Ohio State coach Urban Meyer believed last year’s team would need every motivational ploy he could muster, figuring a rough patch was inevitable since the Buckeyes didn’t have the incentive of competing for a Big Ten title or playing in the postseason.
But he never had to challenge his players to dig deeper because their effort never lagged.
“We didn’t have that conversation one time, which is mind-boggling,” the coach said at the Big Ten media kickoff here. “I had (a speech) all ready. I spent all summer thinking about what to do when it hits and we lose a game and some situation shows up. But our players became so competitive during that run last year, it never came up.
“But I’ve been at this for a while now, and I’m more concerned about this year in keeping the eye on the target. I’ve experienced that a few times. It’s hard to keep them locked in.”
Meyer has come up with a slogan for this year’s team called, “The Chase.” And he put those words on a large banner in the corner of the indoor practice facility, strategically placing it in an area that houses weight-lifting equipment and other stamina-building machinery.
His message: Chasing dreams takes extra work.
“That all started with us losing 15 bowl practices (because of the bowl ban). We had to make them up,” Meyer said. “NCAA rules say we’re not allowed to go past certain hours. A lot of that has to be done on their own.
“I’m proud to tell you as we’re starting fall practice, in my mind, we’re all caught up. … The chase is right on schedule.”
Meyer knows the expectations are high this season after a 12-0 record last year with a lean roster. Many are predicting a national title game featuring OSU and Alabama, and even Meyer said, “I think we could potentially be a championship-level team by November.”
That outlook could dampen if running back Carlos Hyde’s legal troubles escalate, but the Buckeyes still would have plenty of firepower.
“On offense, we return a bunch of experience, including one of the best quarterbacks in America, Braxton Miller,” Meyer said. “He has really grown as a quarterback, has grown as a leader. He’s a very humble young man that I have a lot of respect for.
“It would be disappointing if our offensive line isn’t one of the best in the Big Ten. I think there’s some very good offensive lines in the Big Ten, and Ohio State should be right near the top with those other great lines. Receiver is probably the one area we were weakest at last year, and I think this year, with the injection of some speed in the recruiting class and also development of the guys we have, I’m really counting on them to become one of the strengths of our offense.
“The two guys that really developed throughout last year are two very good tight ends in (Jeff) Heuerman and (Nick) Vannett. We’ve not traditionally been known as a two-tight end offense, but we have to find a way to get them on the field at the same time. We have depth at tailback, and offensively I feel very strong about where we could be if we have a solid training camp.”
The Buckeyes led the Big Ten in scoring last season with a 37.2 average, but their defense was sixth in the conference, allowing 22.8 points per game.
They return only one player from their front seven, all-conference linebacker Ryan Shazier. But sophomore defensive ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, both five-star recruits in the 2012 class, are budding stars.
“If they continue to develop, they will become All-Big Ten candidate players as they continue in their journey and their career,” Meyer said. “Inside, you have Mike Bennett and Joel Hale, two guys that have talent and have really come on. And we’ll try to get a little bit of a rotation in there, which you need to have for a quality defensive line.
“At linebacker, Curtis Grant has taken over. He was a little bit disappointing last year, but he’s become a leader like you need your mike linebacker to be, and he performed really well in spring practice. Ryan Shazier was very average as we started the season and became one of the best linebackers in the country as the season concluded. So, I’m very positive about that. But we don’t have much depth, and we’ll have to count on some freshmen to provide some instant depth at that spot.”
But Meyer knows the foundation for a special season comes from the intangibles, not just the material, and that’s something last year’s team had in abundance.
“That’s going to be the difference,” he said. “The older I get and the better teams I’ve been around over this last decade of football, the one comment you hear is it wasn’t the style of offense, it wasn’t the style of defense, it wasn’t the height, weight, size, how high you jump, how fast you run. It’s the leadership within the program.
“Our quarterback has to become that great leader. I think he was OK last year by the time the season started winding down. But our offensive line is, without question, the heart and soul of our team. Jack Mewhort, (Andrew) Norwell, (Marcus) Hall and Corey Linsley and those guys are strong leaders. They’re the voice. They’re the face of our program. If you’re going to start somewhere, it’s got to be a quarterback and your offensive line.”