Ohio State faces several questions in spring football practice

Bill Rabinowitz
Kerry Coombs brings his trademark intensity, not to mention some added NFL know-how, to the job as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator. [Jonathan Quilter/Dispatch]

The second year of the Ryan Day era gets underway Monday with the start of Ohio State’s spring football practice.

His first season as head coach went almost perfectly — until the thud against Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal.

A team for the ages didn’t get a chance to play for the national title. Many of its stars have now departed for the NFL. The 2020 Buckeyes won’t have Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, J.K. Dobbins, K.J. Hill and several other crucial players from last year’s team.

There is, however, no need to pull out tiny violins. The Buckeyes are not hurting for talent. Quarterback Justin Fields will be a Heisman Trophy candidate. Star power abounds on both sides of the ball.

Still, many questions remain. Here are the biggest ones as Ohio State begins spring practice:

How does the defense change with Kerry Coombs in charge?

Coombs returns to OSU from the Tennessee Titans and has an expanded role as defensive coordinator. Jeff Hafley, now Boston College’s head coach, did a masterful job last year integrating zone concepts into the press, man-to-man pass defense the Buckeyes ran almost exclusively during Coombs’ first stint with the team.

Hafley shared the coordinator title with Greg Mattison. Now Coombs is atop the hierarchy even though he promises the defense will be a collaborative effort with Mattison and fellow assistants Larry Johnson, Al Washington and Matt Barnes.

Last year’s staff jelled quickly. It’s Coombs’ job to make sure things run smoothly this year. He said he learned much from his time in the NFL. The defense is his baby now. He can’t drop it.

How do the Buckeyes rebuild their secondary?

The importance of cornerback Shaun Wade’s decision to return for his redshirt junior year can’t be overstated. Otherwise, Ohio State would have to replace all of its starting defensive backs. As it is, losing cornerbacks Okudah and Damon Arnette and safety Jordan Fuller will be challenging enough.

Josh Proctor is the favorite to replace Fuller. Physically, Proctor passes the look test but has to prove he can be the steadying force Fuller was.

The cornerback picture is more muddled. Cam Brown and Sevyn Banks saw extensive playing time last year and showed both flashes of excellence and moments of, well, not excellence. Could Tyreke Smith or Marcus Williamson make a push? What about freshmen Lejond Cavazos and Ryan Watts? The Buckeyes’ secondary depth took a hit when Amir Riep and Jahsen Wint were dismissed after they were charged with rape and kidnapping last month.

How does the defensive line replace Chase Young and others?

Young, like the Bosa brothers before him, was a rare talent, which speaks to the level of recruiting and development by Larry Johnson. Funny as it sounds, the Buckeyes might find it easier to replace Young than some of the departed senior tackles. Defensive ends Jonathon Cooper, Tyreke Smith and Zach Harrison have elite talent, even if not Chase Young-talent.

Replacing DaVon Hamilton, Jashon Cornell and Robert Landers on the interior will be a priority. Tommy Togiai, Haskell Garrett, Antwuan Jackson and Taron Vincent must take strides this spring.

Is Master Teague up for the job succeeding Dobbins?

Teague made third-team all-Big Ten last year as Dobbins’ backup, which is as much a reflection of OSU’s dominance — allowing him so much playing time because of repeated blowouts — as Teague’s effectiveness.

Teague did look good as a downhill runner, but he did most of his damage against overmatched defenses. Against Clemson after Dobbins was injured, Teague gained only 9 yards in seven carries.

He has the sturdy frame to be a workhorse runner and has underrated speed. But Dobbins’ shoes are big, and there’s little proven depth behind him. Marcus Crowley is recovering from a knee injury, and Steele Chambers saw little action. Demario McCall will get a chance to find a niche, though he also will get a look as a hybrid.

Who fills in the open spots on the offensive line?

The Buckeyes lost left guard Jonah Jackson and right tackle Branden Bowen from last year’s dominating line. With All-American Wyatt Davis back at right guard, Josh Myers at center and Thayer Munford at left tackle, that’s an excellent foundation.

Nicholas Petit-Frere, a former five-star recruit, is expected to take over for Bowen, though sophomore Dawand Jones and freshman Paris Johnson Jr. shouldn’t be ruled out.

The left guard battle will be interesting. Ohio State has a successful history of converting natural centers to guards, and Harry Miller has the brawn and the brains to make that work. Players and coaches raved about his rapid development as a true freshman in 2019. Fifth-year senior Gavin Cupp and possibly redshirt sophomore Matthew Jones also will compete.

Beyond Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, who emerges as reliable receivers?

In those two, the Buckeyes have as good a pair as any in the country. But Ohio State likes to use six receivers in its regular rotation, and after last season, as was the case the previous year, the Buckeyes lost three key seniors. So who steps in?

Jameson Williams showed glimpses last year. McCall and Jaelen Gill will get a look at Hill’s hybrid spot.

Jaylen Harris and Ellijah Gardiner are veterans for whom time is running out. The Buckeyes also have four blue-chip freshmen — Julian Fleming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Gee Scott Jr. and Mookie Cooper — who will get plenty of chances to make their mark.


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