Ohio State tries to put turmoil aside
By RICK THORP
Times Leader Sports Writer
COLUMBUS — The Ohio State football team will take the field a week from Saturday. And when it does, the Buckeyes will need to put the turmoil that’s surrounded the program during the last month aside and focus on the Week 1 opponent — Oregon State.
No matter who’s steering the ship — Urban Meyer, Ryan Day, or someone else — more than 100,000 rabid fans are sure to be on hand inside Ohio Stadium to watch what, they hope, will be another banner year for the defending Big 10 champs.
The promise of another successful campaign became somewhat clouded late last month when allegations of domestic violence against wide receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Zach Smith from 2015 came to light via a report by college football writer Brett McMurphy, formerly of ESPN.
Smith, the grandson of former Buckeyes head coach Earle Bruce, a well-known mentor of Meyer who died in April, was fired by Meyer on the eve of the OSU coach’s appearance at Big Ten Media Day in suburban Chicago in late July.
At Media Day, Meyer said he didn’t know anything about the allegations, made by Smith’s ex-wife, Courtney.
This set off a firestorm around the Ohio State campus, and the nation, with folks wondering what, in fact, Meyer knew and did about the allegations. The university placed Meyer on paid administrative leave August 1, two days before the Buckeyes opened pre-season camp at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. Co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Ryan Day was named interim head coach, while Brian Hartline — a former Buckeye and NFL standout — was elevated to interim receivers coach from a position on quality control.
Ohio State appointed a six-member committee to handle the investigation and an outside law firm to conduct it. The probe was expected to take two weeks.
The afternoon of the opening day of practice, Meyer released a statement via Twitter admitting he lied to reporters at media day and that he knew about the 2015 incidents. He insisted in the statement he followed proper protocol detailed in the latest contract he signed earlier this year.
While Ohio State officials pondered Meyer’s future behind closed doors, the Buckeyes, ranked No. 3 in the initial Amway Coaches Poll behind Clemson and defending national champ Alabama, continued preparation for the Beavers behind mostly closed doors, as well.
Media access was, for the most part, muzzled early in camp, with reporters only allowed brief opportunities to observe practices and take photos. Interviews with players and coaches weren’t allowed as of this publication going to press.
Under Meyer’s auspices, the Ohio State program has been a well-oiled machine, on and off the field. His loss during preseason works will unquestionably be felt, but Meyer’s beliefs have been well-channeled into his assistants, many of whom have been with him for years, some back to his days at Bowling Green.
Day served as a graduate assistant for Meyer in 2005 before coaching wide receivers at Temple and Boston College. He served as offensive coordinator at both schools. Day moved to the NFL in 2015, becoming quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia. He accepted the same job in San Francisco a year later before taking the Ohio State job.
Greg Schiano returns this fall as associate head coach/defensive coordinator, while Alex Grinch joins the Buckeyes’ staff as co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach after a highly successful tenure at Washington State. Larry Johnson retains the title of assistant head coach/defensive line coach, while Bill Davis again tends to the linebackers. Tony Alford holds the title assistant head coach/running back coach, while Taver Johnson is the new cornerbacks coach/special teams coordinator.
Greg Studrawa, who coached with Meyer at BGSU, again oversees the offensive line. West Liberty graduate Mickey Marotti serves as assistant AD for Football Sports Performance. St. Clairsville graduate Adam Stewart is once again the Buckeyes’ football program’s chief physical therapist.
Day joined the Ohio State staff last year along with Kevin Wilson, whom he shares offensive coordinator duties with. Wilson, the ex-Indiana University head coach, also coaches the tight ends.
The Buckeyes rallied to beat Wilson’s former team in a challenging Thursday night opener last year. Ohio State’s luck ran out, however, in its home opener when No. 5 Oklahoma stormed into Columbus and downed the Buckeyes, 31-16.
Ohio State dropped in the rankings after the loss, but surged back to No. 3 before being throttled in Iowa City to an unranked Hawkeyes team, allowing 55 points in the process. The Buckeyes ran the table after that, including victories against No. 13 Michigan State and No. 3 Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. The Iowa loss proved to be damaging as the Big Ten champ was shut out of the College Football Playoff for the first time.
“The competitive level of the Big Ten right now is as strong as I’ve seen in any conference,” Meyer said at Big Ten Media Day. “Speaking in particular about the Big Ten East — once again, I can just give you my historical perspective of different conferences I’ve worked in — it’s the most competitive division that I’ve ever been a part of.
“All conferences face good teams within their conference. You lose two or three games or a couple games in that conference, it’s tough to make the playoff.”
The Buckeyes capped a 12-2 season with a victory against Southern Cal in the Cotton Bowl.
There’s no Oklahoma on the Buckeyes’ non-conference slate this year. After its opener, Ohio State welcomes Rutgers for the Big Ten opener then travels to ‘Jerryworld’ in Arlington, Texas to battle No. 16 TCU.
A showdown at Penn State looms to round out September, with another road test at Michigan State set for November 10. The annual battle against “the school up north” takes place in Columbus on November 24. The Big Ten title game will played the following Saturday, again in Indianapolis.
The Buckeyes emerged victorious in the 2017 Big Ten title tilt behind quarterback J.T. Barrett, the first-team all-Big Ten performer.
Barrett left an indelible mark on the Ohio State program, leaving Columbus with a total of 39 Ohio State or Big Ten records in hand. The East-West Shrine Game’s Pat Tillman Award winner, Barrett guided Ohio State to a record 38 victories during his four years as a starter.
Barrett’s departure created one of the biggest questions of the offseason — who’d replace him, Dwayne Haskins, Joe Burrow or Tate Martell?
After a heated battle, it became apparent Burrow, the former Mr. Football from Athens, would be the odd man out. So, he elected to transfer to LSU, leaving Haskins as the man.
“The expectation is to be the best quarterback in the Big Ten, which is very hard because we have some excellent quarterbacks” Meyer said speaking about Haskins in the Windy City.
“The one — the void is going to be the leadership component of that that — I can’t remember his name — that was there for four years, J.T. What he did for our team inside, not many people were aware of, I’ll be forever indebted to J.T., that’s how good a person, leader he was.”
Haskins, in limited action, threw for 565 yards and four touchdowns last year.
Meyer said Haskins, a redshirt sophomore, has seized the day when it comes to leadership and all the intangibles one would like to have in a quarterback, especially one at a program the stature of an Ohio State.
“And the big word is respect and earned trust,” Meyer said. “It’s the job of a leader. Earn trust. That’s the most — all due respect to other sports, this is the most unique position of all of sport.
“You have to understand the entire defense, have to understand all other 10 players, what they’re doing on offense. He has to make decisions in split seconds. And, by the way, he’s got people like (Nick) Bosa trying to tear his throat out.”
Meyer said he’ll miss Burrow.
“I love Joe Burrow,” he said. “I love his family and have great respect for him. And that’s not going to stop.”
Martell, a redshirt freshman, will likely be the backup, with freshman Matt Baldwin handling the third-team.
“He’s gained some 20 pounds,” Meyer said of Baldwin. “I wish we had one more (quarterback), because you like to have four. But Dwayne is very talented throwing the ball. But that’s one-third of what a quarterback has to do. And lead and toughness are the other two.”
J.K. Dobbins, who burst onto the scene as a true freshman last year to the tune of a team-best, a school-best for a rookie, 1,403 yards, returns to bolster a rushing corps. Mike Weber, who produced 1,096 as a true freshman in 2016, also returns.
The Buckeyes are loaded at receiver, where seven letterwinners and all starters return.
Three-time letterwinner Parris Campbell leads the group. The fifth-year player , and senior, led the team’s balanced effort last year with 584 yards on 40 catches. Junior KJ Hill paced the Buckeyes with 56 receptions and finished with 549 yards.
Senior Terry McLaurin followed with 436 yards receiving, while senior Johnnie Dixon hauled in a team-best eight touchdowns and 422 yards of passes. Juniors Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack and senior CJ Saunders all caught 17 or more passes, while Demario McCall is returning from a redshirt sophomore season.
Center Billy Price and left tackle Jamarco Jones have left, but Ohio State returns nine letterwinners along the line.
Leading the charge are junior left guard Michael Jordan, senior right tackle Isaiah Prince and the right guard tandem of Demetrius Knox (senior) and Branden Bowen (junior). Others in the mix include: seniors Brady Taylor and Malcolm Pridgeon, junior Joshua Alabi and sophomore Thayer Munford.
While seven starters return on offense, a like number depart defensively — Tyquan Lewis, Jalyn Holmes/Sam Hubbard, Tracy Sprinkle, Chris Worley, Jerome Baker, Damon Webb and Denzel Ward.
Bosa, a junior, returns at end, however.
He was far and away the team leader in sacks with 8.5.
Jonathan Cooper, a junior, and Chase Young, a sophomore, will likely join Bosa on the outside.
Dre’Mont Jones, who made 20 stops in 2017 as a redshirt sophomore, returns at a tackle spot. He has 23 career starts.
Juniors Robert Landers, Jashon Cornell and Davon Hamilton all return to the field at tackle, with sophomores Haskell Garrett and Malik Barrow and redshirt freshman Jerron Cage also returning. That group will be joined by recruits Antwuan Jackson, Tommy Togiai and Taron Vincent, the top recruit in the nation from the 2018 class.
Linebacker Tuf Borland, a sophomore, remains out with an ankle-area injury sustained last spring.
Meyer said he wouldn’t be surprised to see him back this fall. Until then, fifth-year senior Dante Booker, who has seven career starts, will man things, with juniors Malik Harrison, Keandre Jones and Justin Hilliard providing support, along with sophomores Baron Browning and Pete Werner.
The secondary is reloading. Two starters — juniors Jordan Fuller and Damon Arnette — return at safety and corner, respectively. Second-year players Kendall Sheffield and Jeffrey Okudah also return at corner.
Sean Nuernberger and Drue Chrisman return at kicker and punter, respectively. Long snapper Liam McCullum is back in the fold, as well.