In head coach Urban Meyer’s second year, the Buckeyes set records in 12 of the 22 single-season offense-related stats listed in the Ohio State media guide, including rushing yards (4,321), rushing yards per attempt (6.8), passing touchdowns (38), total offense plays (1,003), total offense yards (7,167), yards per play (7.14), yards per game (511.9), points scored (637), touchdowns (87), points per game (45.5) field goal percentage (.900) and first downs (361).
When fall camp opened on Monday, though, the unit that rewrote the record book in 2013 had a much different look. Powerful running back Carlos Hyde, who OSU so often turned to when it absolutely had to move the chains, is gone, as are four members of an offensive line that ranked among the best in school history. Senior quarterback Braxton Miller won’t be able to turn to last year’s leading receiver Corey “Philly” Brown. Even the safety net that was backup quarterback Kenny Guiton will be tough to replace, as new second-string QB Cardale Jones has 3 career passing yards.
All of those factors seem to point to a decline in Ohio State’s offensive numbers for the upcoming campaign, and it’s hard to disagree with that evidence. Longtime college football analyst Phil Steele has Ohio State pegged to drop off a bit but still finish with a scoring total that will put them among the top teams in the nation.
“They’re going to be solid offensively,” he told BuckeyeSports.com. “I see them putting good yards up, but not quite matching last year’s yardage and not quite matching last year’s points. Every year, I take my computer ratings for every position and play them into the season and it gives me yards for every single matchup. I’ve got Ohio State coming out this year with 37 points per game, which is about a touchdown dropoff from last year. Still an outstanding offense, but let’s face it – last year’s offensive line was just premium. That’s one of the best offensive lines I’ve seen in quite some time, and they were blocking for Carlos Hyde at running back.”
Steele’s projected total of 37 may seem like quite a drop, but it actually won’t be as big a gap from last year’s 45.5 number when scheduling is taken into account. Removing OSU’s 76-0 throttling of a hapless Florida A&M squad, last year’s average points production against FBS teams finished at 43.1 points per contest. Steele’s projection would put OSU at a one-touchdown loss from 2013, a fair reduction given the personnel loss.
To delve into that matter further, let’s take a look at how the Buckeyes stack up at each unit compared to last year.
The most important position for Ohio State remained the same, thanks in part to a shoulder injury that fully ended any chances Miller had at jumping to the NFL. Steele noted that he didn’t expect Miller to be set back by his lack of reps in the spring while he recovered from shoulder surgery, as his experience more than makes up for one month of missed practices.
Miller has shown improvement in each of the past two seasons in Columbus, and while he’s had plenty of success, there’s still plenty of room for more growth. If the Huber Heights, Ohio, product does manage to continue his linear improvement in accuracy, he could finish as one of the nation’s better passers this season.
“As far as Miller goes, the type of season I expect out of him would be like last year, which would be improved passing – and he improved his passing again last year for the second straight season – as well as being one of the most electrifying runners out of the quarterback position,” Steele said. “If he can continue to improve his passing, I think he’s a legitimate Heisman contender. I think what they’re going to end up doing is reducing the amount of runs where Braxton takes off and working Dontre Wilson a little more into the offense and get him to take more of the hits – just give him the ball on a quick pitch and let him do something just to help keep Braxton healthy. But that’s probably my biggest question mark on the team.”
Should something happen to the two-time Big Ten Player of the Year, though, it would almost certainly mark the end of the road for Ohio State. Meyer said at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago on July 29 that the sophomore Jones had won the backup job over redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, but neither option would instill fear into opposing defenses based on their collegiate track record.
“I was watching the spring and I tried to see Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett and who’s going to be the backup, and it seemed like neither one really stepped to the forefront and proved they were going to be the guy,” Steele said. “Unless they show great improvement over the summer, I think the Buckeyes could be in big trouble if something happened to Miller.”
Hyde’s departure leaves a gaping hole in the backfield, and while the Buckeyes will be hard-pressed to find someone to match his production, there is no shortage of candidates for the starting role at running back. Sophomore Ezekiel Elliott is the presumed favorite to land the gig, but he’ll have to hold off a host of others, including senior Rod Smith, sophomore Bri’onte Dunn and true freshman Curtis Samuel.
Elliott could eventually transform into the workhorse that Hyde was last year, but that seems to be a tall task for someone who carried the ball just 30 times in 11 games as a true freshman. At the end of the day, there probably won’t be a player like Hyde whom the Buckeyes can turn to in situations like the second half of the Northwestern win in 2013.
“I don’t think they’re going to have a feature running back like they did with Hyde last year, but I like the talent level,” Steele said. “Let’s face it, these aren’t walk-ons that are stepping into the role. This is Ezekiel Elliott, one of the top running backs out of high school who got his feet wet last year and did well. Bri’onte Dunn has good vision and is sort of in the mold of Hyde as a big back. He was (my) No. 10 running back out of high school and played as a true freshman. I think Urban Meyer did exactly what he should do. The time to recruit a position for a loss is two years prior, and Urban Meyer did that with Elliott. He’s got two outstanding sophomores there, guys who are ready to step into that hole.
“Look at the true freshman, Curtis Samuel. He’s exciting and fast and offers a change of pace at 190 pounds. And who knows, maybe the light will come on one of these years for Rod Smith and he’ll be highly productive out there. I think there’s depth out there. When you add up the four running backs, they’ll get near the production of last year’s running backs, but I don’t think we’ll see a Carlos Hyde emerging.”
How will the loss of Hyde impact the OSU offense? Last year, Meyer harped on the fact that he wanted his play calling to be split almost evenly between rushes and passes. The final number was closer to 63 percent rushing and 37 percent passing in 2013. Without Hyde, whose bruising talent was often too good to pass up, that number should get to 50-50 instead of hovering around 60-40.
Wide receivers/Tight ends
The wide receivers are in almost exactly the same boat as the running backs after losing their top performer and facing a depth chart traffic jam because of a wealth of young talent.
While home-run threat Devin Smith will be looking to provide consistency in his senior season, Steele – just as he did with running back – has a sophomore pegged for a productive season.
“I think Dontre Wilson is going to be the guy who gets a majority of touches on offense,” Steele said. “Whether it be running the ball in the backfield or short passes or long ones, he’s just going to be a big-time playmaker this year. Last year he was a freshman running back turned into receiver. Just coming in and playing as a true freshman is a step up. Coming in and stepping in like that and switching positions to wide receiver, it took him a while to grasp that position. I think he now firmly grasps the position. In an Urban Meyer offense, he’s at a very important position. I think he’s ready to step right in.”
In addition to Wilson, who will start at the “H” spot, and Smith, several other names are in play at wide receiver. Corey Smith and Michael Thomas could both see playing time, and redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall appears likely to back up Wilson.
The Buckeyes are set at tight end, which was the only unit on the team that saw no additions or losses from 2013 to 2014 until the recent announcement that J.T. Moore (who registered just 22 plays from scrimmage last year) would be physically unable to play his senior season. With weapons like Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett, it was a constant source of frustration with tight ends coach Tim Hinton last year that when it came time for opposing defenses to pick their poison, they chose to stop the tight ends instead of wide receivers.
If Ohio State can get any kind of production from its wide receivers, this could be a big year for the tight ends. As Hinton noted last year, the lack of production wasn’t for lack of trying – the offense simply takes what opposing defenses give. In addition to the aforementioned duo, Marcus Baugh is coming off a solid spring.
With that being said, the talent at both wide receiver and tight end still needs to fully translate on the field. Several players – including a few coming off redshirts – must show improvement in order for these units to give the passing game a much-needed boost.
The biggest strength of the 2013 offense has turned into the biggest question mark for this year’s squad. Offensive line coach Ed Warinner worked his magic over the course of 2012 and 2013, but doing so in less than one year instead of two seems to be an impossible task.
Only Taylor Decker remains from last year’s starting five, and he’ll be switching from left to right tackle. That leaves four open spots to be filled by players with little-to-no career starts.
“Let’s face it, Ohio State is not going to match last year’s group,” Steele said. “The offensive line was opening up holes for 6.8 yards per carry and only allowed 22 sacks on the year. The two things they’ve got going for them is, first of all, they bring in the Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay to plug right in there at the center spot. They’ve also got Taylor Decker at left tackle, and those are two very key positions. Decker was a right tackle last year, but they’ve got veterans at two important positions. We saw what Warinner could do with an inexperienced line in the past.”
Steele noted that the group has the potential to get embarrassed by Virginia Tech’s talented defensive line in the second game of the season, but OSU’s schedule otherwise favorably sets up for the development of whichever players win the starting jobs.
“Anytime you have a young unit, you need to play some key games before you get to the biggest games,” Steele said. “When we look at Ohio State’s schedule, the one game everyone has circled – and rightfully so – is Michigan State, so they need to be playing their best at that time. I like that they’re off a home game against Illinois, and I also like the fact that they’ll have eight games under their belt.”
The offensive line won’t be as good as last year’s bunch, but how much they can manage to close the gap will determine just how successful the offense will be. Similarly, the offense as a whole will almost certainly fail to match last year’s video game numbers. Luckily for Miller and company, a presumably improved defense will mean they won’t have to. Keeping the points per game average within a touchdown of last year’s total should be enough to keep the Buckeyes in the playoff hunt.