Three and Out From Inside the WHAC
By Tony Gerdeman
Experience is what turns rookies into veterans. Without it, a team can't expect to overcome the normal, every day obstacles that it finds in its path. With it, however, sometimes a team can overcome just about anything.
The Buckeyes are now seven games into the 2012 season, and the experience that they have – or haven't – gained is unique to each individual player.
What they are finding out is that if you want to win, inexperience can only last so long before something needs to change.
The Ohio State offensive line came into this season virtually unproven as a unit, but they have grown together and gotten better every week. They are now experienced, and the offense relies on them endlessly.
The path that they have forged on this team is both literal and figurative. Not only are they paving the way for Braxton Miller and the running backs, but they are also showing the rest of the team that confidence is just a little bit of experience away.
At one point during last week's practices, the Buckeyes had five linebackers who were out with injuries. It was that dire situation which forced Urban Meyer's hand into putting fullback Zach Boren at linebacker.
Sr. Zach Boren at Linebacker
Photo by Jim Davidson
Even though Meyer brought in five linebackers in the 2012 recruiting class, they haven't had anyone emerge to the point of relieving the stress that injuries and inexperience brings.
It's this struggle that has led to way too many lapses for the defense. Meyer doesn't want to hear about the struggles, however, he wants to hear about the solutions.
"That's a really good, solid excuse," he said matter of factly.
"It is. That's a solid one. And there is probably some truth to that. However, we don't deal in that. We deal in improving."
That need to find improvements brought about the move of Boren to linebacker, and could possibly bring about the move of defensive end Nathan Williams as well.
"The options are very limited right now," Meyer said of the linebacking situation.
"The guy that played very well is [defensive end] Noah Spence. So the thing you have to ask yourself, okay, Noah Spence and Nate Williams play the same position, so let's have a conversation about that, and we are.
"How do you get them both on the field at the same time is the conversation. It's your best eleven – 3-4, 4-3 – whatever, get them on the field. We've got enough coaches to figure that out. I'm not saying that's happening. We're just identifying who the best eleven players are and putting that puzzle together."
It's not just Meyer who is unhappy with the linebacker play, because the linebackers are unhappy as well.
"It's tough sometimes because we know that we're the main point of the defense, and if we have a bad week, it makes the whole defense not look so good," linebacker Ryan Shazier said.
"We've been pretty weak. We've got Bino down, a lot of guys are hurt, and we had to have some of the freshmen guys step up.
"I have to be a lot better leader, especially at the linebacker position. I have to take more control. I have to make the plays that come to me. I've been missing way too many tackles. I've just got to do my job and be a linebacker."
For as down on his play as Shazier is, the Buckeyes could live with his play provided the linebackers around him were playing the same. But they're not, and the Buckeyes are being exposed.
"You can't hide the middle linebacker," Meyer said.
"You can't hide the center of your defense. It's got to be strong."
The trouble at linebacker led to Zach Boren's switch, and even though it was big news at the time, looking back on it now, it almost seems completely natural.
"Zach Boren is a guy that there's something about game experience," Meyer said.
"There is something about being in the arena many, many times. Came here as a linebacker, and was kind of a test for the first four periods of practice that I watched. He changed the entire dynamic of practice, because so much of playing football is the leadership value too of what's going on.
"Who is the tough guy on the defense? Who is the guy that's going to stand up and take charge? You start sticking freshmen here and there, here and there, and they're just in survival mode, not leadership mode."
For a while last week, Boren was also in survival mode, but eventually, the ol' linebacker instincts kicked back in.
"I haven't been nervous before a game in a long time," Boren said.
"Even big games, I love big games. I get butterflies, but I've never really been nervous. But I was really nervous against Indiana. It probably took me two series before I settled down.
"It was just one of those things where it was a new thing, and I was jamming so much information into my head for 72 hours that I didn't want to go on the field and totally forget everything, so I was nervous about that. After the first two series it came back to me, and I was just out there having fun."
Boren, who is slated to get the start at middle linebacker this week, ended up leading the Buckeyes in tackles against the Hoosiers.
"Linebacker is just instinctively easy to me. It just comes to me."
Boren gained some much-needed experience in last week's game, but also got another full week of practice and study in, which can only help.
"I know a lot more," he said on Wednesday.
"Just the basic coverages that we run, I know more of what everyone is doing. Last week it was more of just what I was doing. So I have more of a basic understanding of the defense. I'll be even more well off this week."
Tailback Carlos Hyde has always been a player who has produced when given enough opportunity to do so. Despite this, however, he has also gone through long stretches of his career when his expertise wasn't needed.
That has changed this season, and Hyde's experience grows each time out, as do his contributions.
In the Buckeyes' first five games this year Hyde only carried the ball 35 times, missing two games due to injury. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry in those few touches, but it was always clear that he could and should be doing more with his carries.
In his last two games, however, he has carried the ball 50 times for 296 yards (5.9 yards per carry). With more opportunities, Hyde has been allowed to get into the groove that all running backs find comforting.
"As they get a feel for certain reads and what the defenses are giving us, they start getting a rhythm," running backs coach Stan Drayton said of tailbacks in general.
"They get a feel. They anticipate more the longer the game goes on. That's been true for Carlos. He's a load. He uses all of his 235 pounds, and I think people underestimate his speed at times. When he gets into the mindset and the rhythm of anticipating where the runs and the seams might be, he really becomes a very effective and productive back.
"In my experience as a coach, when a kid takes ownership of himself is when you start to see that individual start to reach his potential as an athlete."
"I feel like I've matured a lot," Hyde agreed.
"Last year I was young-minded and I was making immature decisions, and that was really hurting me. I feel like this year I've matured a lot and I've learned a lot being around here, and I feel like I have made a complete 180."
Last year, Hyde felt that he got a bit of a raw deal when it came to playing time. Once Boom Herron came back, Hyde basically disappeared. His experience and maturity this year, however, has him seeing things much differently than he did last year.
Take the joy that he finds in watching Rod Smith carry the ball, for instance.
"When he's out there, to see him running the ball and breaking tackles, I'm probably more excited than him," Hyde said.
That type of maturity comes from experience, as well as finally getting to contribute the way that a player knows that he can.
As Braxton Miller gains experience and is able to do more with the offense, as Carlos Hyde continues to show what he is capable of doing, and as the receivers continue to mature into the playmakers that Urban Meyer needs, the one constant surrounding the entire offense is the offensive line.
Without them, none of the rest of this would be happening, and Meyer knows it.
"The common denominator with all of this is the way our offensive line has developed," he said.
"They're really playing well together. The communication and recognition of fronts and being able to make full-speed adjustments on the run has really taken our running game to another level."
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