COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The slogan on the banner hanging outside Mickey Marotti’s office was no longer delivering exactly the right message, so the Ohio State strength coach decided to update it himself.
The last word left some room for ambiguity, so Marotti pulled out some athletic tape to cover it up, got out a marker and made his expectations much more clear for a team coming off consecutive losses to end last season.
The sign that greeted the Buckeyes used to demand that “the BEST players have to be the BEST workers,” but that bar was too low for Marotti and necessitated some editing and minor redecorating during offseason conditioning ahead of Tuesday’s first practice of spring.
“Anybody can be a worker,” Marotti said. “Anybody can punch a clock and get a paycheck. I want grinders.”
The Buckeyes can now find that word scribbled in all caps on the white tape just above the door to Marotti’s office. And that hard-working mentality has clearly emerged early in the year as a driving force for a team that came up short of a couple of its most important goals after its 24-game winning streak came to an end, giving way to a two-game losing streak.
Ohio State still had plenty to feel good about last season after winning its division again, knocking off rival Michigan to cap another perfect regular season and piling up some individual honors along the way. But the loss in the conference title game that kept the Buckeyes from claiming the top prize in the Big Ten and likely from playing for the national championship, and the defeat in the Discover Orange Bowl that followed it, still sting in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
And part of the process in erasing that pain and reaching a higher level in 2014 started with tweaking their vocabulary along with their mindsets.
“Last year, I don’t want to say the word entitled,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “ … Last year it was kind of, well, you were 12-0, you’re preseason this, you’re this, and I haven’t had many people ask about our preseason [ranking]. Right now we’re just trying to find out who’s going to play for us in some spots.
“I don’t want to diminish what happened because we came back and took the lead in the fourth quarter and lost a couple [leads] in those last two games, and that happens. If I felt like there was a lack of fight, then we’d blow the whole thing up. There was certainly not lack of fight.”
There were, perhaps, a few critical pieces missing in terms of personnel and maybe a defensive philosophy that didn’t quite match up with what Meyer ideally wants from his program. Those were obviously at the top of his list when he reported for practice on the indoor field Tuesday.
Ohio State still has some questions to answer at linebacker, but it attacked that weakness on the recruiting trail by signing four guys in the most recent class and appears like it might have a somewhat unexpected solution to replace Ryan Shazier on the weakside with Darron Lee emerging with the first-team unit to start camp.
The process of installing a more aggressive secondary under new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash has only just begun, but his approach appears to be more in line with what Meyer is expecting even in the early stages.
But again establishing Meyer’s standard for work ethic and reinforcing his emphasis on “4-to-6 seconds of relentless effort” on every play was just as important in shaping his team to compete for a title, and Marotti did his part to help cut down on any wiggle room.
“We just have to improve, we’ve got to finish and I like where we’re at as a team,” Meyer said. “I want an angry, blue-collar team, and I’m hoping that’s what we have.”
The key for the Buckeyes is apparently making sure those blue-collar workers are showing up to do more than punch a clock.