COLUMBUS, Ohio - It's always football season at Ohio State.
Rules and circumstances have kept Urban Meyer off the practice field for 103 days, but that ends Tuesday with the official start of Meyer's second spring practice.
He'll be on the accelerator.
Much has changed since last spring, when Meyer and most of the assistant coaches were new to the job. The offense was new, and so were many of the players. New standards were implemented in addition to the new schemes and styles.
This time around, so much is new on the periphery. Ohio State just happened to go 12-0 in its bowl-banned year, turning a presumed learning curve into a launching pad. The Buckeyes were flawed but unbeaten, far from perfect but on the improve throughout the last half of the season. A group of experienced leaders has departed, and Meyer has added another star-studded recruiting class. Most of those recruits won't be around until the summer, but the spring provides the opportunity for players who were around last spring but not always in the lineup last fall to emerge.
The best players will play. Meyer has been clear that redshirts only come via injury or extreme circumstances, and that there's little time to wait for those who don't catch on. His famous offseason workout program has rarely failed to produce leaner, stronger, faster players, and this year the focus will be on refining things and competing for jobs much more than it was last spring.
The bar has been raised, but the Buckeyes still have a long way to go to get where Meyer wants them to go. Below are four areas of emphasis for spring practice as Meyer and his staff turn their attention towards chasing those bigger goals this fall and beyond.
1. The passing game must improve
Braxton Miller was mostly brilliant last fall, a gifted athlete and a perfect fit for the spread Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman installed. But for Miller to take the next step -- and Meyer says his ceiling is very high -- he needs to continue to master the intricacies of the offense and continue to improve as a passer. His receiving crew, a green and unproven group a year ago, can help that, too, and not just in big plays through the air but in making the simple plays that keep defenses honest and more importantly keep Miller from taking too many hits. His getting bruised is going to be a byproduct of his talents and running ability, but a healthy Miller is the most dangerous Miller -- and quite possibly a real Heisman Trophy candidate.
2. The defensive front seven is almost totally new
The Buckeyes lost not only talent but leadership in a senior class that answered every call last fall. The most glaring holes left on the depth chart by those departures -- and Johnathan Hankins' exit for the NFL Draft -- are up front, where the whole starting defensive front is gone and just one linebacker who saw significant time returns. The good news is that lone linebacker, Ryan Shazier, was the best of the bunch, and that Meyer's 2012 recruiting class was front-seven heavy. Players like Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington up front and linebackers Josh Perry, Jamal Marcus, Camren Williams and Curtis Grant will be asked this spring to play and carry themselves like they've been here before.
3. The Buckeyes must deal with change - and expectations
It's an early start to spring practice now that Ohio State is on a semester system and not a quarter system. Meyer will look at it like the Buckeyes have to make up for lost time, too, having lost 15 or so bowl practices in December due to the postseason ban. The head coach will be looking closely to see which players take leadership roles and which ones adhered to the wishes of their assistant coaches in working on their own during the non-contact period. Ohio State has experience returning in the backfield on both sides of the ball and has plenty of talent on hand, but these Buckeyes would still be considered a young team by most standards, and over 14 spring practices in five weeks they'll be treated by their coaches like they've won exactly nothing yet. How this team matures and how players accept roles and coaching this spring could go far in laying a foundation for the fall.
4. Players must answer the call
The 2012 Buckeyes were a team with holes and depth issues, most of which never got exposed. Backup quarterback Kenny Guiton's development and emergence saved the undefeated season vs. Purdue, and Carlos Hyde became the go-to runner not named Miller. This time around there are jobs to be won on both lines and gaps to be filled at almost every position. The deep, experienced secondary should make for a good battle for playing time, but the battles in front of those defensive backs will be contested by younger, less proven players. Tight end Jeff Heuerman could be primed for a jump in his third year and is one of many pass-catchers who will be closely scrutinized. With Jordan Hall returning to the backfield, how he fits and how second-year backs Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball compete will be interesting, too.
With Meyer in charge, the Buckeyes will always be interesting. Exactly what they're doing next January could depend, at least on part, on what they can accomplish in March and early April.