Ohio State Football Spring Review and Fall Preview
Spring means many things around Columbus; getting the garden started, patio dining, the beginning of the Crew and Clippers’ seasons, and much more. For 61,058 fans in attendance at Ohio Stadium on this spring Saturday, it meant a preview of football season.
Though not the defining characteristic of Columbus, college football is undeniably something many residents embrace. That enthusiasm was evident Saturday in the turnout to watch the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on a beautiful, sunny afternoon. For comparison, other schools that recently held their spring games include LSU before a crowd of 18,565 and Baylor with 3,750, schools that each finished ranked in the top 20 at the end of last season. Rival Michigan had just 15,000 in attendance at their spring game. Ohio State attracted this many fans, despite the fact that tickets initially were priced at $20, well above the cost of previous spring games. After selling just 26,000 seats by Friday, the OSU ticket office lowered the price of admission to $5, like in previous years, with all proceeds going to charity. While the crowd was well short of the national record 95,722 that attended the OSU spring game in 2009, with the star quarterback not playing, it was still a substantial turnout.
Adding to the day’s festivities was the Men’s Lacrosse game in Ohio Stadium prior to the start of the football game, which the Buckeyes won 15-6. Other game day events included the honoring of former Buckeyes Bradley Roby, Ryan Shazier, Jack Mewhort, and Johnathan Hankins for being the most recent All-Americans to have played at OSU; dedications to other Buckeye student athletes; a ‘circle drill’ at midfield prior to the game that drew big responses from the crowd; and a forty yard dash competition at halftime between a handful of football players and five non-athlete OSU students. In this race, a student named Malcolm Branson from Massillon Perry High School appeared to have beaten the football players, however, it was announced as a tie, to which the crowd erupted in boos. As a result, Branson went back to the line for another race with the two fastest football players from the first heat, Doran Grant and James Clark. This time Grant beat Branson, who gave a tremendous effort nonetheless.
As the game began, it was evident that the spring game was not designed to be a measure of how the team as a whole looks. Rather, it was for individuals to try to showcase their talents in a simulated game setting. With many starters either not participating, or playing limited minutes, what we saw was not a true representation of what the team will look like come the fall. Similarly, spring game stats can sometimes be misleading.
Head Coach Urban Meyer said in reference to the game stats, “I’m not sure what to do with these. I don’t care. What I do care is who is physically going to make the plays”.
As Meyer noted in his post-game conference, “I’m not trying to evaluate an offense, because who cares? There’re guys out there that will never play. Either never play or they’re not ready to play now”. Instead, Meyer said, “It’s almost like an individual game today. That’s what I wanted to watch. I wanted to see who’s going to compete, who’s going to make plays”.
When a National Championship is the goal, as it is most years for Ohio State, last season came ever so close. The Buckeyes were coming off an undefeated 2012 season, and had run the table again during the 2013 regular season for a program-record twenty-four consecutive victories. However, despite that incredible run of success, there were questions continually raised about the defense. The concern underlying those questions was ultimately confirmed when a combined seventy-four points were given up in the Big Ten Championship game and the Orange Bowl. Though, injuries and a suspension to a starter on the defense no doubt contributed to those struggles.
Nonetheless, issues surrounding the defense were addressed during the off-season, as Ohio State brought in a new Co-Defensive Coordinator, Chris Ash from the University of Arkansas, who, along with Luke Fickell, looks to return the defense to its characteristic excellence. Ash is one of two new members to join defensive coaching staff, along with defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. from Penn State. They take over for Mike Vrabel who left to become the linebacker’s coach of the NFL’s Houston Texans, and Everett Withers, who departed to become the Head Coach at James Madison University.
The defensive staff changes already seem to be making an impact.
Meyer said he felt the defense “looked quicker”. He added, “They looked faster. They triggered on the ball much better than we had in the past”.
While the game matched the Scarlet versus the Gray, rosters of which were chosen by the coaching staff beforehand, the team warmed up together as one unit, which they are and will be going forward. Even though the Scarlet team was led by Stan Drayton, and the Gray by Kerry Coombs, Coach Meyer was very active throughout the day, standing directly behind each quarterback most plays, standing directly behind the holder on kick attempts, and generally being very hands-on with each unit.
On the defensive side of the ball, there will be quite a few players trying to work their way into more playing time. The Buckeyes will need to replace four starters from last year’s defensive unit.
They have the task of replacing All-American linebacker Ryan Shazier, who declared for the NFL after last season. Meyer named Josh Perry a starter going into the fall, but said the other two spots are open. The others competing for time are Darron Lee, a redshirt freshman who Meyer said “Will most likely start”, even though Chris Worley is still battling with him, and returning starter Curtis Grant, who is competing with Raekwon McMillan, an early enrolling freshman from Georgia for the other spot. Referring to McMillan, Meyer said, “He is officially in the rotation. He’s going to play”.
The defensive line returns all four starters, Adolphus Washington, Michael Bennett, Joey Bosa and Noah Spence, from last season. They figure to be a strength of the team this upcoming season.
Meyer claimed, “I’d be disappointed if we’re not one of the better defensive lines in America”.
Still, with Spence having to sit out the first two games due to suspension, others will likely figure into the rotation. Jamal Marcus, Steve Miller, Tyquan Lewis, Tommy Schutt and Chris Carter each figure to get some minutes on a line that rotates regularly to keep guys fresh. Rashad Frazier, who began his career at Purdue, could be another possibility for playing time after he showed well in the spring game.
The defense will be replacing three quarters of last season’s secondary. Cornerback Doran Grant is the lone returner starter. Despite participating in the 40-yard dash at halftime Saturday, Grant did not play in the game due to a concussion.
After Grant, “The other spot is wide open”, according to Meyer.
Competing for that spot are Gareon Conley, Eli Apple, and Armani Reeves, although Meyer referred to Reeves as the Nickel back in his press conference. Apple stood out at the student appreciation day last Saturday, and looked good again during the spring game. Whoever takes over will have the task of replacing first-team All-Big Ten cornerback Bradley Roby, who left early for the NFL.
The defense lost both of last year’s safeties, CJ Barnett and Christian Bryant, to graduation. According to Meyer, Tyvis Powell, who played quite a bit last year as the Nickel back, will be one of the starters. Those competing for the other safety spot are Vonn Bell, who showed promise toward the end of last season, and Cam Burrows, who also looked good in limited action a year ago, especially against Indiana when he played significant minutes at cornerback.
On the offensive side of the ball, the biggest question surrounds how well the Buckeyes can replace four members of last year’s solid offensive line. With only one starter from last season returning, left tackle Taylor Decker, Meyer asserted, “On the offensive line, we’ve got a lot of work to do”.
Meyer mentioned Pat Elflein as another who would start alongside Decker, but stated, “Everyone else is wide open. No other spot’s been taken”.
Decker and Elfein will likely be joined by some combination of Evan Lisle, Billy Price, Daryl Baldwin, Antonio Underwood, Jacoby Boren, Tommy Brown, Kyle Dodson, Chase Farris and Joel Hale.
Despite questions on the line, the commander of the offense, two-time Big-Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller, returns at quarterback. Miller did not play in the spring game due an offseason shoulder procedure. In his absence, redshirt freshmen Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett took most of the reps. They each showed promise. Jones finished 14-31 for 126 yards through the air, while Barrett completed 17 of 33 for 151 yards. In the post-game conference, Meyer called Jones the backup to Miller.
The Buckeyes will need to replace first-team All-Big Ten running back Carlos Hyde. While Hyde certainly left big shoes to be filled, there is a lot of talent hoping to take over. Ezekiel Elliot seems positioned to get the first crack at it, although Meyer said “I’m not ready to anoint a starter yet”.
Meyer then went on to say, “The guy that really, really excites me is #4, Curtis Samuel”, referring to the early enrolling freshman from New York, who showed glimpses of his talent during the spring game.
In addition to Elliot and Samuel, Bri’onte Dunn, Warren Ball, and Rod Smith are talented players that may get carries.
“At tight end you’ve got a one-two punch that we’re really excited about coaching”, Meyer said, referring to Nick Vannet and Jeff Heuerman. Heuerman missed the spring game due to foot surgery, but figures to be ready to go by the summer. Redshirt freshman Marcus Baugh will provide depth at the position.
“At receiver, I can’t name one that’s going to start right now”, Meyer confessed. Though he later added, “we have some depth there”.
Last year’s leading receiver Corey ‘Philly’ Brown graduated. While Devin Smith and Evan Spencer both return from last season’s rotation, there are many others looking to earn their way onto the field. Corey Smith and Mike Thomas each looked solid during the spring game. Others such as Dontre Wilson, who moved over from running back, and early enrolling freshman Johnnie Dixon, who got a lot of balls thrown his way Saturday, are in position for playing time. Prior to an injury in the spring, Jalin Marshall also proved himself to be a threat at receiver.
On special teams, the Buckeyes return Cam Johnston at punter, though they will need to replace Drew Basil at placekicker. Sean Nuernberger, a freshman kicker from Kentucky made six of seven field goal attempts Saturday, while junior Kyle Clinton, a walk-on from Dublin Coffman, went just three for seven. Each made both their extra point tries. Although there were no punt returns during the spring game, Corey Smith and Curtis Samuel each fielded punts Saturday, which, as most fans can remember from last season’s Orange Bowl game, is a critical part of the game and one the Buckeyes will no doubt continue to work on.
By this summer the football team will have added 23 freshmen to their roster, six of which enrolled early and were able to participate in the spring game.
The Buckeyes open the season August 30th in Baltimore, Maryland against the Navy Midshipman. They return to Columbus September 6th to play Virginia Tech in their home opener.
The upcoming season will be the first that the NCAA FBS football utilizes a playoff system, which will feature four teams competing for a chance to play in Arlington, Texas for the National Title on January 12, 2015.
More information and a complete schedule can be found at: www.ohiostatebuckeyes.com.
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All photos provided by the OSU Athletics Department.