Last year, Tattoo-gate turned Ohio State into Team Turmoil. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor and head coach Jim Tressel were first suspended for five games last season, then left Columbus in disgrace as the NCAA learned more and more about a program out of control. Luke Fickell took over on an interim basis to lead the Buckeyes to a 6-7 record last season. As the season ended, the clouds began to part and the sun began to shine brightly on Ohio State. The NCAA came down relatively lightly on Ohio State; they'll be ineligible for postseason action this season. And more importantly, they actually upgraded their coaching situation by snaring Urban Meyer out of the ESPN broadcast booth. OK, maybe Meyer isn't the long term solution for Ohio State (just ask Florida fans about him), but as a short term fix, it's hard to argue with Meyer's record.
In last year's game in Lincoln, Ohio State bolted to a 27-6 lead early in the third quarter thanks to some defensive breakdowns and some inconsistent play on offense. Lavonte David turned the game around by stripping Buckeye freshman quarterback Braxton Miller of the ball. It didn't hurt the Huskers chances when Miller had to leave the game on the next series, summoning the erratic (to put it nicely) Joe Bauserman into the game. The Huskers dominated the Buckeyes on both sides of the ball from that point forward, scoring the final 28 points of the game to win 34-27. It's probably too simplistic to completely pin the turnaround on Miller's injury, as the Ohio State defense disappeared in the second half. Of course, that's partially the fault of Bauserman, who couldn't hit the broad side of a barn to keep drives alive and keep the defense off the field.
Braxton's back for his sophomore season, and expectations are high for him to excel in Meyer's spread offense. He led the Buckeyes in rushing last season with 715 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. In the air, he completed a respectable 54% of his passes for 13 touchdowns and only four interceptions. Miller will be backed up by junior Kenny Guiton, who hasn't seen much action so far in his Ohio State career. Sorry, but Joe Bauserman's eligibility expired after last season, much to the relief of Buckeye fans everywhere.
Jordan Hall is supposed to be the featured back in Meyer's offense, but a foot injury he suffered last month will keep him out for another two months. He'll probably be eased back into the offense at that time, so Carlos Hyde likely will be the primary running back threat until then. Hyde is a 235 pound load who pounded the Huskers last season for 103 yards and two touchdowns in Lincoln, including a 63 yard run that hushed Memorial Stadium. For the entire season, Hyde rushed for 566 yards and six touchdowns. The slimmer, sleeker Hall (5'9", 198 pounds) rushed for 49 yards on 17 carries against the Huskers, and 408 yards last season. 6'3" 230 pound sophomore Rod Smith will see action as a backup. Don't let his size catch you off-guard with respect to his speed; he was a track star in high school.
Ohio State didn't throw the ball much in 2011, completing only 121 passes as a team. Nobody had big numbers. Devin Smith started his true freshman season catching three touchdown passes in the first four games of the season. You remember his fourth and final touchdown catch of last season; that 40 yard game-winner against Wisconsin. Junior Corey Brown tied Smith for the team lead with 14 catches last season. Keep an eye on freshman Michael Thomas, a 6'2" speed receiver who caught 12 passes in the spring game for 131 yards. Tight end Jake Stoneburner scored on seven on his 14 catches last season, but was suspended indefinitely this summer after an altercation with police. Apparently peeing on a building isn't appreciated in Columbus. Chances are that he'll be reinstated long before the Huskers land in Columbus.
On the offensive line, the Buckeyes have to replace three starters including second team all-Big Ten tackle Mike Adams and center Mike Brewster. Jack Mewhort moved from right guard to left tackle, but was suspended for the same incident as Stonebruner. Junior Andrew Norwell earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors last year; he's targeted to play left guard. Pass blocking was a particular problem for Ohio State last season, allowing 46 sacks even though they only threw the ball 245 times last season.
Nine starters could return for the Buckeyes, which finished last season ranked 19th giving up only 21 points a game on average. Everybody up front returns, led by junior defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, who recorded 67 tackles last season, eight for a loss. The 6'4" 317 pounder is NFL bound, and was named a preseason first team all-American by College Football News. Senior 6'2" 260 pound defensive end John Simon was a first team all-Big Ten selection last year with 53 tackles, 17 for a loss. Simon is a Cardinal Mooney graduate; too bad Bo Pelini couldn't have convinced him to come to Lincoln instead. (He was an early commit to Ohio State, so that would have been a tough sell job.)
Linebacker is where the question marks are on the Buckeyes defense. The only returning starter was middle linebacker Storm Klein, but he was suspended on July 10th after being charged with domestic violence and assault against an ex-girlfriend (and mother of his child). Klein started 10 games last season with 45 tackles, but was passed by sophomore Curtis Grant on the depth chart this spring. Klein's attorney predicts he'll be cleared and reinstated, for what it's worth. Sophomore Ryan Shazier moved from safety to linebacker almost immediately and totaled 57 tackles as a backup; he's slated to start at weakside linebacker. Senior Etienne Sabino also had big numbers as a backup; 62 tackles last season after missing the 2010 season.
The secondary is going to be solid, if not spectacular this season. Led by junior C.J. Barrett, who was a second team all-Big Ten safety last season, all four return. Barrett led the Buckeyes last season with 75 tackles plus six pass breakups. 5' 11" sophomore cornerback Bradley Roby started eleven games as a freshman with 47 tackles and three interceptions. After a year of seasoning, he could be an emerging star in the secondary.
Former interim head coach Luke Fickell remains with Ohio State as co-defensive coordinator working with Everett Withers, who spent last season as North Carolina's interim head coach. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman had the same role at Iowa State last season before joining the Ohio State staff. It's a staff that people expect great things from, though maybe not this season. With the Buckeyes ineligible for post-season play in 2012, there's not much point in it this season. The Buckeyes will have to be content with goals like installing Urban Meyer's system, beating that team up north, and building for 2013.