“It’s tough right now. You’re still doing double duty, still getting prepared for a game and a playoff run, so you’re not entirely separating yourself. Once I separate myself, I don’t think I’ll have any problem. But it’s that ability to separate yourself depending on which shirt you’re wearing, and I’m very conscious about it.”
Luke Fickell’s decision to stay with the Ohio State Buckeyes as co-defensive coordinator as they prepare for the College Football Playoff--all after accepting the head coaching job with the Cincinnati Bearcats--means that he is now pulling one of the toughest schedules of any coach in the country at the moment.
Not only is Fickell getting acquainted with his new players, hiring new staff and familiarizing himself with his new facilities, he is also tasked with learning a new city. A Columbus native, Fickell stuck around Ohio State for most of his coaching career after playing nose guard for four years under John Cooper. The week before Christmas found Fickell travelling the 100-plus miles between Columbus and Cincinnati as he went from preparing the Buckeyes for their matchup with Clemson New Year's’ Eve to Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati to start his role as the Bearcats’ new head coach. The Wednesday before Christmas, Fickell assisted with the Buckeyes’ last workout before the holiday break until noon, went to more film study and coaches meetings, went to his son’s basketball game, then, finally, went to Cincinnati for a staff meeting which only began at 10:20 p.m.
While his experience as a head coach was limited to the year spent as interim following the departure of Jim Tressel at Ohio State, Fickell has been in this position before, which has provided insight into the situation. He also has a long list of mentors to call on, dating back to his playing days at Ohio State. Even his most recent experience at Ohio State under Urban Meyer, while perhaps the toughest stretch of his career, has proven valuable moving into a head coaching role. Meyer has admitted that he did not want to keep Fickell on the staff at Ohio State, especially following the Buckeyes’ Orange Bowl loss in 2013 to Clemson, but that Fickell has grown from the experience and was crucial in turning the Ohio State defense into one of the nation’s best in subsequent years.
“I know one thing about J.T. and that’s if there’s a chance, he’ll get it. He has those characteristics. How many people are like that?”
For the most part, things have gone to plan during Urban Meyer’s tenure at Ohio State. With five losses in five seasons to go along with two trips to the College Football Playoff, Meyer’s success has largely been predicated on a strong quarterback--a factor which remains the same for each of his previous coaching stops. Now, behind J.T. Barrett, Meyer has, in his mind, found the quarterback with the perfect set of characteristics to lead the team on the field, and a player who, someday in the future, could fill Meyer’s own coaching role at Ohio State.
Meyer picked up many of these requirements from former Cal coach Jeff Tedford, who trained Aaron Rodgers in his time with the Golden Bears. Tedford emphasized the need for a quarterback to be both the most competitive and toughest player on the field. He also must possess leadership skills, bring intelligence to the position and, finally, the ability to extend plays. Everything else can be learned, but those other components must come naturally. When recruiting Barrett, a four-star recruit from Texas, Meyer and the coaching staff looked beyond mere stats and film to how Barrett performed in such situations as fourth-down plays, to evaluate his strength under pressure, and in rivalry games to evaluate his competitiveness. Perhaps the biggest test for Barrett, however, came following his season-ending injury in the 2014 Michigan game, when he remained a leader off the field for a team that won the national championship with a different quarterback under center.
Now, while no one doubts Barrett’s off the field contribution to the 2014 team’s post-season success, a win in the College Football Playoff this season of Barrett’s own would seal his legacy as the central figure of success on the field for the Buckeyes, mirroring that of Meyer on the sideline.
“Every player has a checklist of what they want to do, what they want to accomplish. That was another one of those ‘check it off, you worked your butt off so much and you’re being acknowledged as one of the best in the nation.’ That’s such a huge honor for me, and I was super excited about it.”
It may have come as a surprise to some when Ohio State Buckeyes center Pat Elflein won the Rimington Award as the nation’s top center earlier this month. After all, this was just Elflein’s first season at center for Ohio State, having previously played as a guard. However, he, along with right guard Billy Price, have provided needed stability on an Ohio State offensive line which was breaking in three new starters. Both Price, a fourth-year junior, and Elflein, a fifth-year senior, were among the seven team captains named prior to the start of the season--a testament to their leadership on the line in front of J.T. Barrett.
And now, they will be the first two standing All-American linemen to play alongside one another at Ohio State in more than 40 years as Elflein was named a consensus All-American, and Price to the American Football Coaches Association Team. The last pair to do so was tackle Kurt Schumacher and center Steve Myers in 1974. Along with their All-American recognition comes another honor in the form of buckeye trees being planted at Buckeye Grove south of the stadium, one each for Elflein and Price.
Elflein was first called into serious action against Michigan in 2013 following the ejection of Marcus Hall early in the game. From there, he and Price, who earned a starting spot the following season, became part of one of the most improved offensive lines in college football and which ultimately blocked for Ezekiel Elliott’s prolific performance in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Now, the pair is tasked with blocking Clemson’s powerful defensive front, which boasts two outstanding defensive tackles attempting to exploit Elflein and Price at center and guard. While the All-American recognition puts somewhat of a target on the pair, the pressure, they say, is nothing new.