Ohio State’s four returning starters on the offensive line like to harass Taylor Decker, calling him ugly, making fun of his long locks and generally needling him at every opportunity.
But the sophomore from Vandalia doesn’t want the verbal abuse to stop. Along the Buckeyes’ O-line, which is a fraternity all its own, being the butt of jokes is a sure sign you’ve been accepted.
“I’m like a little brother to them,” Decker said.
He added: “Honestly, a lot of times they’re really helpful. They’re helping me move up the ranks to be an Ohio State lineman.”
The 6-foot-7, 315-pound Decker has seized early control of the lone open spot on the unit at right tackle, fending off challenges so far from sophomore Chase Farris, redshirt freshman Kyle Dodson and junior Darryl Baldwin.
After flipping his commitment from Notre Dame to OSU when coach Urban Meyer was hired, Decker enrolled early in the spring and was in the hunt for a starting spot. But he was beaten out by senior Reid Fragel, a converted tight end who was drafted in the seventh round by the Cincinnati Bengals.
“It was kind of rough sitting on the bench all year when I was told I had an opportunity,” Decker said. “But he turned out to be a great player, and I’m happy for the amazing season the guy had last year.”
But because of Decker’s size and agility, the Buckeyes believe they have a suitable replacement for Fragel.
“What have I seen?” line coach Ed Warinner said, repeating a question. “I see an improved player, a player with more confidence, a talented player. He’s got some skills. He can bend. He can move. He’s developing his strength and toughness.
“Really, what we need to see from him is just consistency day in and day out.”
Decker is working on that. The Buckeyes are thin on the O-line beyond the returning senior starters, and Decker insists he doesn’t want to be handed the position by default.
“I don’t want to be the right tackle just because I’m the only one there,” he said. “I want to earn the trust from the coaches. I want to earn the trust from the people I’m playing with. They’re great players. I don’t want to be detrimental to their success. They deserve a great season.”
Decker played for Vandalia-Butler and faced some of the state’s top competition in the Greater Western Ohio Conference, but he admits to being overwhelmed by the size and talent on OSU’s roster. The off-the-field demands were a challenge, too.
“I’m still learning how to be a college athlete, learning how to be an offensive lineman,” he said. “Even though I’ve been in the program a year, I’m still transitioning.
“You pretty much have to be a professional. You have to handle everything yourself. You’re playing against great players all the time. This team is littered with talent. You play against 300 pounds across from you, instead of the 170 you see in high school. Learning that physical toughness and especially the mental toughness — they put a lot on you, and you’ve got to be able to adapt and overcome.”
Left guard Andrew Norwell said Decker is progressing well.
“He’s improved a lot since spring ball,” Norwell said. “He’s gotten stronger and faster over the summer working with (strength coach) Mickey Marotti. I have no problem with him playing right tackle for us. He’s going to do great.”
The Buckeyes led the Big Ten in scoring last year at 37.1 points per game, thanks largely to the work in the trenches. They were 10th nationally with 242.2 rushing yards per game, and their 37 TDs on the ground were a 34-year program high.
Norwell, left tackle Jack Mewhort and center Corey Linsley all earned Big Ten postseason honors. The other returning starter, right guard Marcus Hall, is much leaner and appears poised for a breakout season.
“A year ago, it was a bunch of unknowns,” said former OSU line great Jim Lachey, who is part of the Buckeyes’ radio broadcast team. “Cory Linsley had a great year. Jack Mewhort, I think, is very underrated, along with Andrew Norwell. Marcus Hall has made outstanding gains.
“I think there’s a lot of positives with that offensive line. I know Braxton (Miller) is happy. When you’ve got four seniors up front, you’d better enjoy it. And he will take advantage of what those guys can do — like he did last year.”
Decker wants to keep his quarterback happy, too. And he’s starting to see enough positive signs to believe he can do it.
“I’ve had flashes here and there (in the past), but I’m getting it now,” he said. “I’m more comfortable with the playbook than at any time since I arrived. I’m able to play fast all the time.”