Questions await Buckeyes at camp
It will be Ryan Day's second training camp in charge of the Ohio State football team, the first as actual head coach instead of an acting one.
It will be quarterback Justin Fields' second training camp, but his first with the Buckeyes.
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The spotlight will be on those two as Ohio State opens camp Friday, and rightly so. But on a team loaded with talent and questions, they won't be the sole focus. The Buckeyes are coming off a 13-1 season that included a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl victory to end Urban Meyer's seven years as coach. But the biggest prize — the College Football Playoff — has eluded the Buckeyes the past two years.
Do the Buckeyes have the potential to reach that goal? Absolutely. But they also have several areas they need to resolve if that's to happen, and it starts in earnest Friday.
Here's a look at the biggest questions that need to be answered:
1. How will Day assert himself as the man in charge?
Rabinowitz: Day was thrust into serving as coach during Meyer's suspension last year despite never having been a head coach. He did so well that when Meyer decided to retire, the keys to the castle were handed to him. So far, Day has avoided missteps and has kept the recruiting train rolling. He knows that adversity is coming and has steeled himself for it. But until it hits, it's impossible to know how ready he is.
Kaufman: The biggest change Day has made with the program since taking over for Meyer seems to be with his office decor. Seriously. As part of a redesign, he’s adding couches, a fireplace and a TV. He said he wants to encourage players to gather there as a way to develop closer relationships. Day has referenced any changes made during the coaching transition as only “tweaks.” Don’t expect anything drastic from a coach who knows he takes over a program that has had a good thing going. Day, so far, appears comfortable walking in Meyer's shadow.
2. What's realistic for Justin Fields and will there be a true quarterback competition?
Kaufman: Well, it's not an illegitimate competition. When persuading Kentucky graduate transfer Gunnar Hoak to join the program in the spring following Matthew Baldwin’s departure, Day assured Hoak and his family that he would have a shot to compete for the starting job. Day isn’t going to renege on that. Hoak should share some of the first-team reps with Fields and get some consideration. But Day has staked quite a bit on Fields. The Georgia transfer was promising enough of a quarterback prospect — he ranked second in his recruiting class behind Clemson star Trevor Lawrence — that Day added him despite the ripples it would cause. Within months after Fields’ arrival, two of the three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster transferred, departures that speak the loudest about the state of the competition.
Rabinowitz: Everyone who has watched Fields raves about his talent. The question is how much he can fast-forward the development process. He has been on campus only since January, and Day's system is complex. Remember, that's what led Tate Martell to declare that he was undaunted by the prospect of Fields' arrival. The more reps Fields gets, the better for him. The problem is that Hoak needs reps to 1) learn the offense and 2) have a chance to show he's a viable alternative to Fields as a potential starter. That's going to be a big challenge for all involved.
3. How will the offensive line shake out?
Rabinowitz: Even with only Thayer Munford back as a full-time starter, the line is more settled than you'd think, at least on paper. Jonah Jackson, the Rutgers graduate transfer, will likely start at left guard. Josh Myers and Wyatt Davis are penciled in at center and right guard. That leaves Nicholas Petit-Frere, Branden Bowen and possibly Josh Alabi to compete at right tackle. That will be a spirited competition. The good news is, the offensive line should have more depth than in recent memory.
Kaufman: Bowen is the X-factor. He previously started at right guard for the first half of 2017 before suffering a season-ending leg injury that also affected him last fall. Could the fifth-year senior nab one of the guard spots over either Davis or Jackson? Or could he emerge as the starter at right tackle? He’s versatile enough to do either. The coaching staff could also use him as a sort of sixth man, able to fill in at multiple spots along the offensive line in case of injury. Among the others, Munford and Myers look settled at left tackle and center. Day said Munford is “100 percent” after missing spring practices with a back injury.
4. On defense, what position battles are most intriguing?
Kaufman: The first question that Day fielded from reporters at Big Ten media days involved the competition at middle linebacker. Tuf Borland is the incumbent. Teradja Mitchell is the promising sophomore. There was frustration among fans surrounding Borland’s performance last season. It’s worth keeping in mind that Borland’s offseason had been shortchanged after an Achilles injury. Perhaps he’ll be improved in 2019. But Day said Mitchell is “pushing” Borland for the spot. It’s always noteworthy if a returning starter loses his spot atop the depth chart. But this position battle also serves as an interesting test case for the value that Day and his new co-defensive coordinators, Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley, will ultimately place on upperclassmen’s experience vs. upside from younger players.
Rabinowitz: The defensive line will be a deep rotation, so who starts is less relevant than how many snaps players get. Malik Harrison is set at the weakside linebacker spot. As for the linebackers, both Borland and Pete Werner will have stiff competition. Mitchell, Baron Browning, Dallas Gant and K'Vaughan Pope will push hard for jobs. In the secondary, Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette are the top corners and Jordan Fuller is a given at safety. Shaun Wade is a playmaker who should have a prominent role. Brendon White looks like an ideal fit for the linebacker/safety hybrid "bullet" position. How will promising young players such as Josh Proctor fit?
5. Which newcomers are most likely to make an impact?
Rabinowitz: The two most obvious among the freshmen are wide receiver Garrett Wilson and defensive end Zach Harrison, both five-star recruits. The Buckeyes want a six-deep receiver rotation, and Wilson's body control and hands should allow him to figure in there. Harrison is raw but has almost unlimited potential. Marcus Crowley will get his chances at running back because of limited depth there. Five-star center Harry Miller could make a push, too.
Kaufman: The premise isn’t limited to true freshmen, so let’s look back on the most important transfer. No one will have a bigger impact than Fields. His possible effect cannot be overstated. If Fields matches his recruiting hype, there is a strong possibility that Ohio State can return to the College Football Playoff. If he is more pedestrian or goes through some growing pains as a first-time starter, there’s risk the Buckeyes could not only again fall short of the Playoff, but also cede ground to Michigan or Penn State in the Big Ten East. Fields is the biggest variable between another 11- to 13-win season and a 9-4 finish.