What we learned from Ohio State's spring football game

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Quarterback C.J. Stroud completed 16 of 22 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns in Saturday's spring game.

Fans and other onlookers got a peek at Ohio State for two hours on Saturday as the team held its annual spring game, concluding four weeks of spring practices.

Here are five final observations on the scrimmage from beat reporter Joey Kaufman:

C.J. Stroud looks like a frontrunner to be the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback

As wide open as Ohio State’s quarterback competition is this offseason, featuring three inexperienced passers who are all waiting to throw their first pass in a college game, Stroud has been perceived as a slight favorite. He was the backup behind Justin Fields late last season and first in line in drills during practices open to reporters this month.

None of the performances in the spring game did much to alter the perception about Stroud’s status in the race. He led the offense for three series in the first half, and twice saw it into the end zone by throwing touchdown passes. His arm talent was most on display when he floated an early 40-yard pass to receiver Chris Olave. Overall, he showed the cool-headedness of someone favored to win the job.

The other quarterbacks had their moments. Despite an interception, Jack Miller kept the offense moving, and Kyle McCord threw a pair of touchdown passes, but it seemed unlikely to really shake up the battle.

More:Rob Oller: Silent Stroud's quarterback play speaks volumes in Ohio State spring game

Wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, here eluding cornerback Cameron Martinez, caught five passes for 50 yards in Saturday's spring game.

There’s a clear replacement for Garrett Wilson in the slot

As Garrett Wilson returns to an outside receiver role next season, his move leaves an opening at slot receiver, and the spring game offered further evidence that sophomore Jaxon Smith-Njigba is primed for the position.

Smith-Njigba caught five passes for 50 yards and showed his sure-handedness on a 15-yard touchdown catch late in the second quarter. Facing Cameron Martinez in the slot, lining up on the hash marks on the right side of the field, he sprang toward the end zone. Martinez kept with him as the pass from McCord arrived, but Smith-Njigba snatched it before the cornerback could turn his head around to make a play.

Last fall’s pandemic-shortened season left Smith-Njigba with fewer opportunities for playing time, and he has only 10 career receptions, but he has the look of a mature pass-catcher.

Safety Craig Young runs to the sideline during the spring game on Saturday. Young played the "Bullet" hybrid linebacker-safety position in the game.

New base defense could emerge

Injuries left the Buckeyes thin on depth at linebacker in spring practice, a predicament that was evident Saturday when backup long snapper Roen McCullough lined up for reps. Keep in mind when assessing the formations deployed by defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, the health of personnel has a hand in these things.

Nonetheless, it remained notable how often the defense appeared in a 4-2-5 scheme, using only two linebackers in favor of an extra defensive back. In most instances, the additional member of the secondary was someone at the “Bullet” position, the hybrid linebacker-safety role. Ronnie Hickman was at the spot with Team Brutus, while Craig Young was there with Team Buckeye.

Does this signal the “Bullet” gaining a foothold at last in the defense, aiding pass coverage that struggled last season? Or will Ohio State return to its traditional 4-3 base defense when more than five scholarship linebackers are available?

Cornerback Ryan Watts runs after intercepting a pass intended for wide receiver Garrett Wilson in the spring game Saturday.

Options expanding in secondary

With starting cornerbacks Sevyn Banks and Cameron Brown out due to injuries, there was little opportunity to assess the progress of the back end of the defense, an area that held the Buckeyes back in their national title chase last season.

But there were signs of emerging depth in the secondary. To end the scrimmage’s opening series, Ryan Watts picked off a pass intended for Wilson, who was running a fade route toward the end zone. Though it was a bit of an underthrown ball by Miller and likely should not have been attempted, Watts benefited from tight coverage, leaping to reel in the interception.

If Banks or Brown is slow to recover or suffers a setback, the redshirt freshman is an immediate candidate for a starting role. At 6 feet 3, he offers the length desired by Coombs at outside corner and appears to be making strides in his first full offseason with the program.

Freshman wide receiver Emeka Egbuka caught seven passes for 123 yards in Saturday's spring game.

Freshmen acing their learning curve

When the Buckeyes brought in 15 early enrollees in January, it represented their largest group of freshmen to ever join the program for spring practice. A handful of them seem especially poised to take on significant roles as soon as this fall, benefiting from the winter and spring offseason programs.

As defensive end Jack Sawyer grabbed headlines for his three-sack performance, receivers Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr. offered glimpses of their potential on the offensive side of the ball, each catching seven passes. Egbuka turned his in for 123 receiving yards, and Harrison had a 5-yard touchdown reception, setting up in the end zone to cap the opening drive for Team Brutus.

Running backs TreVeyon Henderson and Evan Pryor also looked capable in the passing game with five catches for 29 yards and two catches for 12 yards, respectively.

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman