Ohio State season preview | Questions for offense, defense, special teams
The Ohio State Buckeyes hope that a nightmarish preseason off the field will give way to success on it. With coach Urban Meyer suspended for the first three games of the season, the Buckeyes will have a new look with Ryan Day at the helm. Newcomers also will be thrust into starring roles on the field. Dwayne Haskins Jr. takes over the reins of the offense with a supporting cast full of playmakers. On defense, what should be a talented unit is nonetheless unsettled at several positions. Here are the biggest issues the Buckeyes face this season:
1. Who’s in charge?
Coach Urban Meyer’s expertise is offense, and he was quite involved in play-calling during games. How will the dynamic work while he’s suspended for the first three games, and then how will it work when he returns Sept. 22? If Ohio State’s offense rolls in Meyer’s absence, will he have a light touch upon his return? If it sputters, does he become more hands-on? Ryan Day got a bump in salary and title of co-coordinator in the offseason. With him serving as acting head coach until Meyer comes back, does the chemistry in the offensive coaches room change?
2. Is Haskins ready to lead?
Whatever quarterback J.T. Barrett’s limitations were as a passer from 2014 to '17, he was the team’s unquestioned leader on offense. Part of that was his experience, but part was simply his presence. He was a mature leader and demanded his teammates follow his lead. First-year starter Dwayne Haskins has a more laid-back personality, but those around him say he is a capable leader in his way. He’ll need to show it.
3. How will the line shake out?
For once, there won’t be a fear that an injury to a particular player could be insurmountable. This line has plenty of depth. But how will it look? Isaiah Prince will be at right tackle and Demetrius Knox at right guard. The Buckeyes will open the season with Michael Jordan switching from left guard to center. Malcolm Pridgeon will get the start at left guard. Left tackle is a question mark. Thayer Munford had the edge until an unspecified injury hampered his progress. He or Josh Alabi will start at left tackle.
4. Who gets the carries?
This belongs in the good-problem-to-have category. The Buckeyes are loaded at running back with sophomore J.K. Dobbins and fourth-year junior Mike Weber, to say nothing of talented freshman Master Teague III and Brian Snead. Spreading out the carries will be a challenge. Do they ride the hot hand, er, feet? Do they set a goal of carries the veterans each get? Haskins isn’t the runner Barrett was, so those quarterback keepers so prominent in the offense the last few years figure to go to the running backs. What the Buckeyes do on third-and-5 will likely to be a departure from the Barrett runs from an empty backfield fans are used to seeing.
5. Will the receivers live up to potential?
The top six receivers return — seven including C.J. Saunders — and expectations are high. The spotlight will be on them in light of Zach Smith’s firing and the promotion of Brian Hartline to receivers coach. Parris Campbell established himself as a game-breaking threat last year, but some of the others are still more potential than production. Can Binjimen Victor be the dominant receiver coaches think he can be? Will K.J. Hill, Austin Mack, Johnnie Dixon and Terry McLaurin take the next step with a quarterback who can make all the throws?
1. Who are the starting linebackers?
Reading the smoke signals from preseason camp, there’s a chance the starting three will be Malik Harrison and Pete Werner on the outside, and Baron Browning in the middle. But the signals indicated the only one who nailed down his spot was the rangy, fast Harrison. Browning was getting pushed by Justin Hilliard, who may be ready to bloom after two injury-filled seasons. Keandre Jones will see time on the outside, as a starter or backup, and veteran Dante Booker — a starter early last year before injuries — could be a bonus while capable freshmen Dallas Gant, Teradja Mitchell and K’Vaughan Pope learn the ropes.
2. What about Tuf Borland?
Borland would have been the lone returning starter at LB, a presence in the middle to set the tone for the defense, until a ruptured Achilles tendon in spring practice. His surgical fix was said to be great, though, and he is on the road to recovery — so much so that he was able to wear full gear and take part in some straight-ahead drills in preseason. A return before October is not out of the question.
3. Will the star ends get a break?
Yes. Defensive end was the deepest position group on the team a year ago, but this year is top-heavy with Nick Bosa and Chase Young, perhaps as talented a starting tandem as there is in college football. But beyond Jonathan Cooper, there is little proven depth unless DT Jashon Cornell returns to end this year. Coaches were said to be encouraged by the quick rise of freshmen Tyreke Smith and Tyler Friday in camp. Still, Bosa and Young will play a lot in big games, which wasn’t always the case with starters in recent years in position coach Larry Johnson’s revolving-door approach.
4. Is tackle the most loaded?
With Dre’Mont Jones, Robert Landers, Cornell, Davon Hamilton, Haskell Garrett and Jerron Cage, the Buckeyes already had a crowd at defensive tackle. With the addition of junior-college transfer Antwuan Jackson and Taron Vincent and Tommy Togiai, the tagteam approach could become a blur. Jones is the star of the group, Landers is the backbone, and Jackson-Vincent-Togiai could become one of the better defensive tackle threesomes to join Ohio State at the same time. But they may have to climb over a lot of teammates to prove it this year.
5. Two newbies in the secondary again
For the third straight year the Buckeyes must replace at least two starters in the secondary. And for the fifth straight year at least one is a cornerback. Gone is Denzel Ward, back is Damon Arnette, and stepping up, it appears, is Kendall Sheffield, a junior-college transfer from 2017 who started his career at Alabama. He seemed to have the slight edge in camp over Jeffrey Okudah, who is coming back from offseason shoulder surgery. The other opening is at safety opposite Jordan Fuller, who has emerged as a team leader. Slow to emerge, though, is the other starter in a competition including Isaiah Pryor and Jahsen Wint that could go into the season.
1. What’s Nuernberger’s target?
Senior kicker Sean Nuernberger has had up and downs in his college career, but he has never missed an extra point. His 177 straight coversions ties him with Rich Spangler for the Ohio State record, and he is on pace to challenge the NCAA record of 233 straight, set by Alex Trlica of Texas Tech from 2004 to '07. Nuernberger already holds 13 Big Ten and/or OSU records, including the league mark for kicking points in a season (128 in 2014, which included a league-record 89 PATs). He is sixth all-time in kick scoring at OSU with 276 points, well within range of Mike Nugent’s record of 356.
2. What’s the kickoff play?
In an attempt to reduce collisions, the NCAA ruled that any kickoff fair-caught inside the 25-yard line will result in the ball being placed at the 25. Before, that pertained only to touchbacks. Ohio State in recent years was among the programs that found success sending kickoffs into the left corner, inside the 10-yard line, and forcing a return. The Buckeyes were 10th nationally last year in kick return defense (17.4-yard average), with only 12 touchbacks. Whether they ask kickoff specialist Blake Haubeil to swing away remains to be seen. On the flip side, OSU’s Parris Campbell averaged 36.6 yards on nine kickoff returns. To return or not to return — that will be the question.
3. New blood on punt returns?
K.J. Hill was reliable catching punts last year, with the exception of a muff against Southern California in the Cotton Bowl. But Hill averaged a mere 5.5 yards per return. He is back, though there were indications in preseason that backup running back Demario McCall might get the call on returns. He has not dazzled in five career returns (a net of 20 yards), but he has flashed the audacity last seen by Jalin Marshall, the most effective and daring punt returner under coach Urban Meyer.