One of the hallmarks of football’s preseason is stories about stuff that really doesn't matter.
That’s not to say we’re out here trying to mislead anyone or waste your time. It’s just that football players and coaches are conditioned to keep concrete information at a minimum, and many are well trained in the fine art of using many words to say nothing.
Some stories that are perfectly well meaning and potentially true one day go up in smoke after another week of practice, an injury, etc.
Ohio State receivers coach Zach Smith talking about how to fix the Ohio State offense does not strike me as one of these.
"If (quarterback J.T. (Barrett) didn't have good numbers, it's not J.T.,” Smith said this week. “If Parris Campbell didn't have a lot of catches, it's not Parris Campbell. It's the culture on offense."
Despite having a veteran, record-setting quarterback, two more NFL draft picks at receiver, the best center in the country and the Big Ten Freshman of the Year at running back, Ohio State had multiple stretches when it was a disaster on offense in 2016.
They scored 124 points in the first two games of November then nearly lost at woeful Michigan State. After scraping together just enough points to beat Michigan in overtime, the Buckeyes bottomed out with a 31-0 loss to Clemson in the playoffs.
A couple of first-year starters took their lumps on the offensive line, but everyone had their moments when they came up small (perhaps with the exception of Curtis Samuel).
Going back to 2015 and Ezekiel Elliott's famous MSU postgame comments, I wonder if the players had doubts about the plans they were getting. Elliott’s comments touched off a firestorm even as most people – coach Urban Meyer included – conceded he also made good points.
For one thing, the presence of an Elliott or Braxton Miller or the emergence of a player like Samuel last year has been a double-edged sword during the Meyer years.
Obviously, having dominant stars is important, but sometimes it leads others to conclude they're less important or lulls them into waiting around until said star bails them out. If their opportunity comes, that’s nice, but otherwise someone else will probably take care of it. That’s why they get the headlines.
Smith’s comments are also reminiscent of the talk from three years ago when the once-proud Ohio State defense collapsed late in the year.
Chris Ash and Larry Johnson were brought in to coach with holdovers Luke Fickell and Kerry Coombs, but the schemes they installed weren’t that much different than what had been tried at the start of previous seasons.
Fickell told the OSU football coaches clinic in the spring of 2015 the key to the rebirth of the Silver Bullets, to finding themselves as 2014 wore on until they became a championship unit in the postseason, was more thanks to a checkup from the neck up than it was schematic.
(Recall this was also the year Meyer dove deep into leadership training and stressing accountability.)
I don’t think anyone expects new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson to drastically change Meyer’s OSU attack, either, but the Buckeyes will need a lot better performance from a lot of players to return to the elite level they occupied not so long ago.
Smith’s receivers are arguably the most in need of stepping up based on their age, experience and lack of returning production – not to mention the recruiting pedigree (all of the veterans were four-star recruits).
"They underperformed like the whole offense did,” Smith said. “The offense was out of sync. I don't think any position group played well at all to be honest with you, and that's on us as a coaching staff.
“There are games where we played really well, like Nebraska and some other games, and there were games we didn't play great. I think there was just a little dysfunction all together. One player doesn't make a catch, one player doesn't make a throw, one player doesn't make a block and it kind of feeds off each other. It just wasn't a great culture. And I think that's the biggest thing you see right now is a different culture on offense. Whether it's the wideouts, running backs, tight ends, whatever, it is just a different culture offensively."
The culture talk in 2014 turned out to really mean something for the whole team even if that didn’t become clear until it was all over.
The Buckeyes stayed the course, implemented a few new things along the way and hit their stride at the most important time.
The defense’s postseason surge was mostly personnel driven. Guys raised their games and the rest is history.
Wilson would do well to follow that lead. Figure out what he wants to do, what his guys do well and stick to it. Let them get better.
This is a particularly good idea when your players are as talented as Ohio State's.