The Buckeyes hope former 5-star Vonn Bell (#11), a sophomore, is an upgrade at safety.
While we're busy poring over every morsel of news coming out of Michigan's fall camp, the rest of the country is hard at work as well, and that includes our rivals in Columbus. To get a gauge on where Ohio State stands just a couple weeks away from their opener against Navy, I chatted with Eleven Warriors senior writer Michael Citro, who was kind enough to answer my questions about the Buckeye D-line hype, the team's biggest question marks, injury concerns, and more. (If you'd like to see 11W's season preview of Michigan, to which I made a few contributions, click here.)
First off, I have to ask—what the hell happened to the defense against Michigan?
Wait, what defense? Was defense played in that game?
Ohio State’s D had been leaky and suspect most of the season, and that only got worse after safety Christian Bryant’s injury at the end of the Wisconsin game. The front four (plus Ryan Shazier) was able to mask it for a while. The problems were systemic—bad communication aggravating an already passive zone concept. Against Michigan it was exacerbated by some poor tackling that we saw early in the season making an unwelcome return. If you let Devin Funchess jump over you, you're not form tackling. (You're welcome for me setting you up to run a gif or photo of it here.)
Along those lines (I assume), what changes do you expect to see on the defense now that Chris Ash is on the staff?
Ash, along with Meyer and Fickell, have instituted a more aggressive system with a philosophy of challenging every throw. You’ll see the cornerbacks pressing more as a result. Also, for no reason known to man, the cornerbacks and safeties met separately under the Everett Withers co-defensive coordinatorship. That has been changed and Kerry Coombs’ corners are meeting with Ash’s safeties and the entire defense is supposedly on the same page now. I’m optimistic, but we’ll see. I'm excited to see more Vonn Bell this year.
Do you think the defensive line will live up to the hype? There's obviously oodles of talent and pass-rushing ability, but they seemed to struggle a little against the run, something the advanced metrics indicate as well.
The defensive line should be very good, especially when Noah Spence returns from his suspension—and the players should stay fresher with the Larry Johnson Sr. plan of rotating more bodies into the game. The group is deep enough to handle a lot more rotating now and the players seem to be buying into the philosophy. Guys like Tyquan Lewis and Rashad Frazier (a Purdue transfer) are demanding playing time with their performances. Ohio State didn't handle broken play runs well in the latter stages of the season. I haven’t checked the metrics, but aside from Michigan State, it didn't seem like opposing tailbacks were that much of an issue. Nimble quarterbacks were much more of a problem and the linebackers were also pretty culpable there.
[Hit THE JUMP to learn about OSU's current injury situation, surprisingly shaky O-line outlook, which players they expect to break out this year, and more.]
Are there any injuries that could affect the team in the fall?
It remains to be seen. Braxton Miller has reported some shoulder soreness early in camp and if that lingers, it could be a major issue. Ezekiel Elliott, the presumed starting tailback, recently had a pin inserted to repair a broken wrist, and, although he says he’ll play against Navy, it’s never good for a running back to be one-handed. Those are the ones causing the most concern right now. Depth has suffered a bit with a season ending ACL injury to freshman linebacker Kyle Berger and freshman defensive end Dylan Thompson broke a kneecap. Both will ride the redshirt train.
Who are the leading candidates to start on the offensive line? Do you expect a concrete lineup or is there a chance we'll see some shuffling in the early going?
Right now the line appears to be (L-R) Taylor Decker, Antonio Underwood, Jacoby Boren, Pat Elflein, and Darryl Baldwin. Meyer has expressed concern with left guard. Underwood, a junior, is getting competition there from Billy Price and Joel Hale—both converted defensive linemen. That sounds bad, but I thought Price played pretty well in the spring game at center. Decker and Elflein are pretty much locked in and Baldwin isn't getting much of a challenge thus far.
Chad Lindsay is pushing Boren at center [ed-Ace: aaaarrgghhh], and Price is also in the mix. I think we’ll see a set line to start the season but there may be adjustments down the line if they don’t perform, and I’m not counting out true freshmen Jamarco Jones or Demetrius Knox. [Co-OC/OL coach] Ed Warinner has worked miracles with his position group before, notably turning tight end Reid Fragel into an NFL-caliber lineman. He did OK playing Decker as a freshman (once we got past Buffalo's Khalil Mack). We’re hoping his magic touch holds.
RB Ezekiel Elliott put up impressive freshman numbers in 2013, though largely against the Florida A&M-types on the schedule [Photo: Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch]
Which skill position players look poised to step into much larger roles in 2014? Is Dontre Wilson enough of a receiver to make a Harvin-like impact?
Wilson is an amazing athlete and the staff seems impressed with his off-season work. He’ll slide into that Philly Brown role, which will primarily mean getting him the ball on the move with short passes, plus some runs and reverses. If defenders play him tight, he’ll run right past them.
Elliott is the other obvious answer here. He’s a physical runner who is a much bigger home run threat than Carlos Hyde was. He’s not a Sherman tank in shoulder pads like Hyde, but we may not see a post-Hyde drop in production between the tackles if the O-line jells, and that’s saying something. Also look out for newcomer Curtis Samuel. He’s faster than Wilson, the coaches are raving about him, and he’ll get on the field at some point.
Which freshmen are expected to see the field?
In addition to the aforementioned Samuel, I expect to see one of the linemen at some point—Jamarco Jones or Knox are the likely candidates. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Johnnie Dixon on the field at wide receiver and five-star linebacker Raekwon McMillan has been as advertised so far. Meyer was so taken with Dixon and McMillan that he allowed them to practice with the veterans right off the bat—something the other frosh didn’t get to do.
Is the secondary the biggest area for concern again? If so, are there any other position groups that look at all worrisome?
Until we see that Chris Ash (and the players) have fixed the problem, I’d say the secondary is the primary concern. Another area that was just as culpable a year ago was linebacker, although it was masked by Shazier’s insane playmaking ability. Josh Perry, Curtis Grant and Darron Lee are tasked with playing as a unit, rather than individuals this season. And any time you graduate four linemen from one of the nation’s best offensive lines, you have to be concerned about protecting your franchise quarterback. And just because it’s our way, we’re worried about the receivers too.
Thank you to Michael for taking the time to do this Q&A. You can read his work at Eleven Warriors and follow him on Twitter here.