Record Crowd Attends 2015 Ohio State Spring Game
This time last year there were uncertainties on the offensive line, at running back, at linebacker, and in the defensive backfield, but one thing was clear: Braxton Miller, the two time defending Big Ten Player of the Year, would be the quarterback to lead the Ohio State Buckeye football team for the 2014 season.
Coming off a 2013 season where backup quarterback Kenny Guiton led the team in a handful of games when Miller was injured, the only questions at the quarterback position were: could Miller stay healthy? And, if not, with Guiton having graduated, what would the Buckeyes do? Those questions about the backup quarterback position lingered after relatively modest performances by unknowns JT Barrett and Cardale Jones during the 2014 Spring Game.
It would have been impossible to predict what happened next.
Entering the 2015 campaign, the biggest questions aren’t about a position where there is limited depth or about uncertainties for players with limited experience. Instead, the question is how do the Buckeyes manage three quarterbacks that are each in the discussion for the Heisman Trophy? This is unprecedented territory in college football.
With Miller and Barrett still recovering from injury, though, the spring belonged to Jones. In front of a national record crowd of 99,391 fans on a picture perfect day in Columbus, Jones reminded fans where he left off last season as he led Gray to a 17-14 victory over Scarlet in the 2015 Spring Game.
Although Barrett did not play in the game, he gave fans a reminder of his abilities while participating in a throwing competition with Jones and 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith at halftime. So, too, did Braxton Miller remind fans of his talents when he competed at halftime in a 40-yard dash competition.
Spring games are never intended to represent what a team will look like by the time the season rolls around. Offensive and defensive-line units are mixed and matched; multiple starters aren’t involved; and the format of the scrimmage itself is not like a traditional game. Today was a day for younger players and for fans. However, as an incentive to make the scrimmage competitive, Coach Meyer made the losing team walk back to the Woody Hayes practice facility after the game, and they also will have to landscape Buckeye Grove next week after they return from visiting the White House.
“We grab a hand after each time we come to the stadium,” Meyer said afterwards, “and we’re very grateful for the blessings to be able to play this great game.” However, always looking to challenge his team to make progress, he added, “we did not improve as a team. But we did individually get better.”
With Ezekiel Elliot, Michael Thomas, Dontre Wilson, Jacoby Boren, Miller, Barrett, and a handful of others not participating due to injury, an opportunity was provided for some of the younger, less experienced players to put their talents on display in a game-like atmosphere. Young guys taking advantage of that stage were Parris Campbell, Erick Smith, Terry McLaurin, Noah Brown, Jeff Greene, and freshman linebacker Nick Conner. Corey Smith, who saw a lot of time last season, also had a big day.
While the Buckeyes return seven starters from last season on offense, they do face the task of replacing former offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who left to take the head-coaching job at the University of Houston. Ed Warinner, offensive line coach for the Buckeyes the past three seasons, will take on that challenge.
“I couldn’t be more excited about this team, this offensive unit, and where we could be in the fall,” Warinner said after the game.
The anchor of this team will be an offensive line that returns four out of its five starters from last season. Regarding who will replace the lone graduate, Darryl Baldwin, Meyer confirmed, “Chase Farris has earned his way. He’s starting at right tackle.”
However, Meyer expressed concern for depth beyond the starting offensive line unit. “I’m very alarmed by the second group of offensive linemen right now,” he said.
The running back position is established with Elliot coming off an 1878 yard season, where 696 of those yards came in the final three games of the season. Looking to back him up will be Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball.
“Bri’onte Dunn has earned a right to contribute to the Buckeyes next year” Meyer explained.
At wide receiver, the Buckeyes look to replace Devin Smith and Evan Spencer. After very good seasons a year ago, Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall are the frontrunners to take over those spots full-time. Curtis Samuel, a running back last year, has seen a lot of reps at the wide receiver position during the spring and figures to factor heavily in the offensive game plan during the upcoming season. Noah Brown, who has dropped about twenty-five pounds since his freshman season last year, is also a guy who will be getting a lot of playing time at the wide receiver/h-back position moving forward.
Meyer was also pleased with wide receiver Parris Campbell’s performance today. During one sequence of the game, Meyer told him, “I need you to win the game right here. I need you to score.” Then, “he looked at me, took the ball, put his left foot in the ground and dove in, made a great cut and scored. That’s one I remember from the spring game. That’s going to help him get into the rotation.”
Corey Smith, James Clark, Johnnie Dixon, Jeff Greene, and Terry McLaurin are others in the mix at wide receiver.
“As we get closer we’ll start to narrow down the best players and who is going to play the most, but the beautiful thing about depth is it’s a competition,” offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said following the game. “Certain players don’t have to play every play and they can be fresher and you can have a little more punch in the 4th quarter if you’re rolling some guys through there.”
Dontre Wilson, coming off a foot injury from late last season, will return at the h-back position. With Jeff Heuerman graduated, Nick Vannett will take over the tight end duties full-time. Redshirt sophomore Marcus Baugh also will factor in at tight end.
On how he will decided who starts at quarterback, Meyer explained, “This can’t be- I’m going with him because it’s my gut feeling. It’s got to be statistical analysis and data, backed up on who is going to play quarterback.”
Meyer will keep Jones, Barrett, and Miller, as well as their families, in communication throughout the process.
“I want to be able to look those people in the eye and say this is where we’re at and not be a shocker when it happens,” Meyer explained.
The defense also returns seven starters. On the defensive line, All-American Joey Bosa is back, as is Adolphus Washington. Still, with Michael Bennett, Steve Miller, and Rashad Frazier graduated, a few question marks remain. Tommy Schott will factor in at defensive tackle, as will Donovan Munger and Michael Hill. Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard are two guys Meyer singled out as ones to keep an eye on for the defensive end position opposite Bosa. Jalyn Holmes, Tracy Sprinkle, and Darius Slade, will also compete for time.
At cornerback, Eli Apple returns. On the other side, Meyer established that “Gareon Conley is penciled in now” to replace first-team All-Big Ten cornerback Doran Grant. “We’re going to make the call to the family and say your son earned a right to start at Ohio State.”
At safety, starters Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell both return. Erick Smith, who had a solid spring game, and Cam Burrows will push for time as well.
Starters Josh Perry and Darron Lee return at linebacker, as does Raekwon McMillan who looked really solid as a true freshman last season. Chris Worley, Cam Williams, Dante Booker, and Nick Conner, who had an interception today, are also in the mix.
At the specialist positions, punter Cameron Johnston and placekicker Sean Nuernberger both return this season.
“This is a really critical offseason for us,” Meyer told reporters after the game.
Coach Warinner communicated the same message.
“For every team the challenge is, can they get better from the last day of spring ball until they come to training camp? And it doesn’t take long when you go to the first practice in August; you know whether this team improved from today until then, or whether they didn’t. If they didn’t, we won’t be where we need to be. Last year, I thought we made tremendous progress from spring ball until we started in August. When we started in August I saw a different football team than I saw the last day I walked out of the spring game. We’re hoping that the veteran leadership and the maturity of this team and the competitive nature of these guys will push themselves to do the same thing.”
While expectations will be high for 2015 with the hopes of a repeat, the Buckeyes appear to have the talent and experience to do it again. Still, this time a year ago no one could have foreseen what was to come. What happened in the spring game today, and whatever happens moving forward, let 2014 be a lesson: take things one game at a time and enjoy the ride.
Photos by Chris Landauer.