The holes left by the departures are gaping, but they could have been much bigger.
Ohio State began offseason conditioning last week without a number of familiar names. J.T. Barrett is gone. So are Billy Price, Tyquan Lewis, Chris Worley and several others who formed the foundation of the past few teams.
But compared with what could have been lost, the Buckeyes’ cupboard is pretty well-stocked for 2018. Cornerback Denzel Ward, defensive end Sam Hubbard and linebacker Jerome Baker are departing early for the NFL. Although those losses will sting, they were expected.
Everyone else who had been considered on the fence, including defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones, running back Mike Weber and all of the receivers, will be back.
Even though the start of spring practice is six weeks away, it’s never too early to take a look at how the 2018 lineup will shape up come the fall. With that in mind, let’s start with the offense — specifically, the most important decision to be made in the post-Barrett era.
Dwayne Haskins Jr. is the front-runner based on his backup status last year and his clutch performance against Michigan. Haskins’ strong arm should give Ohio State a more vertical and varied passing game if he wins the job.
But Joe Burrow and Tate Martell will concede nothing. Burrow was the backup in 2016 and competed with Haskins last year before suffering a broken hand during training camp. After the Cotton Bowl, he pronounced himself 100 percent healthy.
Burrow, who is on target to graduate this spring, has been candid about exploring his options if he doesn’t win the starting job. He hopes that the competition begins with everyone on equal footing.
“I think that’s the only fair way to do it,” he said. “I sure hope that is everybody’s thinking going into it.”
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Martell drew raves as a scout-team quarterback as a freshman in 2017. After redshirting this past season, he wants more.
“I want to go out there and be the starting quarterback,” he said. “I didn’t come here to sit around and not play. I’m going to bust everything in the weight room and do my thing when I’m out on the field, too, and we’ll see how it comes out.”
Quarterback is the marquee battle, but it’s not the only one. The departures of Price and left tackle Jamarco Jones will make for a reshuffling of the offensive line. Price was firm in stating that Brady Taylor will be his successor at center.
Beyond that, the puzzle is a jumble. Could right tackle Isaiah Prince or left guard Michael Jordan move to Jones’ spot? Thayer Munford emerged the fastest among the freshmen and will be in the thick of a competition at a tackle spot along with Joshua Alabi.
Branden Bowen, a natural tackle, was the surprise starter at right guard until he suffered a broken leg during the season. Demetrius Knox took over for Bowen and flourished. Then there’s Matt Burrell, who has been on the cusp of winning a job for a while without breaking through; he will be tried at center in the spring. Add in Wyatt Davis and possibly Josh Myers at guard, and the competition will be intense.
Others on offense
Elsewhere on offense, the picture is a little clearer. J.K. Dobbins and Weber will form a dynamic tandem at running back, with junior Antonio Williams and a bevy of talented freshmen arriving to provide depth.
At receiver, all six primary rotation players return, as does C.J. Saunders, who impressed as a walk-on. At tight end, Rashod Berry flashed ability in limited duty and probably has the inside track to succeed Marcus Baugh, although blue-chip freshman Jeremy Ruckert will push for time.
The defensive side looks more like a rebuilding job because it will have seven new starters after the exits of ends Lewis and Hubbard, tackle Tracy Sprinkle, outside linebackers Worley and Baker, safety Damon Webb and cornerback Ward.
But look again.
Three defensive ends are gone, but Nick Bosa isn’t, and he might be the most recognizable name on the defense. It’s likely that he and Chase Young will be the starters, fortified by a rotation that includes Jonathon Cooper and possibly one of the incoming freshmen.
At tackle, the defense is loaded, with Dre’Mont Jones heading a group that includes Robert Landers, Jashon Cornell and Davon Hamilton, plus three of the top signees in the country. It’s possible that Jones could slip out to end on occasion while Landers and company hold down the inside.
When Worley and Dante Booker missed games because of injury, Tuf Borland stepped into the middle at linebacker.
OSU eventually discovered that Worley, Baker and Borland made an effective linebacker group. Without Worley and Baker, a lineup that has Borland flanked by Malik Harrison and Booker is a distinct possibility, with Baron Browning, Justin Hilliard and Pete Werner among those making a push.
In the secondary, it’s another offseason, and another need for the Buckeyes to find at least two new starters. Safety Jordan Fuller, the most improved player in the back end, and cornerback Damon Arnette are the returning starters.
Isaiah Pryor and Brendon White seem primed to compete for the other starting safety spot. At cornerback, Jeffrey Okudah and Kendall Sheffield answered the challenge of replacing Ward in the Cotton Bowl, and both showed they are capable.
In other words, the secondary, as is the case at several positions across the depth chart, could have plenty of potential contributors, including incoming freshmen Tyreke Johnson (cornerback) and Josh Proctor (safety). That’s why some of the competitions for playing time could go deep into the fall.