BSB Notebook: Learning on the Job

Ohio State's shaky start has not been fun for many people, least of all its alumni going through on-the-job training on the coaching staff. Luke Fickell and Mike Vrabel talked about that this week, and we've got it covered in the weekly notebook from Buckeye Sports Bulletin.

Not that anyone else in the Big Ten is feeling sorry for Ohio State, but youth and inexperience have played major roles in the Buckeyes 3-3 start.

That goes for not only the Buckeyes on the field but also some on the sidelines as well where head coach Luke Fickell and linebackers coach Mike Vrabel find themselves learning on their respective jobs.

Fickell said the biggest challenge he has faced so far is maintaining balance.

"Maintaining balance in your program, balance in how much you spend with the defense, how much you spend with the psyche of the entire group," he said.

The head coach has far more speaking engagements, too, be they with groups of alumni or reporters.

"I'm not about a whole lot of talk, but that's part of the game," Fickell said. "That's what you have to do. You've obviously got to do this, but as an assistant coach, you just put your head back in the book, you get with your 10, 12, 20, whatever guys you've got, and you fight through it with them and you grind it out and you find a way to get better. It's not about a whole lot of talk, it's about work. It's about passion. It's about energy.

"And then when you're the head coach, I guess you've got to stand up and make sure everybody else understands and talk about it and revisit it and rehash it and have it come back up in your stomach three or four or five, six, seven times during the week. That's the most difficult thing to me. It's still football. When you're around the guys, you enjoy doing what you do. When you can be with them, that's why you do this. You just don't have as much time to do that. That's the most difficult thing."

His good friend Vrabel has found time is more fleeting than he would like, too. In his first year as a full-time coach at any level, Vrabel has learned the biggest difference between the NFL and college football is the amount of time the staff is allowed to work with the players.

"The toughest thing is what you can realistically expect to get across to them in a limited amount of time that you have," Vrabel said. "They're not here for eight hours. It doesn't matter what we know as coaches, it's what they know can absorb as players.

"It's tough because they want to come over and they're here on their off time and here between classes and that's why we have to prepare things and say, ‘Hey, we've got this cutup. If you come over, pull it up and look at it. The notes are there.' And they've done that and done a good job both on special teams and on defense."

Because of the friendship the two former OSU teammates share, Vrabel was asked if Fickell is receiving a fair chance to exhibit his coaching skills given the unusual challenges the team has faced this year, but he shot the suggestion down for now.

"What I think and what I believe means zero," Vrabel said. "I'm trying to get my guys who are new to playing football, new to starting for Ohio State all ready to go. That's what I've got to worry about.

"If I spent any time worrying about that, I wouldn't be spending enough time trying to make my players better. I just can't. We all have to just develop good young players that we have. The veteran guys are getting better, and the younger guys are continuing to push them. That's the only way you can get better, if guys will push guys and believe if they produce they will play."

Series of Surprising ‘Fight'
As rivalries go, the one between Ohio State and Illinois is somewhat sneakily significant.

It is the only game Ohio State plays with a rotating trophy – the Illibuck – on the line, and it was the Buckeyes' longest consecutively played rivalry until the teams did not play in the 2003 season.

Ohio State holds a commanding 63-30-4 lead in the all-time series, but Illinois has been somewhat of a surprising thorn in the Buckeyes' side over the past three decades.

The Buckeyes never lost to Illinois from 1967-82, but they are only 17-10 against the Illini since that time.

Illinois won five in a row from 1988-92, and Illini teams of more recent vintage gave two highly rated, undefeated Ohio State teams good scares in Champaign in 2006 and '10. They knocked the Buckeyes out of the top spot in the polls in the penultimate game of the 2007 season, although Ohio State still ended up playing for the national title that year.

"Shoot, it goes all the way back to when I was in school," said Fickell, who was a Buckeye from 1992-96 when OSU went 5-0 in the series. "I don't know. Is it that they've they've got a handful of guys from the state of Ohio, obviously Coach (Ron)( Zook is from the state of Ohio. Ohio State is a big game for pretty much anybody, and that's a part of it. You know, but you can't pinpoint one specific thing that, hey, they only play well against us. For them they've played well in the last few years a lot, but it's an emotional thing."

The tables are turned this year with the Illini riding high at 6-0 and favored to win at home, but Fickell does not expect them to be any less prepared to give Ohio State their best shot.

"I'm sure when people are down, obviously guys go after them even more," Fickell said. "So I wouldn't expect anything different. I would expect their best with the confident group that they are.

A Better Braxton?
Although freshman quarterback Braxton Miller's breakout performance at Nebraska was cut short by an ankle injury, he gave Buckeye fans and their coaches a lot to feel good about early in the loss at Nebraska last week.

That did not come as a big surprise to his position coach, Nick Siciliano, who said this week he thought he saw a new mindset begin to develop in the youngster in the week between the Nebraska game and a 10-7 setback against Michigan State on Oct. 1.

"I think after the unit did not play well against Michigan State and he watched the tape he realized something has to get going, somebody had to bring a little more energy to the table and he must have felt like it was him," Siciliano said. "We tried to push him along at that rate and keep him moving.

"As you progress, you've got to get better with your decision making. As things slow down for you, it's going to look better and feel better and he's going to have more confidence about it. We just need to get him as many reps as we can as quickly as we can. We have to play our best football each and every Saturday."

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