COLUMBUS — I’ve got good news for Ohio State fans! The Buckeyes have depth in their running game. Nothing new there, right?
Bad news: every other offensive position needs work. And don’t take my word for it — take Urban Meyer’s word.
“We know we can run at quarterback,” Meyer said after Ohio State’s Spring Game last Saturday. “We didn’t run it (by design) one time today. What we don’t know — and, unfortunately, even after the Spring Game, I still don’t know — is if we can throw the ball.”
Whether it was the depleted offensive line, young and inexperienced receivers, or quarterbacks with mediocre passing skills, Ohio State’s offense last season was nothing to get fans jumping. It is directly reflected in the Buckeyes’ 2011 6-7 record — their worst record since 1999.
Though the defense looked inconsistent at times last Saturday, Meyer said after the Spring Game that Ohio State will be back to its previous standards of defensive success next season. And when you take in to consideration that the likes of Curtis Grant, Storm Klein, Etienne Sabino, and John Simon were either on the bench or limited in the Spring Game, there’s every reason to believe the defense will be fine.
The concern is the offense.
Braxton Miller’s passing abilities improved in spring practice. That much was noticeable in the game. Kenny Guiton looks like a solid backup quarterback and continued his Spring Game success, though he’s still the clear backup. The receivers didn’t look that bad, either.
But Miller and Guiton both threw one interception each and were sacked a combined nine times. Only one of the four touchdowns scored in the game came through the air. And there were several dropped or nearly completed passes in the game.
There is work yet to be done.
“If you can’t be balanced (on offense), you won’t win,” Meyer said.
To give the offense its credit, Ohio State has only been utilizing Meyer’s spread offense since January (after the Buckeyes lackluster offensive performance in a 24-17 loss to Florida in the Gator Bowl). And with the completion of spring practice, its played the system on the field only 15 times.
Miller himself said there was a big learning curve with learning the spread.
“The first spring practice was kind of tough for everybody, trying to learn the plays and trying to get the pace down,” Miller said. “We’re feeling pretty good right now… It’s just a different type of offense. You’ve got to get the plays in quick and keep it running… It’s just like (what I ran) in high school at Wayne.”
Miller went 24-for-31 in passing on the day for 258 yards. While he was efficient with those numbers, Meyer’s evaluation of Miller’s performance was mixed after the game. In particular, Meyer pointed to Miller’s throwing accuracy as the biggest item that needs improvement.
“I’ve just got to keep working,” Miller said.
Another group that needs to keep working is the offensive line. Meyer lauded the progress the line made in spring practice, but had criticism for it as well.
“You lost three starters (from last season) that are going to be NFL players,” Meyer said. “… And that was off a group that was not very productive a year ago. So, that kind of tells you where we’re at.”
Jack Mewhort, who Meyer has tabbed as Ohio State’s most consistent lineman, agreed that the line has to improve before the season.
“Coach Meyer keeps saying that we have to have a huge offseason,” Mewhort said. “We’ve got to keep doing the things we need to keep doing to come in at fall and win a lot of games. This is a hard-working group.”
Mewhort attributed some of the line’s improvement to the new conditioning program initiated by Mickey Marotti. Mewhort said that the line lost over 450 pounds of fat during the winter. And that’s a good thing, if they’re going to be protecting a spread offense.
“There’s a huge emphasis on our pass protection,” Mewhort said. “If we protect, Braxton’s going to make a play, whether it’s him rolling out or sitting back (in the pocket). He will make plays if the offensive line blocks.”
And then there’s the area that needs the most working: the receiving corps.
Ohio State struggled to find a consistent receiver last year and threw the ball to a total of 15 different players. Both of Ohio State’s leading receivers — receiver Corey “Philly” Brown and tight end Jake Stoneburner — return. But both had just 14 catches each in 12 games last season.
The far and away star at receiver in the Spring Game was true freshman Michael Thomas. Thomas, who spent last year at Fort Union Military Academy in Virginia before enrolling at Ohio State in January, caught 12 passes for 131 yards.
“He’s very talented,” Meyer said. “… He’s a kid that’s non-stop working. He’s our most dedicated receiver right now as a true freshman. I’m not surprised he had that kind of day today.”
Brown didn’t do bad at all, as he caught 7 passes for 90 yards playing on Gution’s Gray team. Chris Fields (5 receptions, 72 yards), Nick Vannett (4, 38) and Devin Smith (2, 40) all had their moments as well. But there’s still plenty of work to be done.
Meyer described Thomas as Ohio State’s most dedicated receiver at the current time. What does that say about the rest of the corps — is it that not dedicated with need for improvement, or is Thomas just that dedicated? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle of those two probabilities.
The good news, again, is the running game. Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde will lead the Buckeyes at the position next season, and Meyer said that Rod Smith and Bri’onte Dunn will see a good amount of carries as well. Ohio State returns its leading rusher from a year ago in Miller, who ran for 715 yards. And if Miller gets hurt, there’s always Guiton, who is also a mobile quarterback.
Work remains for Ohio State on offense. The real news is that the Buckeyes now know what they have to work on before the season opens with Miami on Sept. 1.
“We identified our issues, and we identified our strengths,” Meyer said of spring practice. “I just told (the team) that this has to be the best offseason in the history of college football. It has to happen.”
Bryant Billing covers Ohio State football for The Springfield Paper. He shares occasional commentary and bonus features on Ohio State here on TopBillingSports.com.