CHICAGO – Urban Meyer and Ohio State rolled into Big Ten football media days Thursday as the defending national champions and the No. 1 team in the preseason coaches’ poll.
Meyer has so much talent returning, it almost looked like a repeat Big Ten title would come too easily for the conference’s good.
But then came a reminder that nothing is certain in a game played by 18- to 22-year-olds. Ohio State suspended All-America defensive end Joey Bosa and three other key players from its first game against Virginia Tech for an unspecified violation of team rules.
“There’s no perfect team. There’s no perfect program. And everyone deals with stuff,” Meyer said. “You know, when you’re Ohio State or some of these other big-time programs, stuff becomes a major deal.”
For one day, at least, it was a story line that rivaled the one Buckeyes fans have been obsessing over for seven months: Which returning hero starts at quarterback?
Ohio State lost Braxton Miller to a season-ending shoulder injury last August. J.T. Barrett was magnificent as his replacement, but he broke an ankle against Michigan. Then Cardale Jones delivered the best third-string performance in the history of college football, with cannon-like throws that keyed season-ending victories over Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon.
Three’s a crowd at quarterback, and Miller narrowed the list to two recently, when he moved to slot receiver, knowing his throwing shoulder still isn’t 100 percent.
“I have a lot of respect for him to be able to humble himself and change positions,” Buckeyes left tackle Taylor Decker said. “He said, ‘I’m not going to do what’s best for me, I’m going to do what’s best for the team.’ ”
Meyer was asked if he is concerned the quarterback decision could create a rift in the locker room, with players divided over whom they’d rather see win the job.
“I’m not [concerned],” Meyer said. “I shouldn’t say that — I am. But I like the culture of our team right now, and we’re going to play the guy that helps us win. We’ve already started the process.”
Meyer said the Buckeyes have been testing the quarterbacks’ leadership all summer, and that’s an area where Barrett always has received high marks. It’s easy to forget how well he played as a redshirt freshman, rushing and passing for a combined 45 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions.
The Buckeyes held their breath when they turned to Jones with so much on the line.
“Everyone was impressed by his arm,” Decker said. “I was impressed by his leadership. I was really surprised when he took over, the kind of poise he had in the huddle.”
The Buckeyes became experts at overcoming adversity last year. Now they have seven returning starters on offense and seven on defense. ESPN’s Mel Kiper projects five of their returnees as potential first-round picks in the 2016 NFL Draft: Bosa (No. 1), Decker (No. 14), linebacker Darron Lee (No. 16), running back Ezekiel Elliott (No. 19) and Jones (No. 25).
Bosa will be missed, especially against a Virginia Tech team that handed the Buckeyes their lone defeat last year. The other suspended players are dynamic H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson and wide receiver Corey Smith.
“You can be disappointed in friends, but you have to move on from it,” said linebacker Joshua Perry, the team’s leading returning tackler and defensive leader.
The absence of those two H-backs actually could clear the way for Miller to make an instant impact at his new position. One player’s misfortune or mistake is another player’s opportunity.
“Whether it’s a sprained ankle or stuff, you try to create a culture where teams know how to move forward and not concern yourself,” Meyer said. “When we lost Braxton 10 days before the first game [last year], when we lost J.T. a week before the Big Ten championship game, you push forward.
“We are playing an extremely talented [Virginia Tech] team, a very well-coached team on the road in a tough environment. However, we have recruited very well. So get going. Move forward.”