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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- With the effects of NCAA sanctions still lingering, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer knew that his team had some ground to make up in his second offseason in Columbus. And through 15 spring practices before the start of August's fall camp, Meyer feels as though the Buckeyes are right where they need to be.
Thanks to the postseason ban put in place for the 2012 season that came as a result of violations committed by members of the 2010 OSU squad and former head coach Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes were without the customary 15 practices that would've been added to help them prepare for a bowl game. In the past, those practices haven't been used to just prepare for upcoming postseason contests, but to develop young and seldom used players as well.
Knowing the disadvantage that his team would be faced with in the offseason, Meyer took a preemptive strike during the regular season, holding scrimmages on Sundays for players who didn't receive much action on Saturday. But with Ohio State's undefeated season in 2012 only raising expectations for the upcoming year, the importance of the Buckeyes' missed practices only heightened and led to a spring that their head coach described as "great."
"I think we're on track. I think we're halfway caught up," Meyer said following Ohio State's spring game in Cincinnati on Saturday. "We were 15 down. You can whine about it, complain about it, blame people I guess, but we don't do that. We just say let's just go forward and catch up somehow."
Offensively, Meyer liked what he saw from a unit that ranked as the nation's No. 10 rushing attack in 2012. The second-year Buckeyes coach was particularly pleased with the development of star quarterback Braxton Miller, and not just in his play on the field.
"He's doing a much better job as far as communication with players as far leadership, as far as being out there early. Being the leader," Meyer said. "I'm very pleased with a lot of the things I've seen in the spring from Braxton ... he's done some very good things football-wise too."
While running back Carlos Hyde sat out the majority of the spring with little to prove to the OSU coaching staff, weapons for Miller to play with in Meyer's spread attack also took leaps forward this spring. Meyer mentioned wide receiver Chris Fields, tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett, and wideout Corey Brown as players who he noticed a significant improvement in.
"Philly Brown's turning into a legitimate All-Big Ten candidate at wide receiver for us, which we need," Meyer said after Saturday's exhbition. "That was a continuation of what started all spring."
If there is one area on offense that leaves Meyer worried heading into fall camp, it's the Buckeyes' right tackle position. Sophomores Taylor Decker and Chase Farris are vying for the right to replace departed senior Reid Fragel, but through 15 spring practices, neither player has taken ahold of the opportunity to play alongside Ohio State's four returning starters on the offensive line.
"I would be disappointed if we're not the best offense in the Big Ten," Meyer said. "The one glaring weakness is that fifth spoke of the offensive line. We have a legitimate concern and that is who that player is. I feel good about four of the five starters, and unless we get that fixed, there goes the best offense in the Big Ten. Because you can't play with four linemen."
On defense, where the Buckeyes will return just four starters from 2012, Meyer saw perhaps even more improvement. Not only did defensive ends Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence dominate the spring game with seven combined sacks, but junior-to-be Curtis Grant has emerged as the likely leader to replace Zach Boren in the middle of the unit.
"Curtis Grant's the starting middle linebacker at Ohio State," Meyer stated. "He is a fully-engaged player right now, which I take my hat off to him. He was not that a year ago."
In the secondary, the Buckeyes return three of their four starters from a season ago, with Doran Grant capturing the vacancy left by Travis Howard at one of OSU's two starting cornerback spots. Cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs was pleased with Grant's play this spring, stating that he solidified himself as a starter heading into fall camp.
"He's played really well. Doran was capable last year, and I was disappointed he didn't play more, but Travis had a great season. Travis was an All-Big Ten kid," Coombs said. "Doran played one game, he had 30 production points, he had all different kind of things that he did. At the same time, I don't think he was as good as he is this year. We've worked really hard on a lot of things that are not football-related ... we're real excited about Doran's progress this spring."
It's that type of improvement that Meyer knew the Buckeyes had to make up for due to his team's lost bowl practices. The OSU coach is clearly pleased with his team's progress, but knows that there's still work to be done.
"I think we're halfway home," Meyer said. "If we can pick up those eight practices between now and our first game, I think we'll be fine."
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