CHICAGO — “Where we are as a team in 2016,” Urban Meyer said by way of introduction Tuesday morning, “we have to find a way to replace arguably one of the best group of players ever to come through college football.”
So, you know, that’s all for Ohio State. Merely overcome the loss of 16 starters who were part of 50 wins and a national title, 12 of whom were NFL draft picks, five of whom were first-rounders, all while meeting the unyielding expectation to challenge for conference and national championships. And yet this is the chance to reach optimal Ohio State. This is the way it’s supposed to be. Meyer and his staff compile awesome recruiting classes because they hope those classes will dominate college football and leave. And when they do, the coaches turn to the next awesome recruiting classes they brought in.
This is the machine. This is how the machine is supposed to work.
“I don’t think we’re thinking expectations are lowered this year because people are gone,” Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett said during his team’s Big Ten media day appearance. “I don’t think that’s fair to the people that came through Ohio State before, and [to] myself and the players that are here now. There’s a certain standard at Ohio State, and it shouldn’t change for anybody, I don’t care how many people you lost.
“You want us to tell the fans, ‘Hey, we lost some guys, so yeah, I don’t know about that Big Ten championship—sorry?’ Buckeye Nation would look at you crazy: ‘What are you talking about? Come on.’ There’s a certain standard at Ohio State, and you live by it, or you’re not with us.”
That’s a heck of a rallying cry, but it’s also an abstraction. The considerable stress that those personnel departures put on the machine is meanwhile a very practical problem. No, Ohio State does not dismiss that. Before summer workouts, strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti informed a relatively callow group—44 players haven’t appeared in a game yet—that they’d have to grow up quick. During those workouts, when Marotti threw wrenches and changeups into the routine, demanding the players adjust accordingly, Barrett saw some faces grow long while other faces wondered what in the blazes was going on.
The machine may sputter and fail, yes. That can happen when half the roster hasn’t taken a snap and a trio of top 10-caliber opponents (Oklahoma, Michigan State and Michigan) lay in wait. But the thing is, what if there is no sputter? What if the three straight top seven recruiting classes adequately mitigate nine early NFL departures, and the machine doesn’t fail?
Will it ever?
“We got a freight train going right now,” Buckeyes center Pat Elflein said. “Expectations aren’t changing yet.”
Top to bottom, Meyer insisted, this is as talented a group as he’s had in Columbus. It’s just getting them in the right spots that will be the issue. To that end, it helps to have anchors like Barrett (5,446 career total yards and 67 career touchdowns) and linebacker Raekwon McMillan (team-high 119 tackles last year), who could be the best offensive and defensive player in the Big Ten. But Meyer called back to 2014 as the “template,” a year that had future stars like Barrett, Cardale Jones, Ezekiel Elliott, Darron Lee, Eli Apple and Mike Thomas relegated to secondary roles, if not total anonymity, as the season began.
You might recall the season ended with Meyer hoisting a trophy amid a confetti shower. “I see that potential,” Meyer said.
No one else gets quite as close a look, so for now the rest is anecdotal hope. As McMillan extolled his camaraderie with one of his new linebacking partners, junior Dante Booker, he noted that their competition extends all the way to seeing who can answer meeting room questions first. As Elflein wondered at the potential of 6' 7", 316-pound Mike Jordan, who might be the program’s first true freshman Day 1 starter on the offensive line since Orlando Pace, he recalled Jordan completely botching an assignment during one spring practice. The freshman nevertheless finished his mistake by pancaking whoever wound up in his way.
“I was like, All right, we can work with this guy,” Elflein said.
Everyone probably would be more comfortable with a little more experience on hand. But then this group, in particular, has to consider the bliss of ignorance.
Expectations to defend a championship, and to atomize every opponent while doing so, consumed the Buckeyes of 2015. It suffocated the joy out of victories. Nothing was good enough. “I guess there was kind of a disappointment even with each other,” Barrett said. “I know there were times we’d win a game and, in the locker room, we didn’t enjoy it. I can’t remember exactly what game, but Josh Perry, he said something like, ‘Hey, we won. Quit acting like we lost.’ But that was the thing—our expectations were so high on ourselves. We tried to do the best we could. And when we didn’t live up to that, we were hard on ourselves. At times I guess we should have lightened up a little bit.”
The great part about players who have never played? They don’t have anything to compare the experience to. They’re preoccupied with what Meyer termed a “free-for-all for playing time.” They’re logically inoculated against becoming jaded, at least for a while. When Barrett says he’ll focus on taking more time to appreciate what’s going right, even if it’s just a minute before Sunday workouts, he and other veterans will be surrounded by teammates who don’t know the difference. And that might be a good thing. “The first time out there on the field they get a win,” Barrett said, “they’re definitely going to be psyched about it.”
It will be fascinating and telling either way to see how close Meyer truly is to self-sustaining dominance, five years in. A pile of 2017 recruiting commitments that currently ranks No. 1 nationally suggests he is getting there, no matter what happens this fall. But what happens this fall does matter, of course, because it could end the debate before the next five-star prospect signs a letter of intent.
Just before leaving a small podium Tuesday afternoon, Meyer was asked how his fifth year at Ohio State might compare to the fifth year at Florida. That was 2009, the season after a national title run. He recalled the credo of that team: become the first undefeated club in Gators history. Nothing else would suffice. Meyer joked that the mandate—and the oppressive pressure that followed—was Tim Tebow’s fault. And then the Buckeyes coach swiftly established the difference between expectations then and now, no matter how good he feels about an Ohio State team no one knows about.
“That’s not the message,” Meyer said. “I don’t even talk about that.”
He doesn’t have to. It’s a directive right there in the hum of the Ohio State machine. If it sputters this fall, no one will be terrifically surprised, and it simply gets recharged to run again.
If it doesn’t sputter, then maybe it never will.