July 25, 2014

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Re-energized: Urban Meyer bringing new attitude, approach to Ohio State

On the day he was introduced as Ohio State’s 24th head coach in November, Urban Meyer outlined a relatively simple list of expectations for his players, his staff and himself.

“I want a bunch of coaches that coach like their hair’s on fire, and I want a football team that goes four to six seconds of relentless effort,” he said. “You do that, you have a chance to win in every game you play.”

Meyer, winner of two national championships at Florida, returned from a
one-year coaching hiatus as an ESPN analyst to take over an Ohio State program mired in NCAA sanctions and beaten down by a year of negative headlines.

So far, he’s injected some fresh thinking, a new offensive philosophy and renewed intensity into a program which had been consistently good in a decade under Jim Tressel, before he was bumped off his pedestal for covering up a scheme involving several top players trading memorabilia for tattoos and money.

Among several other NCAA penalties, the Buckeyes are banned from going to a bowl after this season. So with Meyer preaching he wants an “angry” team, they’ve taken it to heart by vowing to run the table and obliterate all the bad publicity from a year of suspensions, violations and sanctions.

“Our goal’s to go 12-0,” running back Carlos Hyde said. “Even though we can’t go to a bowl game, we still have to play. So we’re just going to get out there and have a chip on our shoulders since we can’t go to a bowl game — to let the world know who the Buckeyes are this year.”

Meyer took over an Ohio State team coming off a dreadful 6-7 season that included a four-game losing skid entering this season. Luke Fickell, the interim coach then, was retained as a defensive co-coordinator.

The attitude was bad, someone was suspended for a violation almost every week and it seemed everyone was waiting for the NCAA to hand down the penalties that came just before the Buckeyes lost to Meyer’s former employer, Florida, in the Gator Bowl.

“There was a lot of (NCAA and disciplinary) stuff going on last year. You can’t really point out what it was,” cornerback Bradley Roby said. “There was so much stuff going on, I feel like it really affected everybody.”

Meyer has told his players to forget 2011 and concentrate on turning around the program. But he doesn’t have three multiyear starters on the offensive line, the top running back and best linebacker from a team whose seven losses were the most for an Ohio State team since 1897.

He has, though, instilled a lot of energy and optimism.

“Expectations always are high,” said the focal point of Meyer’s vaunted spread attack, second-year quarterback Braxton Miller. “When I was in high school looking at Ohio State, I was like, ‘Man, they aren’t ever going to lose. They’re always going to be good.’ That’s the expectations of the fans.”

Miller and the new offense are a radical change from the days of Tressel, who once famously called the punt “the most important play in football.” Meyer would prefer not to punt at all.

His Buckeyes will play uptempo, throw the ball a lot to a lot of different receivers, and should prevent fans from leaving their seats for a bathroom break for fear they’ll miss a 70-yard pass play — or maybe a turnover.

Jordan Hall would have been the H back in the offense, the guy around whom most plays revolve. But he’s out for the first couple of games after cutting a tendon while walking barefoot outside his apartment this summer. In his stead, Hyde, freshman Bri’onte Dunn (who sidestepped legal problems this summer) and Rod Smith also figure to be playmakers.

Much depends on wideouts Evan Spencer, Verlon Reed, Devin Smith, Michael Thomas and converted tight end Jake Stoneburner. If one or more of them proves to be a threat to take a short pass the distance, it’ll make things considerably easier on Miller.

The line needs rebuilding, with first-year players dotting the two-deep.

On defense, the brutes up front will be a strength, with Meyer gushing about the play of John Simon, Johnathan Hankins, Garrett Goebel and — when he returns from microfracture surgery — Nathan Williams.

The linebacker position is thin but talented, with a lot riding on the improvement of Ryan Shazier and Curtis Grant. Cornerbacks Roby and Travis Howard and safeties Christian Bryant, C.J. Barnett and Orhian Johnson anchor the secondary.

Elyria High grad Chase Farris, a 6-4, 286-pound redshirt freshman, is third on the depth chart at defensive end.

“I feel that everybody has bought into coach Meyer,” said Shazier, a promising sophomore who sports a shaved head. “With everybody adjusting to it, I think we’re going to have a really good season.”

Meyer, who twice quit the Florida job due to stress, health and family considerations, swears that he’s feeling reinvigorated and taking steps to make sure he doesn’t burn out again.

His first Ohio State schedule won’t cause him any heartburn. The Buckeyes play their first four games at home against the likes of Miami (Ohio), Central Florida, California and UAB, and in a down year for the Big Ten almost every conference game is winnable. The toughest will be at Michigan State on Sept. 29, Nebraska at home a week later, and the 1-2 punch to close the regular season, at two-time defending champ Wisconsin and home against archrival Michigan.

Then … the season ends. With no bowl game, Meyer and his team will have to be content with whatever they can accomplish in 12 games.

Meyer has no idea how everyone, including himself, will handle the abrupt end of the season.

“We’ve never not played for a championship in November,” he said. “Ten years as a head coach, every November we were playing for a championship. Do we have to create our own championship? I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes.”

Rusty Miller can be reached at http://twitter.com/rustymillerap.