Projecting a way-too-early Ohio State football depth chart: Offense

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
The return of receiver Chris Olave is a huge development for an Ohio State football team in 2021 that will be breaking in a new quarterback but has a stable of capable wideouts.

The Ohio State football team begins its offseason strength and conditioning program Monday.

It’s a point on the calendar in which the program shifts attention toward the next season, in this case a 2021 campaign scheduled to begin Sept. 2 at Minnesota, with preseason camp starting a month or so before.

The makeup of the roster will be different this fall after five underclassmen entered the NFL draft, joining several departing seniors. At least 21 freshman signees will have arrived on campus by then, too.

With an eye toward the fall, here is an early look at how the Buckeyes’ depth chart might shake out. We take a look at the offense, to be followed by the defense next week.

Quarterback 

Starter: C.J. Stroud (redshirt freshman) 

Backups: Jack Miller (redshirt freshman), Kyle McCord (freshman) 

The skinny: Although coach Ryan Day has maintained there is no frontrunner in the competition to find an heir apparent to Justin Fields, signs point to Stroud as the early favorite.

C.J. Stroud (14) is no different than any other quarterback on the Ohio State roster in that he has never attempted a college pass, but he did run for a 48-yard touchdown in a late-season win at Michigan State.

He stepped in when Fields briefly left games against Clemson and Michigan State with injuries this past season, and he was added late in the 2020 recruiting cycle when the Buckeyes already had a longstanding commitment from Miller, who set an Arizona high school record in throwing 115 touchdowns in his prep career.

But none of them has thrown a pass in a college game, including Stroud, who only handed the ball off or ran himself during his appearances. There isn’t enough experience to declare any of the passers a prohibitive favorite, and it’s likely a three-way battle continues into preseason training camp in August. A similar setup was in place two years ago before Fields eventually emerged as the successor to Dwayne Haskins for the starting job.

The Buckeyes also could add a veteran quarterback through the NCAA’s transfer portal, a move that would potentially shake up the pecking order. But Day has given no hints about such a step.

Running back 

Starter: Master Teague III (redshirt junior)

Top backups: TreVeyon Henderson (freshman), Miyan Williams (redshirt freshman)   

The skinny: Trey Sermon enjoyed a breakout stretch late in the 2020 season, but Teague led the team in carries before he was injured in the Big Ten championship game, leaving him with the inside track to reprise his role as the No. 1 running back.

Master Teague finished the 2020 season with 514 yards rushing and a team-best eight touchdowns.

But Henderson, the first five-star running back prospect to sign with the Buckeyes since Chris "Beanie" Wells in 2006, is talented enough to start and should make a push after enrolling early last weekend.

It will still be a tall order. Henderson did not play his senior season of high school last fall in Virginia after it was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, so he is short on recent game experience.

There’s also limited precedent for a true freshman to start a season at running back for Ohio State — only J.K. Dobbins in 2017 and Maurice Clarett in 2002 have accomplished the feat.

The stout Williams, who spelled Sermon in the Sugar Bowl, also could see a larger role as the Buckeyes divide carries in their backfield.

Wide receiver 

Starters: Chris Olave (senior), Jameson Williams (junior), Garrett Wilson (junior)

Top backups: Julian Fleming (sophomore), Kamryn Babb (redshirt junior), Jaxon Smith-Njigba (sophomore), Emeka Egbuka (freshman), Gee Scott Jr. (redshirt freshman), Marvin Harrison Jr. (freshman)

The skinny: Considering that 93 of the 158 completed passes by Fields in 2020 landed in the hands of Olave and Wilson, there is little question about their involvement in — and importance to — the offense. Wilson, in particular, thrived after sliding into a role as the team’s slot receiver as a sophomore, taking over for K.J. Hill.

With 43 receptions, 723 yards and six touchdowns, Garrett Wilson became a dependable, dynamic receiver out of the slot position.

But the rest of the receiver rotation appears more fluid. Williams, who caught nine passes for 154 yards and a pair of touchdowns in his first season starting at the outside receiver spot, is backed by a bunch of talented underclassmen eager for more playing time.

Smith-Njigba made the biggest splash as a freshman with an acrobatic touchdown catch in the season-opening win over Nebraska, tip-toeing to remain inbounds. But in-game snaps were harder to come by in the pandemic-shortened season, and plenty of jockeying for playing time should come this offseason.

Tight end 

Starter: Jeremy Ruckert (senior)

Backups: Cade Stover (redshirt sophomore), Joe Royer (redshirt freshman)

The skinny: The return of Ruckert for his senior season was a significant development. He was the team's third-leading receiver last season and gives Ohio State a red-zone weapon.

Jeremy Ruckert is the only returning Ohio State tight end with a career catch.

In putting off the NFL, he also brings back much-needed experience. Ruckert is the only returning tight end who has caught a pass.

If Day’s offense is to continue to use 12 personnel — a formation that features one running back and two tight ends — it will need to cultivate depth behind Ruckert, leaving Stover and Royer, the two other returners, with opportunities to assume larger roles.

Center

Starter: Harry Miller (junior)

Backup: Luke Wypler (redshirt freshman)

The skinny: Miller started at left guard as a sophomore, but he has been viewed as the next in line at center following the departure of Josh Myers.

Despite some wild snaps in an emergency start at Michigan State, Harry Miller figures to move to center next season.

He was the nation's second-ranked center prospect in the recruiting class of 2019 and stepped in for Myers when a positive COVID-19 test sidelined him at Michigan State late in the regular season.

Some of Miller’s snaps against the Spartans, however, were errant, but a full offseason program should allow for a smoother transition.

Guard

Starters: Matthew Jones (redshirt junior), Paris Johnson Jr. (redshirt freshman)

Backups: Enokk Vimahi (redshirt sophomore), Donovan Jackson (freshman), Jakob James (redshirt freshman), Ben Christman (freshman)

The skinny: Miller's likely return to center leaves open a starting position at left guard in addition to the right guard spot vacated by Wyatt Davis, who was among the Buckeyes’ early entrants for the NFL draft.

Redshirt freshman Paris Johnson Jr. (77) is a natural tackle, but could be moved to guard to get his talents on the field.

Jones has the most extensive experience on the offensive line, starting in place of Miller in the Sugar Bowl and helping pave the way for Sermon’s 193-yard rushing performance. But Johnson, a backup at right tackle, also stepped in at guard, and without an expected opening at either left or right tackle, he should settle in on the line’s interior.

Tackle

Starters: Thayer Munford (senior), Nicholas Petit-Frere (redshirt junior)

Backups: Dawand Jones (redshirt sophomore), Max Wray (redshirt junior), Josh Fryar (redshirt freshman), Ryan Jacoby (redshirt sophomore)

The skinny: The offensive line will showcase experience on the flanks in Munford and Petit-Frere.

Thayer Munford (75) is expected to be the first four-year starter on Ohio State's offensive line since Billy Price in 2014-17.

At left tackle, Munford will be the Buckeyes’ first four-year starting lineman since Billy Price, who started at center and guard from 2014 through 2017. Petit-Frere is set to start at right tackle for a second straight season.

Both are dependable in pass protection and did not allow a sack in 2020.

If either is sidelined, a number of potential candidates could replace them, starting with Jones and Wray, who started at left tackle and right tackle, respectively, at Michigan State.

Johnson, a possible starter at guard, could also line up at tackle.

Kicker

Jake Seibert was perfect on all 16 extra-point attempts in 2020.

Starter: Jake Seibert (redshirt freshman)

Backups: Dominic DiMaccio (senior)

The skinny: Seibert is set to take over full-time for Blake Haubeil, who handled place-kicking duties the past three seasons.

He filled in for Haubeil in three games last season and made 1 of 2 field-goal attempts, as well as all 16 extra-point tries.

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman