A month or so back, we identified five players that could make or break Ohio State's season. Ohio State online scribing stalwart Dan Kadar took exception with our omission of one Jake Stoneburner. He was right and he was wrong.
I think if you were to ask any right minded Ohio State devotee who Ohio State's "two best players" were, in no particular short order, you'd probably hear the same several names over and over: John Simon, Braxton Miller, and Jake Stoneburner. Stoneburner might even be the most physically talented of the bunch. While Simon's relentless work ethic and powerful-for-his-frame (a qualifier worth mentioning) physique earn him plenty of just accolades, Stoneburner's imposing 6'5" nearly 250 pound (re-chiseled mind you, courtesy of Mick Marotti) build is going to be hell on wheels for the the sub-six foot working class of Big Ten secondaries. The fact that just three weeks ago we were set on Stoneburner making linebackers look silly and are now just as convinced he'll do the same to cornerbacks and safeties is a testament to the ridiculous body of attributes the senior brings to the table. But does he make or break the offense in any sense of the word? Frankly, no.
For all Stoneburner's superlative redefining extraordinary abilities, a far more unimaginative offense survived just fine in his (less literal) absence. While losing the unnatural hybrid of Aaron Hernandez and Plaxico Burress would inconvenience Ohio State, would you be any more worried about how Ohio State matches up with Nebraska or Wisconsin were they having to rely on a quartet of Philly Brown, Devin Smith, Evan Spencer, and Michael Thomas? It's also worth noting that by all accords, Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett are making the decision to move Stoneburner to wide out full-time an easier one.
Yes, Jake Stoneburner is a future steal in the 3rd or 4th round of the NFL Draft. Yes, he's going to make some poor Alabama-Birmingham corner require weeks of sports psychology appointments. But how many wins is Jake Stoneburner worth relative to some more of the key cogs in the Ohio State offensive machine?
In reducing Ohio State's season down to a single levee on each side of the ball, the most important thing to consider is the number of standard deviations away each of the respective components are relative to their peers. Corey Linsley is almost the answer regarding irreplaceability offensively. After making a night-and-day transformation in his mental (and physical for that matter) approaches to the game this off-season, Linsley joins a time honored tradition of o-line coaches in the trenches following Michael Brewster and Nick Mangold. But for all-Brewster's accolades and accomplishments, even a veteran, savvy snapper in the middle wasn't enough to stabilize an often out-of-sync offensive line before the return of future second round tackle Mike Adams.
The loss of Jordan Hall, a player that some felt Urban Meyer sat in this past April's spring game to keep future opponents from understanding exactly how the offense would be utilizing him, is a big one. But the general consensus seems to be that Ohio State will be just fine with Carlos Hyde and Bri'onte Dunn sharing the workman's load in the backfield. While Hall obviously goes beyond traditional tailbacks with his ability to fill the notable 'Pivot' role, it's completely possible that Urban Meyer and Tom Herman's offense will continue to function just fine, even in the absence of a pure fit at the not-mandatory-in-every-set weapon of choice.
While Urban Meyer's spent much of the last month preaching to all those that would listen that he has "two quarterbacks" and despite a two-spring-game body of work that's not entirely without high praise, if Ohio State has to rely on Kenny Guiton at any point in the season to win them a big game, the chance of that happening decreases in sharp contrast from when Braxton Miller is the one responsible for executing the same plays. For that matter, say Miller makes it through the gauntlet mostly unscathed but also hasn't evolved particularly beyond where he was at the end of the season a year prior. Guiton certainly won't be the option the team elects to go, but the results on the field will still have been impacted directly (and significantly) by Miller's actions (or lack there of).
In watching tape of Ohio State-Michigan a year ago, drives that often felt staid and situations that seemed untennable seemingly had new life breathed into them over and over again in the form of number five. In certain instances, lanes disappeared, holes closed, and the only outcome conceivable had to be a loss of yardage and down. And yet, somehow, without explanation, Braxton Miller would make multiple players miss and seemingly teleport from one part of the field to another, proving Terrelle Pryor had no such monopoly on the act.
Factor in nine months of flesh-and-blood competent quarterback coaching, an offense more catered to his skill set, and more so than the physical limitations, the dilemma at hand is reduced down to the space between Miller's ears. Should he have a command, nay, even a working knowledge of the offensive repertoire at his disposal, Ohio State is a different team than they are if he doesn't. If he so much as takes a three steps forward, one step back approach at any key juncture during the year, the fate bestowed upon Ohio State both offensive and at the macro level changes significantly.
Defensively is a whole other story. As mentioned, John Simon deserves all the accolades (and maybe more) he presently receives. But in a line that deep, in a rotation that's unfairly good, an untimely injury or nearly unthinkable drop off in production won't doom the Buckeyes.
Even looking into a suspect at face value secondary, there are several known quantities you have to give credence to. Bradley Roby's been on NFL scouts' radars for well over 12 months now, and while his on the field production may not always match the limits of his abilities, it takes some National Football League caliber acumen to have phrases from one's head coach be thrown around along the lines of "he's so good he's bored in practice". Roby shouldn't be a concern.
Across the field, Travis Howard, the once all expenses paid vacation destination for every wide receiver in the Big Ten known as "Howard Island", has made such developmental progress as a CB that high praise is getting dropped on him from all angles. The drop off from Howard to Doran Grant (whom he beat in fall camp for the no. 2 cornerback gig) might be enough to cause some reason for pause, but the experience level is still there. Were Grant a fresh out of prom freshman, or lack the merit to be in consideration for the starting role in the first place, there's a chance that Howard would very likely deserve consideration as the most important component of Ohio State's defensive success.
Alas, the individual most probable to drive or wreck Ohio State's defensive counter attack hasn't particularly lived up to the billing in his first three years on campus. Enrolling in Ohio State early as a four (and in some instances five) star linebacker, Etienne Sabino had some thinking he could be the most athletic middle linebacker to man the center of the 4-3 since Andy Katzenmoyer. But that raw athleticism never quite transfered in reality to the field.
After an unexpected redshirt and some trying mixed results for Sabino, coaches, and fans alike, the senior (now captain) linebacker finds himself completing his career at the Sam linebacker position. Sabino's responsibilites now include circumventing tight ends and tackles alike, bringing down the likes of Montee Ball and Leveon Bell, plus identifying and moving into coverage in the situations that necessitate it.
Though Sabino's no longer providing the leadership often required of elite MLBs to patrol the middle, younger players throughout the defense have still continued to mention Sabino's wisdom and his effectiveness in helping to tutor others on the intricacies of the playbook. And though these kind of attributes rightly can help a defense fulfill their full potential faster than they would otherwise, Sabino's real value lies in the difference between he and either a true freshman like Josh Perry or a senior like Stewart Smith. Perry has all the talent in the world, but expecting an 18 year old to make a key stop or cover a Jacob Pedersen late in the 4th quarter just isn't happening. Should Ohio State find themselves even shallower in linebacker depth, the chances of losses increasing exponentially grows even more ominous.
Etienne Sabino isn't Ohio State's most talented defender; not even close. But when everything's said and done, along with Braxton Miller on the opposing side of things, he might just be the one with the least room for error and the most at stake.
What say you? Which player on each side of the ball can Ohio State not afford to be without?