I told people all week leading up to the Navy game this isn’t an easy opener because you have to go on the road with a new quarterback, a new offensive line and you’re playing basically the hardest defense you have to get ready for scheme-wise and the hardest offense you have to get ready for scheme-wise.
Navy was not a traditional, cupcake opener. I think their team is actually really good for what they do and the type of athlete they are dealt. I think Navy would come in fourth or fifth in the Big Ten, to be honest, with their scheme on offense and defense. I am a fan of watching them operate.
They don’t have as much talent as a Michigan State, but running an odd (3-4) defense is a pain in the butt to get ready for because a lot of teams don’t use it, especially in college. It changes all of your schemes. A new line that is practicing against a 4-3 defense or a 4-2 nickel defense all camp and then all of a sudden they’re blocking a 3-4 in the first game, it is a tough task. It is even tougher when you are essentially breaking in 4 new full-time linemen and a new offensive backfield with J.T. Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott.
I also note the challenge of a road game. It’s just not as comfortable as being at home. I hated flying, especially flying back after a game (think of a large, sore body in a little plane seat). You lose time before the game and you have to hang out in a different hotel, and it’s just not as streamlined as being at home.
However, nothing beats the feeling of sending opposing fans home silent and sad. Beating Michigan at the Little House as a player was especially gratifying for my teammates and I. In terms of the feelings of the new players entering the mix this season, I can only speak on my own experience of when I began playing as a freshman. The first time I got prolonged playing time was when we played Wisconsin in 2004. Erasmus James played end for them and ended up winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year that year.
The week before we played Wisconsin, they played Penn State that year at Penn State and Erasmus knocked Zac Mills out of the game and then knocked out Michael Robinson (they literally had an ambulance drive on the field for Robinson like in Madden ’93 for Sega Genesis). The guy you’re blocking, if you don’t block him, you’re probably going to put the quarterback in the hospital. No pressure there, right?
At the beginning of the Wisconsin game, I was standing on the sideline, and on the first series Erasmus had a tackle for loss – he got Lydell Ross in the backfield – and then he got a sack. I was like, this guy is for real. We had two straight three-and-outs so John Peterson told me to get loose and that I was going in the game.
That year James was probably the best end in the country and I was a freshman who really hadn’t played other than a few series rotating in the first couple of the games. But I ended up playing against him and I fought. It wasn’t pretty, but I didn’t give up a sack. He still ended up being a top-20 pick in the NFL draft.
In 2004, I always joke that my freshman year I faced like a murderer’s row at offensive tackle. We opened up with Cincinnati and I had to face Trent Cole, who was really good. He made a few Pro Bowls in the NFL. Then I had to play this kid named Johnathan Goddard at Marshall who ended up being a second-team All-American who led the nation in tackles for loss. He played in the league for a few years as well.
Then week three it was Manny Lawson (first-round pick) and Mario Williams (who went first overall in the 2006 draft ahead of Reggie Bush and Vince Young) at North Carolina State, and then it was Erasmus, and he was the best of all of them. The next week we played Iowa and it was Matt Roth, who was a second-round pick and played for the Browns. Even when we played Northwestern, they had Barry Cofield, who played end and tackle – he signed his second contract in the NFL for $35 million dollars.
It was unbelievable. The next week we played Penn State and they had Tamba Hali (an NFL Pro Bowler who signed a $60 million dollar extension). We played Indiana who had a guy named Victor Adeyanju who got drafted the fourth round. It was insane. Then we played Purdue who had Ray Edwards and Anthony Spencer as their two ends. Then you play Michigan at the end and you play LaMarr Woodley. Every single week you were playing a guy who was an NFL guy, most of whom turned out to be Pro Bowlers. It was nuts, especially as a freshman.
Since a lot of the young linemen are getting ready to roll though the season, my advice to them has always been the same: Treat their first game like an inside run drill during a Bloody Tuesday (Urban Meyer’s term for the hardest/most physical practice of the week) practice and you have to line up against Michael Bennett or Joey Bosa. You’re not going to face a better front in the country. If you can open lanes versus them, then you will be fine. The biggest thing is to stay positive, have a short memory and improve you deficiencies every day. Get stronger in the weight room and sharper in the film room. Keep your career arrow pointing up.
In my experience, there is no substitute for live game reps. That is why I keep telling people the Browns should just play Johnny Manziel to start the season and just let him make mistakes, learn, and improve. In Peyton Manning’s rookie year in 1998, he went 3-13 and threw 28 interceptions, the most in the NFL. If that had happened in the Twitter age, he probably would have gotten his coach fired and they probably would have begun scouting new quarterbacks. But the next year they were 13-3 and Peyton played really well. In my experience, guys benefit tremendously from game reps.
From my freshman year to my sophomore year, I played much better. Playing football is just like most things in life, you get better by doing it, like going out in games and adjusting in games. The full-speed reps with a full stadium and the TV cameras and the pressure of doing it in front of 100,000 people and the team is counting on you and you might see a blitz that you didn’t expect or you might see a look you didn’t expect – all of that stuff takes time to adjust to and get used to. When you get used to doing it with the live bullets flying, then the game slows down and you can really play well.
With that in mind, expect our young team to improve weekly. I believe our offensive line will gradually improve as the season progresses. A major reason for that is because they get to face Michael Bennett, Joey Bosa, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington – all of those guys are going to be NFL guys. It’s as talented a line as we’ve ever had.
In closing, give these young guys time. Our coaching staff coaches them very hard and pushes them to develop in a hurry. Taylor Decker came a long way as a second-year player last year. Let the young guys develop. They know they have to, or they will be replaced.
SEC Not Same
In my opinion, I think the spread has kind of equalized the SEC. When you watch Oklahoma decimate Alabama, you watch the spread. It slows down LSU and Alabama, two pro-style, smashmouth teams.
Look at the Alabama teams from 2012 (Eddie Lacy and a star-studded offensive line) and 2009 (Julio Jones, Trent Richardson, Mark Ingram and Marcell Dareus) and look at the talent and the players vs. the Bama team from the opener. I don’t think it’s even close. If Alabama doesn’t have running back T.J. Yeldon and flanker Amari Cooper, they might not have won. On defense they don’t strike me as the physically dominant group that they have been. West Virginia moved the ball on them an awful lot.
To me, the SEC is still living off of its glory years of 2007-2012. I felt like Florida, when Urban Meyer had it rolling in 2008 and ’09, that was like the vintage, all-time, really good SEC teams. That’s what I think of as the heyday of the league. A big issue is I don’t know how good the quarterbacks are. Johnny Manziel, A.J. McCarron, Aaron Murray, etc., are all in the NFL now. The big SEC powers are all breaking in new QBs this year. From what I saw, I think Alabama’s quarterback looked OK, but I don’t think West Virginia has ever been known for its defense.
Through the opening week, Georgia looked really good and Texas A&M looked strong, but the teams that have really built and carried that league, which are LSU, Alabama and Florida, they all looked down in my opinion. I know Florida didn’t play, but that is being based on being 4-8 last year, they’re just not at the level of the vintage Urban Meyer Florida teams that were super fast and played great defense.
Honestly, I think the star power is down. Who is the biggest star in the SEC right now? T.J. Yeldon or the new quarterback from Texas A&M – they’re going to try to make him into one. A few years ago, when Florida played Bama, it was like Julio Jones vs. Joe Haden, Marcell Dareus and Rolando McClain vs. the Pouncey twins, Tim Tebow at quarterback vs. Mark Barron at safety, and Percy Harvin just lighting the turf on fire with his speed. I do not see that level of star power in this year’s SEC.
An example of the league being down is the LSU/Wisconsin tilt from Saturday night. Wisconsin was laying the wood to LSU for most of the night until its young quarterback started throwing to the wrong team. If Wisconsin just had an average player at quarterback, they would have won the game easily. The best player on the field was Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, and I don’t think it was even close. I don’t know why they took the ball out of his hands.
What I do know is that an average Wisconsin team was basically throttling LSU in what was basically an LSU home game since it was four hours away from Baton Rouge. The really good LSU teams from 2007, 2011 and 2012 that were littered with first-round talent would have destroyed that Wisconsin team.
I believe that the best the Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 have to offer will be ready to compete with the SEC when it comes time to start the four-team playoff. I think the gap has narrowed substantially and that the top of the SEC is not as strong as it has been in years past. Leagues are catching up and this is a perfect year to start a playoff and watch it all play out.
A team captain in 2007, Kirk Barton was named an All-American that same year as a senior. After earning his MBA from Ohio State, he is a sales executive with Oswald Companies in Columbus. He works in the area of business development with a focus on property and casualty coverage. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @Kirk_Barton.