

Late last fall, Urban Meyer was looked on as the only guy on the planet who could come in, clean up the mess left over from the NCAA scandal and the firing of former head coach Jim Tressel, and put the Buckeyes’ house back in order immediately.

A little over three months later, there’s a new environment, a new way of doing business and a new framework for building championship teams in Columbus. As Meyer leads the Buckeyes into spring practice, it is abundantly clear there is a new sheriff in town.

Meyer, who turned around a sad sack program at Bowling Green, led Utah to an undefeated season and a BCS bowl win, then took Florida to two national championships in a three-year span, will use the spring workouts to fully implement his plan for the Buckeyes.

The Ohio native was the only candidate interviewed by the Ohio State search committee, so his mandate is clear. Meyer had most of his staff assembled before the Buckeyes lost to Florida in the Gator Bowl in early January, and quickly asserted his leadership over the winter months. He wanted the Buckeyes to look different when the end of March arrived and spring ball began.

“We take great pride in our offseason program, and in our very strong opinion, championships are won in the offseason,” Meyer said. “We had a very good offseason. The team looks a lot different to me, especially the offensive line. I was very disappointed in some of the body types that were here, and a lot of those bodies have changed.”

Now that he finally has his team on the practice field, it is time for Meyer and his staff to start putting his spread offense in place.

Woody Hayes should probably look the other way, because many traditional Ohio State fans that were raised on “three yards and a cloud of dust” might not recognize Meyer’s creative approach.

Certainly, 2011 Big Ten freshman of the year quarterback Braxton Miller is at the controls as he preps for his sophomore year, but Meyer wants to see extensive competition across the lineup. He wants all position battles resolved by the time the Buckeyes conclude their spring workouts.

“I made it clear to the players that by the time we hit fall camp, the spots are done. It’s game over,” Meyer said. “Sure, some things will happen to the depth chart, but the two-deep will be set after spring practice. This is development time now. Once you get to August, we’re all about trying to find a way to win a game.”

On defense, a lot of those position questions should be answered fairly quickly, since a talented group returns with pretty well-defined roles. On the offensive side things are a bit foggier, with the running back and wide receiver posts considered wide open for competition.

Meyer will also spend the spring sorting through the Buckeyes and finding his team’s leadership. He has made that a priority, and set some tough criteria.

“We’re looking for leadership by doing, by work ethic, by leading,” Meyer said. “I’m not interested in a bunch of group hugs or team meetings. I really want to see guys lead by not losing. You want to be a great leader, then go win.”

Herman should create more dynamic offense

–The oft-repeated complaint under previous head coach Jim Tressel was directed at his conservative and unimaginative offensive approach. New Ohio State coach Urban Meyer brought Tom Herman in to serve as offensive coordinator and transform the Buckeyes into something dynamic and explosive on offense. Herman performed that kind of magic at Iowa State and at Rice. Herman’s Iowa State offense averaged 181.2 rushing yards and 211.7 passing yards per game. Meyer is looking for that kind of balance and dual impact from the Buckeyes.

— Ohio State is reloading as spring ball gets underway. Nine of the blue chip recruits that Meyer brought to Columbus in his first class were already on campus and fully integrated into the Buckeyes’ system when spring practice opened. Included in that group are explosive RB Bri’onte Dunn and stud DL Se’Von Pittman.

KEY QUESTIONS: Coach Urban Meyer’s spread offense demands top notch talent at the skill positions, and due to the Buckeyes’ lack of experience at wide receiver and the fact there is no clear-cut dominant running back, the new Ohio State coach will spend the spring finding the stars to make the spread go. “No question, it’s the offensive skill positions,” Meyer said about the biggest uncertainty facing his developing team. “I don’t know who is going to catch a pass. There’s no track record. I don’t know who is going to carry the ball. Who is going to touch the ball? I don’t know. I can’t tell you who is going to touch it.”

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

DL John Simon — There were times last season when Simon simply could not be blocked. He was a third-team All-American and could have jumped to the NFL, but Simon chose to stay and finish his career under Urban Meyer. Simon led the Buckeyes with seven sacks and 15 tackles for loss last season. He should have a huge impact as a disruptive factor on the line in 2012.

QB Braxton Miller — Last season’s Big Ten freshman of the year should flourish in Meyer’s spread offense. Miller started 10 games last year, throwing for 1,159 yards with a freshman school-record 13 touchdowns. He completed 54.1 percent of his passes (85 of 157) with just four interceptions. Miller also led the Buckeyes in rushing with 715 yards and seven touchdowns. In the spread, Miller’s numbers should explode.

RB Rod Smith — As the battle for the starting job commences, Smith ranks third behind Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde, but he has been regarded as a huge under-achiever since he arrived in Columbus. If Meyer can get Smith to perform to his potential, the Ohio State offense just might have the big, speedy back it can feature.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “As intense as the offseason conditioning drills have been, the spring drills will be even more intense. There is no on-off switch. Everyone will be going full-go, every play. It is going to be a physical spring with everyone putting everything on the line.” — senior FB Zach Boren.

Strategy And Personnel

2012 OUTLOOK: The Buckeyes have the talent to contend for the Big Ten championship, despite the fact an NCAA postseason ban will prevent them from playing in the Big Ten title game. Coach Urban Meyer should use that as one more motivator to get this team to excel. He was able to land one of the top recruiting classes in the country, and could have a player or two in that group that will help right away. Outside of that, if the Meyer spread is implemented smoothly and he finds ample personnel to man the skill positions at receiver and running back, the Buckeyes could win the Leaders Division and force the league into the embarrassing position of not having its best team in the championship game.

Look for Meyer to utilize the bowl ban to his advantage and march through a historic first season in Columbus behind a great defense and an explosive offense.

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Ohio State offense will start with QB Braxton Miller, and that should make everything else better. Miller is a very effective passer and an absolute nightmare for defenses when he takes off in the open field. As new head coach Urban Meyer installs his spread offense, there are questions at running back and wide receiver, but by the time spring work ends, Meyer should have those answered.

It appears RB Carlos Hyde has the inside track on the starting job, since he combines speed and punch, but it should be a horse race between Hyde, Jordan Hall and Rod Smith. Meyer has a wealth of talent at tight end, led by athletic senior Jake Stoneburner, so that asset will help make up for any shortcomings on the outside. FB Zach Boren is a punishing blocker and an adept pass catcher out of the backfield. The line is more than sound and developing depth, led by the versatile junior Jack Mewhort, who has played all three positions and looks headed for a couple seasons of all-Big Ten honors.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Buckeyes should be nasty under defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, who filled in last season as the team’s interim boss and was retained by new OSU head coach Urban Meyer. The front has a couple players that are scary good, with senior DL John Simon returning after an All-American season in 2011, and junior DT Johnathan Hankins ready to be a dominant force. If DE Nathan Williams returns fully healed after missing almost all of 2011 with a knee injury, this could be the Big Ten’s best unit. At linebacker, seniors Storm Klein and Etienne Sabino and sophomore Ryan Shazier form an athletic and experienced group. Sophomore Curtis Grant is a future star. The secondary is solid at the corners where senior Travis Howard and sophomore Bradley Roby return as starters, while senior Orhian Johnson, junior C.J. Barnett and junior Christian Bryant have all started at the safety positions.

Once some depth is developed, the Ohio State defense should fit the historic mold the Buckeyes have established.

SCOUTING THE SPECIAL TEAMS: The Buckeyes return experienced and proven PK Drew Basil and P Ben Buchanan, and dangerous KR Jordan Hall. Look for coach Urban Meyer to take a detailed interest in this group, and not hesitate to shake things up. He has a track record of using his best athletes on the punt block team, and a history of blocking punts with his unit.

TOP NEWCOMERS:

DE Noah Spence — The earth shook around Big Ten land when Urban Meyer picked up Spence, widely-regarded as the best defensive end in the nation. A terror in the pass rush, Spence was the top player in Pennsylvania, an honor bestowed several years ago on now defrocked former Buckeyes QB Terrelle Pryor.

RB Bri’onte Dunn — The Buckeyes like a big back, as the careers of Eddie George, Keith Byars and Beanie Wells demonstrated, and some think the 220-pound Dunn is ready to take his place as the next in that line. He amassed 5,479 rushing yards during his high school career. Power, speed, elusiveness and a high motor give Dunn the right stuff to get a quick early look in the OSU backfield.

DT Tommy Schutt — Ohio State coach Urban Meyer saw the defensive front as the area with the most urgent need on his team, and Schutt is a big body that should start filling that need right away. He was the first recruit to commit to Meyer. Schutt had 33 career sacks and 11 forced fumbles while helping his team make the state playoffs four times.

ROSTER REPORT:

–TE Reid Fragel is expected to move to offensive tackle, and at 6-8 and 280 pounds, he has the frame to fill the role.

–DL Nathan Williams, who injured his knee in the 2011 opener and then missed all of the season, earning a medical redshirt, continues to rehab and will stay out of contact this spring. Williams is expected to be cleared for contact when fall camp begins.

–RB Jaamal Berry has left the program following a series of legal issues that included various charges and a civil suit that charged him with assault, battery and ethnic intimidation. He is expected to transfer.

–WR Verlon Reed, who started the first five games of 2011 and then missed the remainder of the season with a knee injury, is expected to be back in the mix in 2012.

–DB DerJuan Gambrell was dismissed from the team by new coach Urban Meyer following Gambrell’s arrest on assault charges.

–DB Dominic Clarke was dismissed from the team by head coach Urban Meyer after Clarke was arrested and charged with drunken driving.