5 things to watch for at Ohio State’s spring football game

Sports

COLUMBUS (WCMH) — Ohio State is set to host its spring football game Saturday in front of more than 19,000 fans at noon.

The Buckeyes canceled last year’s spring game as the coronavirus swept across the country, so this will be the first time some Buckeyes get a chance to play in this game. Below are five things to watch for.

1. Who’s the QB?

Those watching inside the Horseshoe and at home will be eager to see how Ohio State’s quarterbacks look with Justin Fields departing for the NFL.

Jack Miller III, CJ Stroud and Kyle McCord are in the running to start. Stroud and Miller are redshirt freshmen who got some playing time during the 2020 season, but McCord is competing as a true freshman. During spring practice, coach Ryan Day said none of the quarterbacks has separated himself from any other. It’s also highly unlikely a starter will be named until the end of the preseason camp, but whoever does well Saturday will put himself in a good position to claim the job.

2. Defensive backs broke OSU’s back in 2020

No position group struggled as much as Ohio State’s secondary in 2020. The Buckeyes were stacked at all the other positions on defense, so the secondary’s flaws weren’t enough to be detrimental. But those flaws were still glaring. The Buckeyes ranked 122nd in the country in passing yards allowed per game (304).

Cornerback Shaun Wade, once seen as a first-round NFL draft pick, had a letdown season and likely won’t be selected until the sixth or seventh round this year. Cornerback Sevyn Banks returns for a senior season and will need to be an anchor and mentor for whoever plays opposite him.

But Banks, along with Cameron Brown, will not participate in the spring game as both have been injured and missed all of the spring practices. Ohio State will look to fifth-year cornerback Marcus Williamson as well as redshirt freshman Ryan Watts, redshirt freshman Lejond Cavazos and true freshman Denzel Burke. 

“I think we have some good young guys that are showing up,” Day said. “I’m very pleased with the development of those young guys, and I think this is a great opportunity for them to have to step up. … This is great for us because it’s building our depth in that area.”

Defensive coordinator and DBs coach Kerry Coombs relies on a single safety, which will most likely be returning senior Josh Proctor, perhaps the hardest-hitting safety in college football. But Proctor needs to improve in the passing game, especially with Marcus Hooker’s status on the team uncertain after his arrest and suspension. Hooker has been arrested twice for operating a vehicle under the influence, with the first time coming in 2018 in Pennsylvania.

OSU needs to see what it can get from redshirt freshman Kourt Williams II, sophomore Lathan Ransom and sophomore Ronnie Hickman to give Proctor a rest and for when Ohio State uses a fifth defensive back.

3. Let me see you run it, run it!

Trey Sermon emerged as Ohio State’s leading running back after a solid performance against Michigan State when Master Teague was unavailable. Sermon solidified his spot as the starter in the Big Ten championship game, a win over Northwestern, when he ran for 331 yards to set an Ohio State record. Sermon had another impressive performance in the College Football Playoff semifinal win over Clemson as Teague’s role shrank to being a third-down back.

But Sermon’s departure for the NFL leaves Ohio State fans wondering whether Teague will reclaim the starting job or if the Buckeyes will once again look for a back with more mobility and better pass-catching skills to fill the starting role. That player could be freshman TreVeyon Henderson, who, at 5 feet 10 and 210 pounds, looks like J.K. Dobbins did when he arrived at OSU. Redshirt freshman Miyan Williams is similar to Teague as a power back, so carries could be spilt among two or three players without a featured back to start the season.

4. Linebackers are all new

Ohio State lost an alarming amount of talented linebackers. Veterans Baron Browning, Pete Werner, Justin Hilliard and Tuf Borland played in more than 150 games combined. All of them are departing for the NFL.

Ohio State is used to reloading and going about business as usual. But the last time Ohio State lost this many high-caliber players at one position, the result was abysmal. Ohio State ranked No. 1 in pass defense in 2019 thanks to Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette and Jordan Fuller, as well as defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley. All three players left for the NFL while Hafley took the head coaching job at Boston College, and Ohio State became the sixth-worst passing defense in 2020.

In fairness to Coombs, OSU will have a full offseason to prepare unlike last year, which bodes well for the linebackers. The prospects are not new to the program, but they are new names who haven’t had a ton of game experience.

“This is why they come to Ohio State; you know, this is what it’s about,” linebackers coach Al Washington said. “Next guy is up. Take advantage of your opportunity, believe in yourself and compete.”

Teradja Mitchell, Dallas Gant and K’Vaughan Pope will be the senior leaders in this group, but they only played in 10 games combined in 2020 because of the players in front of them. Gant has a foot injury that will prevent him from playing in the Spring Game.

Sophomores Craig Young and Cody Simon will be used in the rotation, but both had the benefit of learning from the old guard in 2020 and seeing firsthand what it takes to compete. Another player to keep an eye on is true freshman Reid Carrico from Ironton, who has already impressed Washington in his short time with the Buckeyes.

5. Guards … Stuck in the Middle With You?

Part of Ohio State’s offensive line is the most proven, unrelenting unit in the country while the other part is relatively unknown.

Two of the most important returning starters are on OSU’s offensive line: Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere. The offensive tackle duo ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in lowest quarterback pressure percentage allowed by a player from a Power Five conference, per Pro Football Focus.

While OSU is solid at tackle, it needs to replace All-America guard Wyatt Davis and center Josh Myers, a Rimington finalist. Harry Miller started at guard in 2020, but he will likely slide over to center to replace Myers.

Paris Johnson Jr. is the most interesting lineman at Ohio State. Johnson came to the Buckeyes as a five-star offensive tackle from Cincinnati and rotated in with Munford and Petit-Frere during his true freshman season. But this year, Johnson is making the transition to offensive guard to be a starter.

“When I first came here, I took a look at the depth chart and I sort of made some assumptions and I saw that by my sophomore year there would be that spot at tackle,” Johnson said. “But with everything’s that happened, I’m more than happy to play guard because coach Day said he wants to have the best five who play.”

Miller will miss spring camp because of an undisclosed injury, so the Buckeyes are getting to see what other players like Josh Fryar and Luke Wypler can do.

“I’ve been really impressed with the middle of our offensive line,” Petit-Frere said. “Josh Fryar has had a great spring ball, Matt Jones has been doing well, Luke has been having a great spring ball playing a little bit of center, and Paris, as well, has also had a great time playing. All of these guys have shown a lot of great skill and intuition about the position they’re playing.”

Matthew Jones rotated in at offensive guard in 2020 and started in the playoff semifinal and the national championship game against Alabama with Harry Miller out because of COVID-19. It’s anybody’s guess who will play center and the other guard position, but Miller will likely be in the starting five one way or another.

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