Ohio State offensive line again rises from ashes

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Maybe someday Ed Warinner will turn to a first-time starter on the offensive line who is so talented, prepared and unfazed by the moment that he never has to worry about going through a rough patch.

Of course, then there might be no reason for Ohio State to employ a coach for that position at all.

So instead, it will have to live with rocky debuts like the one Taylor Decker suffered through a year ago against future NFL star Khalil Mack when he was at Buffalo. He’ll have to watch three other new regulars get overwhelmed in a prime-time matchup against a unique, aggressive defensive line in a loss to Virginia Tech.

When those games are over, though, Warinner gets to go to work and prove why he’s such a valued commodity on the No. 6 Ohio State coaching staff. And based on how far Decker came last season and the development the Buckeyes have shown again this season up front from September to November, maybe those early struggles are just simply a rite of passage young players have to endure before Warinner unlocks all their potential.

“The biggest thing is you can’t blame the players,” Warinner said. “The first thing you do is say, ‘We’re going to help you in these scenarios.’ Then secondly, any fundamental mistakes they make, you have to make sure they understand that poor fundamentals against a strong defense won’t play out very well.

“You can get their attention, because players want to be successful, they want to look good. Players are more receptive to listening and being coached and details after a loss. You tell them, ‘I’ll do a better job coaching, you do a better job playing and we’ll get through this and grow from it.’”

It’s hard to ignore how much Ohio State has grown on the offensive line since the debacle against Virginia Tech on Sept. 6, a disaster for the entire unit that can’t be blamed solely on three new first-team blockers making just the second starts of their careers against a talented, unique defense. The Hokies relentlessly dialed up pressure and seemingly met little resistance on the way to seven sacks while holding Ohio State to just 108 rushing yards.

Certainly it was asking a lot to expect the Buckeyes to instantly and seamlessly replace four seniors on the line from a year ago, including three who have started games in the NFL this season. Just in case there was any doubt about the difficulty of breaking into the rotation and succeeding right away, the only returning starter on the line could have shared his own experience about his trial-by-fire debut a year ago.

But like Decker, the Buckeyes learned from their youthful mistakes instead of continuing to make them. And once again they’ve got the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten and have only allowed 12 sacks over the past eight games as part of a resurgence back into contention for the College Football Playoff.

“Especially on the offensive line, you’re going to have struggles before you’re a consistent player, even if you’re really talented,” Decker said. “There were guys that struggled at times in the year and kind of got down on themselves, and I know exactly what that feels like. You just have to be in their corner, but also you have to make sure they realize there is a standard around here that must be upheld.

“It’s not going to be a finished product from the start. Everything takes work, and for guys starting in their first year, they’re going to need more work to get to that finished product.”

There may still be more room to grow, and Warinner obviously isn’t backing off now just because he’s getting positive results lately and he suddenly finds himself leading a group stocked with both playing experience and confidence.

After all, until the Buckeyes can find that perfect first-time starter who only continues to play perfectly after that, he’s still got a job to do.

“I didn’t have doubts we’d improve because we have good guys who are talented and coachable,” Warinner said. “I didn’t know when it would happen, but it has started to happen here through the last three or four games. You could start to see it coming along, and we just have to keep improving. We still have areas we can improve at, but the biggest thing is consistency and confidence and the physicality.

“We want that, and it's important to us. And we’re getting that out of them.”

Perhaps it will never be something that can be tapped into right away on the offensive line. But with Warinner around, it clearly isn’t taking Ohio State long to get what it wants.