April 15, 2012

Students, players and coaches all as one

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The festivities may have been moved from Ohio Stadium to the indoor Woody Hayes Athletic Center, but it didn't dampen the spirit of an estimated 3,100 students and fans.

Viewing an Ohio State practice, especially one led by head coach and savior Urban Mayer, offers a rare glimpse into the great unknown. When you get the privilege of seeing something others aren't privy to, it's an unforgettable experience. Some would even say a religious experience.

So if you thought a small dose of inclement weather would have Buckeye Nation grumbling, guess again.

The highlight of the day was a series of seven field goals. That usually wouldn't elicit excitement from the team and fans, but when the 3,100 in attendance are encouraged by Meyer to surround the kicking team that ratchets up the excitement.

With a five-yard buffer zone in every direction, place-kicker Drew Basil managed to make five of seven field goal attempts. One was blocked by Johnathan Hankins and the other sailed wide left.

"That was awesome," Basil said. "It was just awesome knowing that everybody around you is Ohio State people yelling. I didn't know if they were yelling for me or against me, but I just thought it was for me."

The often-accurate Basil said nervousness or the fear of shanks never entered his mind as thousands of people crowded his space.

"If I was out there golfing it would be a whole different story," he said laughing.

Perhaps no player was more excited for Saturday's event than Basil. The team has yet to practice in Ohio Stadium this spring, so the thought of performing in front of legions of admirers in the old Horseshoe got the competitive juices flowing for the junior kicker from Chillicothe. So much so that he arrived at the WHAC in the wee hours of the morning to begin stretching.

Then the bad news struck. Rain storms were imminent meaning the practice would be moved. At the end of the day, though, all involved came away pleased with the proceedings. The two-hour practice included the first team offense and defense going against each other, offensive and defensive linemen battles, position drills and special teams simulations.

Students and fans saw their Saturday afternoon heroes and players were able show their appreciation in a meet and greet session on the field after the conclusion of drills.

"It's a benefit for the students and fans and it's a benefit for our kids and coaches to get around them," wide receivers coach Zach Smith said. "At times, it's like you're in your own world here. You're locked in the Woody Hayes, it's indoors and you're just going, going, going. You lose the magnitude of what this place is. What makes this different from the NFL, different from every other level, is the students and the fans. It's awesome."

With one of the largest student bodies in the country, countless student organizations and roughly 30,000 student season ticket holders, Meyer recognizes that students are the lifeblood of the university and deserve opportunities that others aren't afforded.

"There's two constituencies you want on your side and deserve to be on your side, and you give them ownership and access, and that's former players and the student body," Meyer said.

"Sometimes we forget what this is all about. It's about student-athletes and the student body and making the collegiate experience a positive thing. What does every student want? Ownership and access. So we're going to give it to them. It's their stadium. It's their football team."

Meyer said he visited every student organization at Florida after he was hired in 2005, but said Ohio State is "too damn big and I'm getting older, so I can't do that."

Smith may only be 28-years-old, but he's now entering his eighth season of coaching, fourth different school and second go-round with Meyer. Smith was a part of Meyer's staff at Florida that won two national titles. He also happens to be the grandson of revered former OSU head coach Earle Bruce. If anyone understands the importance of the students at Ohio State, it is Zach Smith.

"I think the student body is probably one of the most important assets for a program just because of the support they provide the team," Smith said. "At the same time, it's good for the team to get around students because that's what they are."

It meant Saturday was the world's biggest family reunion.

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