Rod Smith got the message. You do not relax around new coach Urban Meyer. You do not play at half speed, do not give 80 percent effort, do not let your concentration wander.
Meyer came to Ohio State to win. Smith, a former Harding standout, came to play. And if they combine to get what they both want, all the better.
“Coach Meyer is real intense,” Smith says. “He's real in tune to every little detail. He's something different that we haven't had since I've been here.”
Last year's 6-7 record, the consequence of the tattoos-for-memorabilia scandal that cost former coach Jim Tressel his job and the Buckeyes their Big Ten title-winning mojo, is fuel to a renewed fire.
“We want to get Ohio State football to where it should be, where it's been in the past,” Smith says. “Where we have a dominant offense, a dominant defense. Being an elite team in the nation.”
As a result, a sense of urgency was everywhere in Meyer's first Ohio State spring practice. He returned to coaching after a year break as a TV analyst following successful runs at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida.
“Last year was a down year,' Smith says. “We're trying to make a statement. We have a clean slate. Get back strong and get back to being Ohio State Buckeyes.”
Smith seeks to make a bigger impact in his second college season than he did in his first. After a redshirt year, he had a freshman tailback debut of 116 rushing yards (on 4.0 yards a carry), and two catches for 15 yards. He added a pair of tackles on special teams.
That put him behind returning backs Jordan Hall (408 rushing yards, two touchdowns, 4.1-yard-per-carry average) and Carlos Hyde (566 yards, 6 TDs, 5.3 yards per carry). Meyer listed Hall and Hyde among Ohio State's key offensive go-to players.
More playing time for Smith means a summer of watching film, analyzing defensive schemes and getting more in tune with Meyer's spread offense attack. He'll also focus, as all players do, on getting stronger, faster and fitter.
“It's pretty much the same as every offseason,” he says. “You always want to improve. You're trying to better yourself in every part of the game.”
Meyer says he wants a balanced attack, which means the passing game must get a lot better. Backs coming out of the backfield will be part of that.
“The offense is a lot different,” Smith says. “You have to be versatile. You have to adjust to anything. It's the spread. Last year we had spread plays, but we didn't run the spread as much. You have to go with the flow. Make the best of it.
“We're running a lot more routes with the spread. You have to be a lot more focused and know what you're doing in the running and passing game more.”
Improved blocking remains a priority. That wasn't a big factor in high school, when Smith rushed for 6,625 yards and 66 touchdowns.
It is now.
“In the spread, there's a check pass for every route,” Smith says. “You always have to make sure you have good pass protection. The No. 1 rule is don't let anybody touch the quarterback.”
Ohio State was more of a power team under Tressel, although he did open up the offense some behind quarterback Terrelle Pryor. But his departure in the aftermath of tattoo controversy meant freshman Braxton Miller had to play before he was passing ready. Miller led Ohio State with 715 rushing yards. He completed 54.1 percent of his passes for 1,159 yards, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Meyer emphasized the passing game in the spring and saw improvement.
“We are taking one of the worst passing teams in America a year ago, and we need to find out if we can pass. We know we can run the quarterback. We need to find out if we can throw.
“Braxton can pass the ball. His release is an A. His arm strength is a B, but I am very critical. His accuracy is a B or C, so he needs to get better. He has a lot of talent. He had a productive spring.”
Smith's spring productivity was highlighted by a team-high 47 rushing yards in the spring game, including the 7-yard game-winning touchdown in a 20-14 Scarlet win over the Gray.
“I did pretty well,” Smith says. “Late in the fourth quarter we wanted to run the ball and run out the clock.
“Now I have to work hard in the offseason and show I understand the offense and know my assignments. No messing up. Just work hard and everything will fall into place.”
As for the new offense, Smith says that, “If everything clicks, we're going to score a lot of points. It's going to be a long day for the defense.
“We're going to pass the ball, also run the ball. The defense has to figure out what it wants to stop. If one isn't working, the other one has to work.”