Most of the most notable players from a team that went 12-0 last season are back for Ohio State in 2013.
Yet when spring practice begins today, second-year coach Urban Meyer will still be searching for leaders.
The players who set the pace for last year’s perfect record weren’t necessarily the stars. Defensive end John Simon — a Cardinal Mooney High product — was, but more of them were like Zach Boren, who split time between linebacker and fullback. They took ownership of the Buckeyes and helped erase the memories of a seven-loss season in 2011.
“That’s a huge void,” Meyer said after the season about the departing seniors. “We’re in the evaluation phase of who can fill those roles. Make no doubt about it now, that that was a huge part of a successful season.”
So even though the Buckeyes welcome back Sports Illustrated cover boy Braxton Miller, a junior quarterback already trumpeted as a Heisman Trophy contender, along with running back Carlos Hyde, linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby, Meyer will be wondering what players will pick up the slack in the leadership depart.
Here are some frequently-asked questions by Ohio State fans, and a guess at answers, as the Buckeyes begin their spring workouts.
What’s the team’s strength? Since only four of the players listed on the two-deep depth chart for the season-ending win against Michigan, was a senior, it stands to reason the offense will be ahead of the defense.
The only losses are TE Jake Stoneburner, RT Reid Fragel and FBs Boren and Adam Homan. That leaves a plethora of quality players: Miller, Hyde, receivers Corey Brown and Devin Smith and linemen Jack Mewhort, Andrew Norwell, Corey Linsley and Marcus Hall.
Where are the biggest holes? Without question on the defensive line. Simon, Garrett Goebel and Nathan Williams, three vocal leaders, were seniors who have moved on. On top of that, Johnathan Hankins elected to give up his final year of eligibility to jump into the NFL draft.
Roby could have done that, too, but decided to return, along with safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett.
“You have the two safeties back now, and you have Roby. So that’s three out of four (spots in the secondary) that’s stable — where our D-line is not stable, and our linebacker position is not stable,” Meyer said after Hankins announced his decision in January. “So you throw the back end in that, we’re dealing with an unstable defense. That’s big.”
Adolphus Washington, Tommy Schutt, Joel Hale, Michael Bennett, Noah Spence and Steve Miller are all holdovers who are in the running for time up front.
Any other problem areas? Meyer referred to it: Linebacker. It’s a sign of how little faith he had in the position a year ago that midway through the season he moved a starting fullback (Boren) to supplement the linebackers — and Boren hadn’t played there since high school.
Shazier had a fine season in 2012 but beyond him there are question marks. Camren Williams, Conner Crowell, Joshua Perry and David Perkins — all freshmen last fall — will be tested to see if they’re ready.
How good can the backfield be? Superlative. Miller has been working on his passing after completing 58 percent of his throws for just 170 yards a game. The powerful Hyde should be even better this season, with fifth-year senior Jordan Hall pushing him for carries and playing time. Rod Smith and Bri’onte Dunn add depth at running back, with Kenny Guiton again backing up Miller.