COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Ohio State coaching staff has high hopes for its offense in 2013- and rightfully so. After all, it was just a season ago that the Buckeyes ranked 10th in the country in rushing, with a roster that will return nine starters to the unit next season.
But despite the success that OSU found while compiling a 12-0 record in head coach Urban Meyer's debut season in Columbus, the Buckeye coaches know better than to just expect an encore of that play in 2013.
"Here's the thing about football: you never start where you left off," OSU offensive line coach Ed Warinner said. "Football is a year-round cycle, and whenever you end the season, you have to go back to ground zero and start there."
While Warinner admitted that his team's starting point might be higher this season than it was last- when the Buckeyes were still just installing Meyer's spread offense- the OSU offensive line may be the one position group that the coaches remain the most concerned with as they exit spring practice. The Buckeyes are returning four starters to the unit in Jack Mewhort, Andrew Norwell, Corey Linsley, and Marcus Hall, but are still searching for Reid Fragel's replacement at right tackle. The battle to fill the lone vacancy on the OSU offensive line has come down to a pair of sophomores in Taylor Decker and Chase Farris.
This marks the second consecutive offseason that Decker has found himself in the mix for the Buckeyes' right tackle spot, after losing out to Fragel for the right to start in 2012. As Fragel- a converted tight end- emerged into one of the Buckeyes' most reliable players, Decker's inexperience and youth cost him a shot at significant playing time in his freshman season.
"One's a fourth-year guy in the program, and the other's a guy who graduated from high school early, so there's just a different maturity level and a different physical, mental, emotional maturity level, and then freshmen, they usually always hit the wall at some point," Warinner said. "Decker kind of hit the wall right at the beginning of the season a little bit, kind of flattened out ... I think Taylor went into survival mode and got through the season. Some guys do that. That's a freshman. There aren't many freshmen that play."
Through Ohio State's 15 spring practices, Decker took the majority of the reps with the first-team offense, before playing left tackle in the Buckeyes' annual spring game. Meyer said that the 6-foot-7, 315-pounder's ability is undeniable, but he'd still like to see more consistency from the Vandalia, Ohio native.
"He's probably a little bit ahead of where Fragel was this time (last year)," Meyer said. "We'll see if he makes the same strides that Fragel did."
Like Fragel was a season ago, Farris remains a bit of a project for the OSU coaching staff.
After coming to Columbus as a defensive lineman, Farris was converted to the other side of the ball at the start of the 2012 season. The 6-foot-4, 300-pounder emerged as one of the Buckeyes' more impressive reserves during practice sessions, although he is still relatively green when it comes to playing his new position.
"He's coming around," Meyer said of Farris. "But the offensive line is the one position of all positions on the team that takes the most time to saturate a guy in. And he's got all the skills, he's a wonderful young man, he's just a little bit behind where we thought he would be."
Both candidates' inconsistencies were on full display in Saturday's spring game, where the Gray team's defense tallied nine sacks against a Scarlet squad offensive line that was bookended by Decker and Farris at the two tackle spots. Meyer said that you shouldn't read into who started where- neither Mewhort nor Linsley played in the game- but clearly remains frustrated that neither player has taken hold of the spot.
"It's real bothersome to me," Meyer admitted. "It's real bothersome to our coaches too."
Another option that Meyer mentioned as a possibility for filling the fifth spot on his offensive line is inserting emerging redshirt freshman Pat Elflein at guard, and shifting either Norwell or Hall to right tackle. The Buckeyes haven't experimented much with that lineup, but with expectations of being the top offense in the conference- and after the spring failed to determine a starting right tackle- Meyer made it clear that he'll be open to any and all solutions when the Buckeyes return to football action this fall.
"The offensive line kind of set a nice little standard last year. I felt we were the best offensive line in the Big Ten. And as of practice number whatever, we're not right now. We are not the best offensive line in the Big Ten," Meyer said. "Unless we get that fixed, there goes the best offense in the Big Ten. Because you can't play with four linemen. So one of those young players has got to step up.
"And they haven't this spring."