When Urban Meyer spoke to reporters Friday morning, the Ohio State head coach couldn’t help but think about the difference between then and now.
“Then” means one year ago, when the two-time national championship coach had just taken over the Buckeye program and – to a certain extent, in his eyes – inherited a mess.
“Now” is where he stands having improved the Buckeyes from a 6-7 record in 2011 to just the sixth undefeated, untied campaign in school history, a 12-0 mark in 2012 that excited Buckeye Nation and resulted in a No. 3 ranking in the final Associated Press writers’ poll.
If returning Ohio State to the top is a journey of 1,000 miles, his program has taken many steps with some still to go.
“We’re very satisfied with where we’re at right now,” Meyer said, addressing the media for the first time since the close of the college football season. “A year ago at this time, we were getting ready to start our 5 a.m. ‘conversations’ outside after people were late for meetings. We were still trying to finalize our staff, and we had a group of offensive linemen that were didn’t really have much confidence and trust in.
“A year later, we have a lot of positive things. We have to get better in a lot of different areas. However, it’s a whole different approach.”
Meyer said the coaching staff will focus on two things as it launches into a team meeting this afternoon.
“Our mantra is going to be truth and our mantra is going to be fundamental improvement,” he said. “Truth means exactly that – you have a good season and there’s a lot of conversations about things that shouldn’t be discussed because it’s not true. For example, ‘Are you guys going to go do this next year?’ No, we’re probably not unless we get a lot better. Like, a lot better. And then, fundamentally, we are not where we need to be.”
It’s not hard to understand both the coach’s satisfaction and his grasp on how much further the team needs to go, especially after he was an analyst at Monday’s national championship game, at which he watched Alabama win its third national title in four years with a romp over Notre Dame.
While the Buckeyes showed significant improvement in many areas – for example, quarterback Braxton Miller blossomed into a Heisman candidate, running back Carlos Hyde emerged, the offensive line jelled and the defense improved throughout the campaign – there are still obvious areas of improvement.
The Buckeyes are behind the 8-ball to work on some of those issues – including developing a more efficient passing game and bringing along a young front seven – after missing out on the bowl practices afforded to teams that were eligible for postseason play. Meyer said the team needs to make up the practices it missed, and skill stations will be set up around the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for players to work on their own until spring practice begins in March.
As a result, leadership – a key portion of OSU’s undefeated run this year thanks to a bevy of impressive seniors – must develop quickly among the new seniors and upperclassmen.
“If you want to be a very functional football team, there has to be some self-driven leadership amongst groups,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see how it gets done because it’s on the players.”
There are plenty of positives to be had, though, as the offseason starts to take shape. The team began winter conditioning workouts this week, the first week of spring semester, and did so with cornerback Bradley Roby and Hyde still on the squad.
The two at least briefly considered leaving for the professional ranks but decided to return, shoring up depth at two key positions on the field. That is especially true of Roby considering the fact the defensive front seven has lost six senior starters.
“We have some stability in the back end,” Meyer said. “We have the two safeties back and Roby, so it’s three out of four. It’s stable. Our defensive line and our linebacker position aren’t stable. If you throw the back end in that now, we’re dealing with an unstable defense.”
Meyer also welcomes back his entire staff after four coaches were approached with potential offers, something that pleased the head coach. He was also happy with how the team’s recruiting class is shaping up as National Signing Day nears.
With all that combined, the national pundits have already started to talk that Ohio State will have a good team in 2013. While Meyer doesn’t want that press to go to his team’s head, he is happy that Buckeyes are expected to be among the best in the nation in his second season.
“I’d rather be that then have them say we’re not going to be very good,” Meyer said. “We love to be the favorite all the time. That means we have a good team, so no, I don’t mind that. But I told you, the mantra is going to be the truth. We’re going to get the truth at about 2:30 this afternoon. The truth is we’re very strong in certain areas. … However, there were quite a few that were below-average performances. We have to get those fixed.”