A season ago, a veteran unit battled injuries and struggled to get the push expected at a place that has developed such luminaries as Jim Parker and Orlando Pace. It got to the point that head coach Jim Tressel famously dedicated an unusual amount of time to the unit during the middle of the season, and offensive line coach Jim Bollman has become a favorite whipping boy of many fans.
When media members were privy to a jersey scrimmage on Aug. 22 in which the No. 1 unit struggled in pass protection at times, concern again rose as the sixth-ranked Buckeyes continued to prepare for the season.
So it had to be good news when Tressel noted during his first Tuesday press luncheon of the year that he had seen a different – and better – unit as the Buckeyes convened for practice leading up to tomorrow's opener against Navy.
"I thought yesterday in full pads – it wasn't like it was shorts or anything, in full pads – that our offensive line looked a little bit crisper and quicker and more confident in what they were doing than I had seen them in the last week or so," Tressel said. "So, now, we've got to block the real guys coming up."
According to right tackle Jim Cordle, the reasons for that improvement were twofold. First, the Buckeyes actually had a new spring in their step after taking a few days off following camp, and secondly the team finally had a settled left side of the line in tackle Andrew Miller and guard Justin Boren.
"The unit finally came together as a unit, five guys consistently for a couple of weeks there," Cordle said. "Andy Miller is 100 percent at left tackle and Justin is happy, so we're glad to get that unit going."
That unit is much different than the ones that started and ended last year even though the Buckeyes return three starters. Cordle has run the gamut of positions, moving from center at the start of last year to left guard three games in to right tackle to start this campaign. Browning spent last year as the starting right tackle before his move inside to replace the combination of Ben Person and Steve Rehring.
All of those moves have had a positive effect, Tressel said.
"Mike has been solid this summer and Jimmy's move outside seems to be a good thing and Bryant is steady," the ninth-year head coach said. "Bryant is good at tackle and I think even better at guard."
Cordle, a third-year starter, has acquitted himself well at times in the middle, but his 297-pound frame was sometimes pushed around by tackles while he was an interior lineman. That shouldn't be a problem for the athletic Lancaster, Ohio, native at tackle, where Cordle said he's ready to go now that he has a full camp under his belt.
"I'm feeling great and comfortable," he said. "Battling against Lawrence Wilson – watch out for him this season – and Robert Rose and Thaddeus (Gibson) and Doug (Worthington) and all those guys who are defensive ends, they're good and they got me ready for the season."
There seem to be few questions about the middle of the line, a compilation of bruisers with attitude that has the team feeling as though it will have little trouble running the ball even after the departure of first-round draft pick Chris Wells. Word was that the team focused on trying to pass the ball so much during the jersey scrimmage because the running game already was in fine shape.
"I know we're going to be able to run the ball," tight end Jake Ballard said. "Our O-line is stepping up and we're going to be as good as we've ever been."
And then there's Miller at tackle. A converted tight end, Miller has learned the system and bulked up over the past couple of seasons before beating out J.B. Shugarts and Mike Adams for the No. 1 spot at perhaps the most important position on the line.
Fans might not know much about Miller, but Cordle said he's ready for the challenge of replacing three-year starter Alex Boone.
"Just starting out, he was kind of, in some of our power block schemes, he was getting his feet too vertical, things like that, just maybe not used to it as much, and he fixed that up," Cordle said. "Just working on jams and stuff with hands and just having that consistency of technique I think was his problem, but now he's got it."
With all five positions set, any worry that seemed to focus on the position at the start of fall camp has been replaced by something sorely missing for some during the previous months: optimism.
"Any kind of questions I had were answered," Cordle said.