There was defensive end Joey Bosa’s shrug celebration, running back Ezekiel Elliott’s crop top jersey, tight end Jeff Heuerman’s perpetually joke-filled interviews and the Twitter account that followed the wacky adventures of defensive tackle Michael Bennett and his non-football playing roommates. However, the Buckeyes saved their best stuff for the time when they might have needed it most – the weeks prior to the College Football Playoff matchup against Alabama.
With a platform for quote machines like linebacker Darron Lee and safety Vonn Bell and a spotlight shining on the comedy duo of quarterback Cardale Jones and his roommate Tyvis Powell, the pre-Sugar Bowl media days in Columbus and New Orleans made one thing perfectly clear: Ohio State was having more fun than anyone.
The Buckeyes went on to win the national title, but with that success came the threat of a less fun season ahead. A decision on the starting quarterback looms, and four players will be suspended for the season opener against Virginia Tech. Whereas last year people wrote off OSU after an early September loss, the Buckeyes will enter this fall as the overwhelming favorites to win the national championship.
With all that in mind, the question was floated at Big Ten Media Days to linebacker Joshua Perry: with all the pressure that comes with great expectations, will this season be as fun as the last?
“It better be fun, because we had a lot of fun last year and had fun in the past,” Perry said. “I think it would be awful if we just didn’t have fun this year.”
He expounded upon that topic when it was broached again in a follow-up question, saying that he trusted some of the aforementioned players to keep the team loose during a season that will be played under a microscope.
“I’ll say this: Some of the guys that we have in the locker room, they’ll find ways to make it fun,” Perry said. “You’ve got some personalities – Tyvis Powell, Darron Lee and Joey. They’ll find a way to make it fun. We’re just going to enjoy ourselves. A lot of the pressure to be champions again isn’t coming from us. It’s coming from everybody else talking about it. If we’re able to just have conversations and talk about the stuff we talk about in the building and block out the stuff from outside the building, we’ll be able to have just as much fun as we did last year.”
It hasn’t always been such a free-wheeling environment, though. The Buckeyes don’t have to go back very far for a reminder that team chemistry can fluctuate wildly from year to year. The 2013 team didn’t seem to radiate the same joy that was seen with last year’s players, an assessment that was backed up by Perry.
“The tough thing about that team is that we just weren’t as close,” Perry said. “We’re not going to make any bones about it. It’s just harder going into battle with guys you don’t feel as close to.”
The good news for Ohio State fans is that chemistry and relationships aren’t at the mercy of randomness. Players put in a concerted effort to make the locker room a more fun place after the 2013 season, and many of the guys who are seen as the bearers of good vibes will be back for the 2015 campaign.
“We didn’t want the locker room to be one of those places where guys were walking around all tense,” Perry said. “After the Orange Bowl, it was Curtis Grant, me, Darron, Raekwon (McMillan) and Coach (Luke) Fickell sitting in the linebacker room. We were like, ‘This is not going to be a place where people come and they hate coming here. This is not going to be a place where people don’t want to spend time here. This is not going to be a place where people feel stressed out. It’s going to be a place where we care about each other.’ That’s exactly what it became. It was just a group of us, and we would always be around each other, whatever it was – whether we were doing football stuff or not.
“You see the same thing happening with Vonn and Tyvis doing what they do together and Eli Apple going around with Doran Grant. And then you see all those guys on the D-line, they’re just so tight. I think that had a lot to do with it.”
Although Ohio State is led by the famously intense Urban Meyer, he’s not one to discourage his players from having fun if it doesn’t slow down the operation.
“I do like personalities and demeanor,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than a dead fish laying on the dock. You don’t want to coach guys like that, so you’ve got to be careful. Do I like being around guys with a good sense of humor and great demeanor? I live for that, but it can’t get in the way of production.”
Ohio State seems to have mastered that aspect pretty well. Both Perry and defensive tackle Adolphus Washington were quick to point out that guys like Powell and Jones know when to flip the switch between joking and working, and left tackle Taylor Decker came to a similar conclusion.
“I think a huge thing for us is to be able to make things fun but to know when to rein it in,” Decker said. “There’s a time and a place for all those sorts of things, and I think our team had a good grasp on that. We had a good way of feeling out which scenarios we should and shouldn’t do that.”