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August 2, 2012

The top 10 questions facing the Ohio State offense

Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

One day from now, Ohio State will have finished its first fall camp practice under new head coach Urban Meyer. Despite the team facing a bowl ban and coming off of a 6-7 season in 2011, excitement is running high in Columbus for Meyer's first season as the Buckeyes' head coach. Over the next three weeks, several questions will be answered about an OSU team that will be entering what will no doubt be a historic season 30 days from now. With that in mind, here are the top ten questions facing the Ohio State offense at the start of fall camp:

1. How big of a leap has Braxton Miller made?

While it's no secret that Miller had an impressive freshman season, which culminated with the Huber Heights, Ohio native being named the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year, the pressure placed on the Ohio State quarterback has only intensified with the arrival of Meyer. Miller now must deal with living up to expectations, rather than just showing potential as he did a season ago.

Meyer said that it will be pretty early in the fall camp process when he'll find out if Miller has made one of the improvements that he expected him to make this summer.

"I'll tell you after the first week of practice if he's a good leader. 'Cause if we throw the ball decent, guys are catching, that means he led them all summer," Meyer said. "If they don't, then he's not where he needs to be."

2. Who will replace Jordan Hall?

For at least the first two games- if not longer- the Buckeyes will be without Hall, who was expected to play a crucial role in Meyer's inaugural Ohio State offense. With Hall still recovering from surgery after cutting his foot on a piece of glass in June, the Buckeyes will spend fall camp searching for his replacement to play the running back/wide receiver hybrid position that made Percy Harvin in Meyer's spread offense.

"(Corey Brown), Evan Spencer ran an extremely fast 40- you have to be really fast, because we run the jet sweep off of that as well," Meyer said. "So there's some candidates. Najee Murray's a guy I'm going to look at. He's had a really good summer. You also want the body type that's going to be able to not just have to run east-west all the time. That's where Jordan was a perfect guy."

3. Who's going to catch the ball?

A season ago, four Buckeyes tied to lead the team in catches with 14 each. After describing the 2011 Ohio State passing attack as "non-functional," it's clear that type of production won't fly in Meyer's spread attack.

In order for the passing game to improve, that means receivers are going to have to step up, and Meyer already likes what he sees in some candidates to replace the graduated DeVier Posey.

"I've heard Devin Smith has had a very good summer. He looks different to me. He looks more mature. I think he realizes the urgency. Philly Brown looks better to me," Meyer said. "Evan Spencer's had a very good summer. Verlon Reed's coming off his knee surgery, but I understand he's doing well. All indications are they're better, but are they good enough to be at the level that we expect them? I don't know."

4. What will fullback Zach Boren's role be?

With Boren being the only offensive chosen by Meyer to come to Big Ten media day in Chicago this summer, there was plenty of speculation as to what the fullback's role would be in the new Ohio State offense. The only problem was, nobody was willing to talk about it.

Whether Boren turns into a traditional running back, pass-catcher, or Wildcat quarterback in short-yardage situations remains to be seen, but Ohio State defensive end John Simon implied that the role will be significant.

"I don't know too much about that," Simon said of Boren's new role. "He'll be in the offense, I can tell you that."

5. Who will start at right tackle?

Aside from wide receiver, where each spot in the starting lineup appears to be up for grabs, the one true position battle on the offensive side of the ball appears to be at right tackle, where two players will battle to replace three-year starter J.B. Shugarts. Vying for Shugarts' vacated spot are a pair of intriguing candidates in Reid Fragel and Taylor Decker.

A senior, Fragel has to career experience advantage over Decker, although this is his first season playing tackle after spending the first three years of his college career playing tight end. Decker on the other hand is a 6-foot-8, 313-pound tackle who was rated as a four-star prospect coming out of Vandalia, Ohio. Fragel appears to have the early advantage in the battle, but things could certainly change in the next three weeks.

6. Will Jake Stoneburner and Jack Mewhort return?

Both the Buckeyes' projected starting tight end and starting left tackle were indefinitely suspended in June after they each pled guilty to disorderly conduct charges in Shawnee Hills, Ohio. Both players had their scholarships taken away for the summer term of classes, but are expected to return full-time to the team at the start of fall camp.

"They're not reinstated yet. They're actively working out.They have to fulfill their penance or obligation that we've asked them to do," Meyer said. "They're doing what they are supposed to do.Monitoring it closely.And that decision won't be made until we get to training camp.But as of now they'll be reporting to training camp."

7. How will Carlos Hyde respond to Meyer's challenge?

It's no secret that a huge part of Meyer's offense is sending multiple styles of runners at opponents. While Miller is already bringing the speed attack of the Ohio State offense, the Buckeyes are still searching for a power component to compliment him. And according to Meyer, he has an ideal candidate for the job in Hyde.

"The body type is Carlos Hyde. Talent is Carlos Hyde. He has to stay healthy and it's time to go get it. It's not the previous coaching staff's fault, it's not the offensive line's fault, it's not the dog ate his homework. It's time to go, go. It's time," Meyer said. "This is the defining moment of Carlos Hyde's career. And it's either yes or no. There can't be any more grey area. He's had too much grey in his career. And he's got talent."

8. Which freshmen will emerge?

Each year, it seems as though at least one freshman jumpstarts a promising career at Ohio State. Although Decker and wide receiver Michael Thomas are probably the safest bets to do that on offense this season, there's been one newcomer who's caught the eye of Boren.

"Warren Ball has surprised me like no other," Boren said. "He's out there competing every day, he's winning every race, he's never complaining. I just think he'll be a great running back here."

9. Will the offensive line be improved?

Talent has never been the main issue for the Ohio State offensive line, but it seems like it's been a while since the Buckeyes have had a consistent push from their players up front on the offensive side of the ball. That's something that will need to change this season, even though new offensive line coach Ed Warinner will breaking in three new starters in 2012.

Just how much the OSU offensive line improves will depend on how center Corey Linsley handles his new role in the middle and whether or not Mewhort can return from suspension to provide stability at the left tackle position.

10. How quickly will the Buckeyes learn the spread?


Of course none of the answers to these questions will matter if the Buckeyes can't pick up Meyer's spread offense. Coming from the traditional power-I offense that was run by former head coach Jim Tressel and offensive coordinator Jim Bollman, the complicated spread could prove to be difficult to pick up, especially with a sophomore quarterback and an unproven group of potential playmakers.

Meyer is well aware of the leaps that his offense and Miller need to make in the next three weeks.

"That's the essence of coaching, it's the essence of what we do," Meyer said. "The passing game was not what it should look like in the spring. The run game was. (Miller)'s got the release, he's got the arm strength. Those kids are around enough to improve and he's got to improve them. Our whole season's banked on that."



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