Brandon Castel: Thinking Out Loud: Braxton’s Big Decision, Shazier’s Next Step, Looking Ahead

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Last updated: 01/05/2014 12:09 PM

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Thinking Out Loud: Braxton’s Big Decision, Shazier’s Next Step, Looking Ahead
By Brandon Castel

The holidays are over and a new year is upon us, but there’s a lot to digest from the last 48-72 hours of Ohio State football. It’s been a rough month, with the Buckeyes dropping back-to-back games on the national stage after rattling off 24 straight wins to start Urban Meyer’s tenure in Columbus.

Based on the performance of the defense all season long, I’m not the least bit surprised Ohio State came up on the losing end of a hard-fought battle Friday night. My prediction of 55-52 was a tad extreme, but it demonstrated my lack of faith in an OSU defense that was shredded for 40 points and 576 yards in the Orange Bowl.

Any way you look at it, those numbers are simply unacceptable. Yes, Braxton Miller made some critical mistakes when the Buckeyes needed an answer to Clemson’s scoring, and I still tend to believe Ohio State hangs on to win that game if Philly Brown doesn’t botch that punt return, but none of that gives the defense a pass.

With a month to prepare for Chad Morris, Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, I thought maybe Meyer and Luke Fickell could come up with a way to fix some of the problems on defense. Boy was I wrong. It didn’t help being without Noah Spence and Bradley Roby, but I thought Jamal Marcus played an excellent football game in Spence’s absence. I wouldn’t exactly say the same about Armani Reeves, but it’s not fair to put this on him.

The whole defense was a mess on Friday, just as it was for most of the season. Morris had Fickell’s number sure as shooting, and the Buckeyes simply had no answer for Watkins on the quick screen play. It’s a little early to speculate what changes Meyer will make for next season, but something has to be done, right? Meyer is not some run-and-gun coach who wants to win every game 70-60. When he won his titles at Florida, it was behind a great defense and solid special teams. Yes, he had a tremendous offense as well, but defense is what lifted those teams to elite status.

Shazier Taking the Next Step

One thing that won’t help the defense next year is the early departure of All-American linebacker Ryan Shazier. In my experience covering college athletics, I tend to land on the side of watch what they do instead of what they say. A lot of kids talk about wanting to come back for their senior season to leave their mark on the program, but not a lot of them are actually worried too much about those kinds of things.

Shazier is a different kind of kid.

I absolutely believed him when said he would like to come back for his senior year at Ohio State, and I couldn’t agree more with him that “now is the perfect time” for him to make the jump to the NFL. Shazier is coming off one of the great seasons in school history. He had more tackles for loss this year than all but two players (Mike Vrabel and Andy Katzenmoyer) who have ever worn this uniform.

Shazier is undersized for the NFL and there’s no guarantee his stock will ever be this high again if he turns down a chance to be a potential first or second round pick in April. It’s a smart decision by a wise kid with a tremendous family. I can honestly say Shazier was one of the best people I had the pleasure of covering during his time at Ohio State and I wish him nothing but success in the future.

Braxton’s Big Decision

We may not know officially for a few days, but it looks like Urban Meyer will have one more year with his star quarterback running the offense in Columbus. According to CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated, Braxton Miller will return to Ohio State for his senior season. While not completely shocking, this is a little surprising considering most of the recent buzz surrounding Miller had him leaning towards the NFL next season. That may have changed with that fluttering pass he threw into the arms of Clemson linebacker Spencer Shuey Friday night (thankfully it wasn’t Charlie Bauman or Ohio State might be looking for a new coach right now).

Miller put up big numbers as a junior in Urban Meyer’s offense, but he didn’t look particularly good in either of Ohio State’s losses this season. He completed 66 percent of his passes for 1,759 yards and 21 touchdowns in the team’s 12 wins this season; in the back-to-back losses, Miller completed just 53 percent of his 45 passes for a combined 335 yards. He had three touchdown passes and two picks as the Buckeyes dropped their two biggest games of the season.

Had Miller played well in those games – and that’s obviously a big distinction – it’s my belief he would have quickly declared for the NFL, much like Shazier did on the day after the team’s final game the of the season. While there were mixed feelings about Miller’s readiness for the NFL even before those two games, most indications I received were that Ohio State’s talented junior would have liked to make the jump from college to the pros at the same time as guys like Carlos Hyde and Philly Brown. The Buckeyes will have four new starters on the offensive line next year, and there is some real concern over Miller’s ability to stay healthy and be productive in this offense.

In the end, our lasting impression of Miller in 2013 is not going to the one he had hoped for in order to build momentum for the next level. As of right now, CBS Sports ranks Miller as the 12th best quarterback who could be a part of the 2014 NFL Draft. Only three of the guys ahead of him are underclassmen, and two of them – Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles – are almost certainly going to declare for the draft in the coming days.

Rebuilding the Offense

If Miller does return for his senior season, he will be working with an entirely remade offense. He will have a few familiar faces out there in Devin Smith and Jeff Heuerman, both of whom said they will be back next season, but the rest of the unit will mostly consist of young players getting their first real taste of legitimate action at Ohio State.

That could be both good and bad for Miller. The offense will have to adapt. Meyer and Tom Herman won’t be able to rely as heavily on the power run game without Hyde and those four seniors on the offensive line, even if Rod Smith and Bri’onte Dunn can provide some of what Hyde gave them this year – which remains to be seen. The presence of guys like Dontre Wilson, Jalin Marshall, James Clark and Ezekiel Elliott could allow Meyer to run a more wide-open attack next season, which might help Miller showcase his skills a little bit better.

Receivers Corey Smith and Michael Thomas could give Miller a few more weapons on the outside, and who knows what they might be able to get out of this talented incoming freshman class that includes names like Johnnie Dixon, Curtis Samuel, Terry McLaurin and Parris Campbell. But let’s not under appreciate with Hyde and Philly Brown meant to Ohio State’s offense over the last two seasons. Outside of Miller, those two basically were the offense, other than the occasional 60-yard touchdown catch from Devin Smith. The Buckeyes will have some speed next year and some big-play ability, but they will need to find some guys who can consistently make plays the way Hyde and Brown did. That’s not as easy as it sounds.

End of an Era

It’s been a long time since Jim Tressel coached a football game in Columbus, but this past game really felt like the end of Tressel’s era at Ohio State. At least to me it did, thinking about all the players who were playing in their last game. If Miller does indeed return next season, he still brings a little bit of the Tressel era with him, but most of the other guys who came in under The Vest are moving on and it will be Urban Meyer’s recruits stepping up to replace them on the field next season.

Think about the list of guys who helped contribute to Meyer’s 24-2 record at Ohio State, names like Hyde, Philly Brown, Kenny Guiton, Andrew Norwell, Jack Mewhort, Marcus Hall, Corey Linsley, Jordan Hall, Chris Fields, Bradley Roby, Ryan Shazier, C.J. Barnett, Christian Bryant and Drew Basil. That group represented the bloodline between Tressel and Meyer, at least on the field.

There are still some Tressel holdovers who will be on the roster in 2014, but the only guys who actually went through a season at Ohio State with Tressel at the helm are all guys who redshirted in 2010. That means their first real season of eligibility was Luke Fickell’s one-year stint as interim coach.

Not many of those guys will even factor in to Ohio State’s starting lineup next season, which means most of the guys on the field will be ones Meyer and his staff brought to Columbus. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of talent, but it definitely should start to feel more like an Urban Meyer football team – for good and for bad.

Glenville Pipeline Still Flowing

One thing that hasn’t changed under Meyer is the Glenville pipeline to Columbus. While there was some concern over what Erick Smith and Marshon Lattimore would do, those rumors turned out to be what they almost always are when it comes to Glenville kids – just rumors.

After reportedly cancelling their decision to announce during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Saturday, both Smith and Lattimore picked the Buckeyes on national television. Maybe they got a last-minute nudge from Ted Ginn Sr., or maybe Urban Meyer was tired of the drama, but the Buckeyes ended up with two kids who have a load of talent.

Smith will play either corner or safety at Ohio State, and longtime Ohio talent scout John McCallister, founder of McCallister Scouting Report (MSR Ohio), rated him as the No. 2 overall prospect in the state of Ohio. The only kid higher on his list was Lattimore, an explosive athlete who could play either receiver or corner for the Buckeyes.

I’m still not 100 percent convinced on what Glenville offensive lineman Mercelys Jones will do, but Lattimore and Smith were the critical pieces to keeping Glenville in the OSU pipeline. Landing both of these kids was important for Meyer. He has been so focused on finding the best kids from around the country, he also needed to make sure he locked down the best ones in his own back yard.

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