COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Winning a job on the field might be the easy part for Taylor Decker.
Surviving the hazing process of becoming a sophomore starter for an Ohio State offensive line stocked with four seniors may be the bigger hurdle the talented right tackle will face during training camp this month.
There are the nicknames Decker can’t reveal publicly. And then there are jokes about his long hair and questions about whether he’s got the right sense of humor to fit in with the veterans. And as guard Andrew Norwell reminded him with one raucous wrestling match outside the locker room during the offseason, there are also some physical tests, including those off the field, that must be passed during the rite of passage into the starting lineup.
“It’s like the little brother thing for us,” left tackle Jack Mewhort said. “He definitely gets his fair share of garbage from the older guys.
“He’s kind of like the baby brother. He’s bigger than all of us, but he’s the baby -- but we love him.”
The wise cracks and good-natured ribbing actually help make it clear that Decker is welcomed with open arms by the closest position group on the roster.
The Buckeyes bring back more experience and skill than just about any unit in the country up front, though the one hole at right tackle after the graduation of Reid Fragel left some uncertainty and caused some hand-wringing during spring practice for offensive line coach Ed Warinner.
Decker was always the heir apparent for the job after pushing Fragel for it during training camp a year ago as a true freshman, but by his own admission, he didn’t make a convincing enough case when practice ended in April to lock down that role heading into the summer. But as he integrated himself with the tight-knit veterans while continuing to develop a 6-foot-7, 315-pound frame that makes the little brother the tallest and stoutest of the bunch, Decker steadily won over the seniors in building his case as the final piece of the puzzle.
And while still not definitively a starter or finished product, the Buckeyes are already seeing how some of the tests Decker faced over the summer are paying off in August.
“It’s not really been anything too bad,” Decker said. “Honestly, a lot of the times they’re really helpful and just bringing me up the ranks and teaching me how to be an Ohio State lineman. They’re great guys, and since I’ve been here, they’ve been great to me. I’m like a little brother to them, and they joke around with me, but to be said in the same sentence with them would be a huge honor.
“I don’t want to be the right tackle just because I’m the only one there. I want to earn coach’s trust, earn the trust of the guys on the line because they’re great players and I don’t want to be detrimental to their season. I want to help them, because they’re great players and they deserve a great season.”
That’s obviously the expectation in general for a team that will enter the season ranked No. 2 in the nation, but the line specifically is being counted on to be the top unit in at least the Big Ten, charged with protecting quarterback Braxton Miller and building on a year ago, when it was wildly productive in opening holes for the rushing attack.
The Buckeyes already know what they’re getting with four guys who started every game a year ago and have accomplished résumés to show for it. The next step is figuring out who could handle the responsibility of being the fifth member of the band, and the veterans apparently handled some of the auditions themselves.
“Oh yeah, we do that on purpose,” Warinner said. “But it’s all loving. ... There’s an age gap in there, and at the end of the day, he is an offensive lineman and he’s really starting to grow into that unit.
“Those older guys, they pick on him like he’s their little brother. But if anybody else messed with him, they’d jump all over it.”
Official starter at this point or not, that bond might be the surest sign yet Decker is part of the family.