Who replaces Justin Fields at quarterback? That's one of the big questions heading into spring practice
Ohio State hopes to have a more normal 2021 football season than the delayed and shortened one in 2020 that fell one victory short of a national championship.
Already, though, it’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has not yet gone away. The Buckeyes paused all team-related activities because of a case increase last week, then partly reopened on Friday. The plan as of now is still to start spring practice this coming Friday, and those 15 practices will be crucial.
A year ago, the Buckeyes got in only three spring practices before the pandemic caused an abrupt end, but they had a returning star at quarterback in Justin Fields and a mostly veteran defense.
Now questions abound at almost every position. Dispatch beat writers Bill Rabinowitz and Joey Kaufman take a look at six of the most pressing questions Ohio State faces.
Who will emerge at quarterback?
Chances are, coach Ryan Day won't settle on a starter by the end of spring practice, at least not publicly. There’s no reason to anoint C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller or Kyle McCord in April before summer workouts and preseason camp. But these practices will be huge in determining a front-runner.
Stroud is perceived to head into camp as the favorite, but that’s based on the reading of very few tea leaves. Yes, he took the snap in the Big Ten championship game when Fields was briefly injured. But none of the three candidates has thrown a collegiate pass.
In normal times, Stroud and Miller would have a distinct advantage over true freshman McCord by having a year under their belt at OSU. But spring practice was truncated, they spent the summer back home and they didn’t get mop-up throws in games.
McCord played a shortened high school season, but at least he played. He’s a five-star prospect from an elite program, and his chances shouldn’t be discounted. It will truly be a three-way competition.
Besides QBs, which position group has the most to sort out?
There is little doubt the biggest issue for the Buckeyes to fix this offseason involves their secondary. They ranked 122nd in the Football Bowl Subdivision in pass defense in 2020, allowing an average of 304 yards per game, the most surrendered by a team in program history.
To pick up the unit, Day promoted Matt Barnes to secondary coach; he had worked with the safeties and special teams in previous seasons. Kerry Coombs will focus primarily on his coordinator duties.
Ohio State roster:Projecting a way-too-early Ohio State football depth chart: Defense
The development of personnel is paramount, starting with Sevyn Banks. Can he become a true No. 1 cornerback in his second season as a starter? The Buckeyes lacked a premier cover corner last season following the departure of Jeff Okudah.
Cameron Brown also will be counted upon to recover from a season-ending Achilles tendon injury and solidify an outside corner spot opposite Banks.
But the free safety spot is perhaps most critical. Is there a defensive back on the roster who can fill the responsibilities needed for Ohio State to continue with its preferred single-high safety look? The options start with Marcus Hooker and Josh Proctor, but improvement from Lathan Ransom, as well as Ronnie Hickman and Kourt Williams, will also be worth watching.
How will the running back situation play out?
Master Teague III started most of the season, until Trey Sermon caught fire late. It’s easy to forget that it was almost exactly a year ago that Teague tore his Achilles tendon and made a remarkable recovery to be an effective runner.
Now the question is whether Teague, a north-south runner without much elusiveness, can make the leap to dominant back. He will have plenty of competition. Miyan Williams impressed in limited action as a true freshman last year. Marcus Crowley is presumably fully recovered from his 2019 knee injury, and Steele Chambers also is in the mix.
Ohio State roster:Projecting a way-too-early Ohio State football depth chart: Offense
But a lot of the excitement revolves around the freshmen. TreVeyon Henderson was a five-star recruit. COVID wiped out his senior season in Virginia so there’s some projection about his development. If he’s as good as advertised, he’ll be hard to keep off the field. Evan Pryor has been overshadowed by Henderson, but his versatility could make him a factor, as well.
Whether it’s one back or a committee approach, establishing a strong running game and soundness in pass protection early will be crucial as Ohio State breaks in a new quarterback.
How much will the offensive line be reconfigured?
There’s continuity along the edges of the offensive line with tackles Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere holding off NFL draft declarations. In using an additional season of eligibility because of the pandemic, Munford will be a so-called “super senior.”
But there’s far more uncertainty in the interior of the offensive line, which returns only one starter in junior Harry Miller.
While starting at left guard last season, Miller is likely to return to center, his natural position and where he spent 2019 as a backup behind Josh Myers.
That shift would leave vacancies at left and right guard. Will the Buckeyes turn to Paris Johnson Jr. and Matthew Jones?
Johnson, the heir apparent to Munford at left tackle, proved capable of filling in at guard as a freshman last season. Jones was also solid in the Sugar Bowl win against Clemson in place of Miller.
But much of the projected reconfiguration hinges on Miller’s comfort level at center and with snapping, an issue that emerged at Michigan State.
With Myers sidelined following a COVID-19 diagnosis, Miller’s chemistry with Fields was off. To hold down the starting job, he’ll need to be in better sync with the Buckeyes' next starting quarterback.
How do the Buckeyes replace four senior linebackers?
It seemed like Tuf Borland, Pete Werner, Baron Browning and Justin Hilliard had been at Ohio State since the Jim Tressel era. Now they’re finally gone, and the Buckeyes have to replace the void both in performance and leadership.
It’s not as if the cupboard is bare, but it is mostly unproven. It seems reasonable to believe that seniors such as Teradja Mitchell, K’Vaughan Pope and Dallas Gant will get first dibs to win the job. But underclassmen will certainly get their shot.
Craig Young, Cody Simon, Tommy Eichenberg and Mitchell Melton will be in the mix. So could freshman Reid Carrico.
Position coach Al Washington turned down a chance to become Tennessee’s defensive coordinator, so it’s logical to assume that his faith in the Buckeyes’ next wave of linebackers factored in his decision. Now that has to come to fruition.
Fifteen freshmen enrolled early. Whose development is critical?
Outside of Henderson and McCord, who factor into two of the biggest position battles, it’ll be worth monitoring how quickly Jack Sawyer settles in along the defensive line in his first semester at Ohio State.
If the Pickerington native makes a quick adjustment this spring, it could be a significant boost to the Buckeyes, who have missed the havoc caused by 2019 All-American Chase Young.
Returning defensive ends such as Tyreke Smith are capable of pressuring opposing quarterbacks, but defensive line coach Larry Johnson often rotates pass rushers, leaving a potential pathway for Sawyer to see the field this fall.
Sawyer was one of the best overall prospects in the 2021 recruiting class, but he has not appeared in a game since 2019.
He opted out of Pickerington North’s season last fall in order to prepare for spring practice. The decision was made as he had also spent much of his offseason rehabbing a torn knee ligament, suffered at the end of his junior season.
Elsewhere on the roster, Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr. could challenge for playing time at wide receiver without a firm pecking order behind leading pass catchers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson.
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