Ohio State's spring game shows optimism is warranted for 2022 season

Bill Rabinowitz
The Columbus Dispatch

The next college football team that completes spring practice and publicly professes doom for the upcoming season will be the first.

Hope is eternal in spring.

When you’re Ohio State and elite status feels like a birthright, optimism is a given. But the excitement among the Buckeyes about the 2022 season that followed this spring feels particularly genuine. Saturday’s spring game in front of 60,007 at Ohio Stadium provided validation.

The Buckeyes had few worries about their passing game entering the spring. C.J. Stroud is back for his second year after a dazzling debut in 2021. On his first drive Saturday, he connected with Rose Bowl hero Jaxon Smith-Njigba for a third-down conversion and then a touchdown.

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With Marvin Harrison, Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming and potentially others ready to step into big roles, it would be a huge surprise if the passing game falters. Fleming didn’t play in the spring game, but Ohio State coach Ryan Day said that was merely a precaution because of an injury.

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Ohio State’s run game last year alternated between explosive and stagnant. TreVeyon Henderson looks poised for a big sophomore year, supplemented by Miyan Williams. Evan Pryor showed in the spring game that he could also be a factor. He broke several tackles on a 22-yard touchdown run.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day praised the improvement of the Buckeyes' defensive backs this spring, a group which includes freshman safety Kye Stokes.

“A lot of people see three running backs and are like, ‘Are there enough carries for them, or ‘Can they all three fit into the system?’” Pryor said. “I feel like we all complement each other well, and throughout the season, you'll be able to see that as well.”

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Day has concerns about his offensive line’s depth, but not about his starters. He feels better about his tight ends filling the void left by Jeremy Ruckert. Cade Stover has returned from linebacker, and Day said he's happy with the development of Joe Royer and Gee Scott Jr. Royer made a superb leaping grab for a touchdown on Saturday.

Ohio State's big question entering the spring centered on how quickly the defense could grasp new coordinator Jim Knowles’ system. That can’t fully be answered until September, but so far, so good.

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By design, Knowles gave his players more than he knew they could absorb. He wanted them to learn from their own mistakes, not from what Knowles would show them from video of Oklahoma State, his former team.

Knowles knew that the caliber of athlete he has at Ohio State is superior to that of anywhere he has coached. But the Buckeyes’ physical gifts aren’t what has stood out to him the most.

“The biggest revelation of the spring was that regardless of talent, these players that we have, they want to learn,” Knowles said. “They soaked up everything I did. They were just into it, into football, into us, the culture change, the way we run meetings. They picked it up, and they picked it up at a high speed. It’s a football-intelligent group who wants to be coached and wants to be led, so I was really happy about that.”

Ohio State's new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said he was pleased with the way the installation of his system went this spring and credited the Buckeyes' desire to learn.

Knowles' goal is to have his defense attack and confuse quarterbacks with disguises. Ohio State’s pass-rushers were often a split-second late reaching the quarterback last year. Knowles believes they can get sacks and turnovers if they can make a quarterback hesitate in deciphering what he is seeing.

Knowles is confident he has the linemen, both in quantity and quality, to do that. Sophomore ends J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer both looked on Saturday like the top-10 players they were in the 2021 recruiting class nationally. Tuimoloau had two sacks and Sawyer one on Saturday.

“They've gotten stronger,” Day said. “They've gotten faster. Their technique’s been better. You saw that today. If they continue to build this summer, they're going to be a force in the fall.”

Linebacker Tommy Eichenberg built on his solid Rose Bowl performance with 10 tackles in the spring game and looks more decisive than he did most of last year.

At cornerback, Denzel Burke continues to look like the star he was as a freshman. Sophomore Jordan Hancock had a couple of terrific pass breakups and appears ready to challenge for significant playing time.

Ohio State cornerback Jordan Hancock had a couple of pass breakups in the Buckeyes' spring game.

Knowles was concerned about depth at safety because of transfers and injuries. The rapid development of freshman Kye Stokes could allay some of those worries.

“All those guys have had a really good spring,” Day said of the defensive backs. “I've been very impressed with the corners and the safeties. They're showing up and getting their hands on balls and being aggressive.”

That has made practice more challenging for Stroud, but he knows that can only benefit him and the team.

“The defense has been challenging the offense, and we're challenging them,” he said. “It's been good to see the back and forth. Our D-line looks amazing. Our DBs are doing well. The linebackers are communicating well.

“On offense, we’re just trying to build chemistry and get that run game going to work with the play-action. I'm definitely excited for this year.”

Bill Rabinowitz covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at brabinowitz@dispatch.com or on Twitter @brdispatch.

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