Season Preview: Questions that Ohio State must answer entering the season

Bill Rabinowitz,Joey Kaufman
Justin Fields

A new era of Ohio State football begins this week. Coach Urban Meyer is gone. So is record-setting quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. Ryan Day, who served as acting coach during Meyer’s suspension for the first three games in 2018, is now the full-fledged head coach. Georgia transfer Justin Fields succeeds Haskins. It promises to be an intriguing season, both because of the coaching and quarterback changes but also because of the defensive overhaul that Day orchestrated. Greg Mattison, who left Michigan, and Jeff Hafley, who left the NFL, are charged with fixing a unit plagued by repeated breakdowns last season.

How good is Justin Fields?

The expectations surrounding the sophomore began in high school. Fields was considered the second-best quarterback recruit in his class behind Trevor Lawrence. It was nice company. Lawrence led Clemson to a national championship as a freshman last season. But Fields was largely untested as a backup at Georgia, his previous stop before transferring to Ohio State, and worked through a slow start in preseason camp. If Fields matches his recruiting hype — he was lauded for his arm talent and athleticism — the Buckeyes could return to the College Football Playoff. A lot rides on his potential.

>> Read more: Previewing Ohio State's season

What kind of workload can J.K. Dobbins handle?

Ezekiel Elliott was the last Ohio State running back to average more than 20 carries in each game as coaches divided the workload more evenly in recent seasons. But Dobbins, the leading rusher over the past two seasons, should see an expanded role. Coach Ryan Day mentioned the Buckeyes were likely to rely heavily on Dobbins during the first half of the season while they break in Fields. Day expressed concern for not having a “legitimate” backup, with several returners and freshmen vying for the role.

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Will the offensive line jell fast enough?

There aren’t many familiar faces left on the offensive line, where junior left tackle Thayer Munford is the sole returning starter. The Buckeyes will have new starters everywhere else on the line, including at left guard with the arrival of Rutgers graduate transfer Jonah Jackson. There’s plenty of talent, as other projected starters such as center Josh Myers and Wyatt Davis were previously blue-chip recruits, but plenty hinges on their chemistry.

Which younger receiver emerges?

The Buckeyes have experience, including from K.J. Hill, who should start at slot receiver, and Austin Mack. But three of their four leading receivers from last season departed, meaning they need increased production from underclassmen such as sophomore Chris Olave and freshman Garrett Wilson, plus Binjimen Victor, the 6-4 senior.

Can Day balance head coaching and play-calling?

Like other innovative offensive coordinators who took head-coaching jobs in recent seasons, Day will retain play-calling duties. The trend is particularly common among younger coaches, including Nebraska’s Scott Frost and Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley. At Big Ten media days, Frost said the biggest factor for success balancing both roles was maintaining confidence in a strong coaching staff. “For me, the key is having great people around me as a head coach,” Frost said. “If I’m trying to call plays and I have to be worried about the defense and adjustments, the special teams and adjustments, and the offense and calling plays, I don’t think there’s a guy out there that can do all that. Having good people around me helps me focus on what I’m doing.” Day at least had a crack at it for three games last season.

Will the coaching staff be in sync?

The full scope of the defensive dysfunction last season might never be fully known, but clearly a disconnect existed among coaches and/or between coaches and players. Coach Ryan Day overhauled the defensive staff, keeping only esteemed line coach Larry Johnson. Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley are now co-coordinators, and they’ve worked hard to make sure the staff meshes. They pledge to keep the defense aggressive and simple to allow players to play fast without overthinking. Players have said that they prefer the new scheme and it should fit the Buckeyes’ personnel. But it has to translate on the field when it matters.

Can a Bosa-less line dominate?

For the first time since Urban Meyer’s first season in 2012, the Buckeyes won’t have a Bosa on the defensive line. Joey and then Nick dominated at defensive end for the past six years. Nick’s injury early last season and subsequent departure was a major factor in the defense’s problems. Ohio State believes that it will have the depth to be a relentless unit. Chase Young takes over the featured role, and the Buckeyes can go three-deep at probably every spot on the line. That should wear down opposing offensive lines, even if no individual player posts gaudy statistics.

Will linebacker play be up to snuff?

Starters Malik Harrison, Pete Werner and Tuf Borland all return, but only Harrison, who came on strong late last season, is assured of retaining his spot. Baron Browning, Teradja Mitchell, K’Vaughan Pope and Dallas Gant are pressing for jobs, and the list of contenders extends beyond them. Proper alignment — lining up behind the defensive line instead of bunching next to them — could solve a lot of the issues the linebackers had last season. So could added resolve, which they insist they have.

Can pass coverage get fixed?

Press man-to-man coverage works only if cornerback play is consistently elite. It wasn’t last season. Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette return, and the reviews of their play in the spring and in camp have been positive. Okudah is considered a future first-round NFL pick, and Arnette wisely chose to improve his draft stock rather than turn pro after last season. The defensive backs should benefit from adding zone coverage to the mix. That will make them less predictable and should add to the interception total.

Which young players will emerge?

The Buckeyes lost fewer players than usual to the NFL, so there’s a bit of a logjam of veterans. That means younger players who get significant playing time will have earned it. Beyond Mitchell, Pope and Gant at linebacker, underclassmen who could break through include linemen Taron Vincent, Tyreke Smith, Tyler Friday and Tommy Togiai. All of those linemen should figure in the rotation, and there might be room for a couple more. It’s more crowded in the secondary, but safety Josh Proctor has the talent to push his way in. As for true freshmen, it’ll be interesting to see how quickly heralded defensive end Zach Harrison develops.

Who runs the kicking game?

Urban Meyer prided himself on his hands-on approach to the kicking game. Ryan Day has also preached how important he believes it is, but he doesn’t have Meyer’s experience working with it. Matt Barnes, the assistant secondary coach, is the special-teams coordinator, and he has a lot of talent at his disposal. Kicker Blake Haubeil takes over on a full-time basis. Punter Drue Chrisman is one of the best in the country. Long-snapper Liam McCullough has been rock-solid throughout his career. But eyes will be on the kicking game to ensure that the emphasis on it hasn’t dipped.

Can the Buckeyes improve their return game?

The kickoff game has been largely neutralized by teams’ ability to call for a fair catch and get the ball at the 25-yard line. So a lot of the fireworks in the return game must come on punts. To a surprising degree, given Ohio State’s talent, the punt return game has mostly fizzled in recent years. The Buckeyes averaged only 8 yards on those last year and that is skewed by a 33-yarder for a touchdown against Michigan on a blocked punt. K.J. Hill had the most returns and averaged only 5.4 per attempt. He, C.J. Saunders and freshman Garrett Wilson are among the options.

Who will be the gunner on punt coverage?

Terry McLaurin was sensational in that role last year, and he’ll be missed. The combination of Chrisman’s punts and McLaurin’s hustle and determination to down them made the punt game a major weapon. Against Michigan State, when the Buckeyes’ offense sputtered, the punt game was instrumental in the victory. Ohio State has several capable candidates to take over the role. Cornerback Jeff Okudah saw time as a gunner last year and receiver Chris Olave has been groomed for the role. The standard has been set, and it’s a high one.

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