With four senior starters now departing, one of the biggest strengths of the 2013 Ohio State squad has become one of the 2014 unit's biggest question marks as the team embarks on spring practice.
Even the one returning player is quite different both on and off the field from his 2013 self. Junior lineman Taylor Decker will move from right tackle to left tackle and, thanks to a job-shadowing program, is sporting a much shorter haircut than the trademark long locks that flowed from under his helmet last fall.
Of course, Decker's sophomore season was a job-shadowing process of its own. The Vandalia, Ohio, native soaked up the advice of his elder teammates and roomed with senior left tackle Jack Mewhort, who let Decker know as soon as his own career had come to a close that the youngest player on the line would have to fill his shoes as the leader in the trenches.
"Throughout the season, they would always say things to me – especially Jack because I was always his roommate and I was always with him all the time – and after the Orange Bowl he said, ‘You gotta be the leader now,'" Decker said.
The group almost lost its coach, as well, as offensive line assistant Ed Warinner interviewed for the head coaching position at Army, a job that ultimately went to Georgia Southern's Jeff Monken. Warinner's presence is a big reason why the offensive line may survive a massive departure and remain a critical cog in the Buckeyes' well-oiled offensive machine.
After coming to Ohio State from Notre Dame in 2012, Warinner inherited a line with two returning starters that had lost J.B. Shugarts, Mike Adams and Mike Brewster, the final two of which are currently playing in the NFL. His players attributed the success of his two seasons in Columbus to the culture that he cultivated in practice.
"Coach Warinner never takes it easy on us, that's what I love about him," junior center Jacoby Boren said. "It doesn't matter if you're Jack Mewhort, who was an All-American last year, or whoever on the offensive line. He's going to ride you just as hard. He's going to make everyone better every day and he's going to do whatever he can."
His latest task will certainly be his toughest since coming on board with the Buckeyes. In addition to losing Mewhort, Ohio State also bid farewell to All-Big Ten center Corey Linsley, left guard Andrew Norwell and right guard Marcus Hall. That quartet helped power a rushing attack that finished with 4,321 yards and 45 touchdowns and featured a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde.
"When you lose guys like that – Jack, Marcus, Corey and Norwell – those are freaking awesome players, hands down, you can't deny that," Boren said. "We definitely miss them, no doubt about it, but it's something that we've got to pick it up and run with it."
With spring practice opening on March 4, just about every spot is up for grabs. The first day of practice featured – from left to right tackle – a first-team unit of Decker, Antonio Underwood, Boren, Pat Elflein and Darryl Baldwin. In that same order, the second team was made up of Kyle Dodson, Joel Hale, Billy Price, Tommy Brown and Evan Lisle.
Ohio State will also have the benefit of two early enrollees, as Lancaster, Ohio, four-star offensive tackle Kyle Trout and Cleveland Glenville three-star offensive tackle Marcelys Jones will also have a chance to fight their way into the two-deep this spring.
Of those 12 players, the only one who seems assured of a spot come August 30 against Navy in the season opener is Decker.
"Probably Taylor is the best bet to keep the job that he has at left tackle, you know, because he finished last year strong at right tackle," Warriner said. "He rotated in practice both sides, and towards the end of the year, maybe the last two or three games of the season, if you watch the film he probably played the best of any of the tackles or maybe anybody on the O-line. We hope he can pick up from there and transition to the left side and take that job and hold it down for the next few years. I think he should. I'd be really surprised if someone could knock him out of that spot."
As for the rest of the group, it looks like roughly eight to 10 players are poised to compete for the final four spots. With four-star offensive linemen Jamarco Jones and Demetrius Knox still set to arrive in June and weeks worth of fall camp left for players to try to improve on their spring showing, Warinner is in no rush to make any decisions about which four linemen will join Decker in the trenches.
He even took a playful swipe at the media assembled in front of him after practice on March 6, saying that he wouldn't yield to the anticipated demands for updates and queries about any lineup decisions.
"It's a fluid deal, and we'll let everybody have their shot and kind of let it sort itself out," Warinner said. "We don't have to know who the starting O-line is going to be until – you guys are gonna want to know by the end of spring, but I don't need to know until about 10 days before the first game."
That message is clear to his players, as well. The idea of competition is something that has been embraced instead of shied away from, and plenty of the current players on the roster are used to battling for spots. Although far fewer spots were available last offseason, the fight for a spot on the depth chart – valuable positioning for this year's race – was just as intense.
"Everyone knows what the deal is," Elflein said. "There are four spots open, and that's what we stress here – competition, having a competitive spirit and always competing. Even when there were four seniors here, we were always still competing. The culture is staying the same, we're always competing, and the best five will be on the field."
That culture helped bring out the best in Decker, who was admittedly overwhelmed in his starting debut thanks to a heavy dose of Buffalo's Khalil Mack, who is in the discussion as a top 10 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. By the end of the season, as Warinner mentioned, he was one of the Buckeyes' best performers on the offensive line.
"Coach Meyer said it before, I became a good player because of the culture that was created inside that offensive line room," Decker said. "I believe 100 percent in that. We have a culture in our room that I either had to become better or I wasn't going to play. And that's the culture – you've got to improve, you've got to be a tough guy and do it every play. I would just say that the culture made it that way."
Simply because of sheer numbers and talent, the Buckeyes are likely to find at least a player or two who can emulate Decker's 2013 season by stepping into unfamiliar territory as a first-year starter and managing to hold down a job and improve along the way. Trying to develop four guys who can manage to do it seems like a taller task, but Warinner has worked similar magic before and seems primed to do it again.
"I'm pretty confident," he said. "Everything that you want to see at this point, we're seeing."