COLUMBUS — There are two new banners hanging high on the walls of Ohio State’s indoor practice field.
One — placed between the signs celebrating the national championships in 2002 and 1968 — says “12-0 Undefeated Season 2012.” The other one, placed by itself on the east wall of the massive facility, simply says, “The Chase ...”
The first is a 30-by-10-foot reminder of what the Buckeyes accomplished last year, and the other refers to the challenge ahead.
They greeted the players when they took the field for their first of 15 spring workouts Tuesday. It was their first practice since the day after Thanksgiving, their last tuneup before the season-ending game against archrival Michigan.
Even though the Buckeyes were the only major college team to go unbeaten, they were banned from going to a bowl because of NCAA violations committed when Jim Tressel was the head coach.
“We’re all chasing something,” second-year coach Urban Meyer said.
“We’re 15 practices behind a lot of teams — as a matter of fact every team that played in a bowl game last year. So the chase is on. Some guys are chasing starting positions. Some guys are chasing bowl games. Some guys are chasing NFL contracts. ... They’re chasing their dream.”
Meyer spoke to the players circled around him before the start of practice, stressing core values and what is expected of them. Then the players broke into position groups and worked on individual skills. There was no tackling since players didn’t wear full pads, but rather jerseys, helmets and shorts or uniform pants.
Braxton Miller, on a regional cover of Sports Illustrated last week as a Heisman Trophy contender, went through his paces at quarterback. He looked good during a 7-on-7 passing drill and a two-hand-tap scrimmage between the No. 1 offense and top defense. The junior threw the ball well despite wearing a compression sleeve on his right or throwing arm.
Meyer seemed to spend extra time keeping an eye on the defensive line and linebackers — the two areas he said need to develop the most this spring.
“If we put together a good D-line and linebackers, I think we’ll have a good team,” Meyer said. “If not, we won’t. It’s pretty simple.”
The Buckeyes are expected to be among the top five teams in the nation in 2013 by several national publications. They return almost everyone on offense, but must replace seven starters on defense.
“The way I see it is it’s wide open and there’s no set rotation yet,” he said while pinpointing the front seven as the focal point of early season workouts. “They’re all just trying to find their way. (Sophomore defensive linemen) Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington are a leg up because they got to play a little bit last year. But there’s a bunch of other guys who need to get going.”
He joked that some of the upperclassmen haven’t accomplished much in their years with the team and that time was running out for them to have an impact.
“I think you can only redshirt once,” he cracked.
Among those participating in their first collegiate practice were four early enrollees from the 2013 recruiting class: cornerbacks Eli Apple and Cam Burrows, defensive linemen Tyquan Lewis and Elyria’s Tracy Sprinkle and quarterback J.T. Barrett.
The Buckeyes went through drills or scrimmaged for almost 2½ hours. They’ll practice again Thursday, then will be off for spring break. Meyer said he liked the innovation of starting earlier in the spring than usual because it spreads out the workouts, allows more time for teaching and also for recovery from minor injuries.
One other major area of concern is replacing the team’s top leaders from last year’s turnaround season. All last fall, Meyer raved about the guidance provided by seniors John Simon, Etienne Sabino, Zach Boren, Garrett Goebel and others. Now they’re all gone and “the chase” is on to pick up the slack for those who provided the most inspiration and motivation on the team.
“The only thing I don’t feel great about is when you look and you don’t see my leaders from last year,” Meyer said. “I grew to love those guys. They turned out to be as good a human beings as I’ve ever been around. So that’s the only void you feel.”
Overall, however, he liked what he saw in the first official practice of 2013.
“On defense there’s a lot of young puppies running around out there,” he said. “But offensively I thought the carryover was good.”