One look at the Ohio State practice fields yields plenty of potential playmakers.
From Devin Smith to Dontre Wilson to Jeff Heuerman to Ezekiel Elliott, speed and agility are not lacking in scarlet and gray. But will those parts add up to the sum production and reliability of Carlos Hyde and the 2012 and '13 offensive lines? That is the question facing Ohio State and its coaches all month as they prepare for the season opener against Navy and what they hope will be another run at perfection.
No one needed to tell this to Ed Warinner, the Buckeyes' offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator, on the third day of preseason camp.
"We have to see," he replied when asked what the identity would be of the 2014 Ohio State offense. "That's what training camp is for, to figure out who you are. Figure out who's improved, what are we better at. What aren't we as good at. How do we want to get our yards? If you can't get some yards this way, can you get them another way. And that's the beauty of our system on offense, we can do a lot of different things, so that's what we want to figure out here over the next few weeks. Once we get to the week before Navy, we can hone in on, 'This is who we're gonna be,' and go with that."
The system to which Warinner referred is the particular brand of spread offense favored by head coach Urban Meyer mixed with influences from Warinner and offensive coordinator Tom Herman. All three men came to Ohio State with different experiences coaching the spread, but they all stressed the same thing beginning the first day they met with the media as members of the same staff: Buckeye football has been about bloodying noses and battering defenses for decades, and they intend to keep it that way.
That might have been as much a marketing objective as anything at first with fans and (maybe more so) recruits usually inclined to think "finesse" when they hear about a spread offense, but it was expressed as reality out on the field over and over again during the first two years of the men's partnership in Columbus.
The 6-0, 235-pound Hyde ran for 2,491 yards in 2012 and '13 thanks to equal parts his speed and power and the blocking of an offensive line Warinner built into one of the best in the country.
All the while, though, Meyer expressed frustration with the team's inability to be as consistent and create as many big plays through the passing game as he would like. Those are concerns he hopes are ready to be relieved this fall, and Ohio State could be in trouble if they are not.
Along with Jim Tressel holdovers Smith, Heuerman and Evan Spencer, a bevy of Meyer recruits are hoping to find their time to shine this season, be it inside or out. In the case of Wilson, a speedy sophomore from DeSoto, Texas, the hope is he can excel in both areas. Perhaps the same could be true of redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall and true freshman Johnnie Dixon while Smith, Spencer and sophomores Michael Thomas and Corey Smith battle for time on the outside.
"Yeah I think we have a lot of weapons on the perimeter," Warinner said. "We have weapons at tight end, we have weapons at wide receiver, we're gaining confidence in those guys that they're getting better and better. Our running backs are fast, so we have different ways to manufacture those yards. And, you know, we'll see how we can develop a passing game to go with the run game and we can be more diverse."
There is no shortage of candidates at running back with five players on scholarship, but Warinner referred to a pair getting the most early looks -- Elliott, a sophomore from St. Louis, and Curtis Samuel, a true freshman from Brooklyn, N.Y. When prompted further, he said senior Rod Smith and sophomore Bri'onte Dunn could add a power element. Warren Ball, another sophomore who worked on the side with a boot on his right foot and ankle when media was allowed to watch, could also be lumped in with that group.
"Time will tell," Warinner said. "There's a place for those guys, Rod Smith and Bri'onte, as more of a power runner, but they have to prove consistency. That's the thing -- that they have talent but they haven't proven to be consistent yet."
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