COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The initial steps toward defending a national championship have been taken, and spring practice is officially in the books for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes head into the offseason with another clear mission statement from coach Urban Meyer, who continued his war against complacency after closing the exhibition on Saturday by questioning the improvement his team made over 15 workouts.
“We did not improve as a team,” Meyer said. “That was not a good team out there.”
Part of that was due to injuries, another factor was the amount of new faces Ohio State has been giving work in an effort to build depth. But no matter the reason, Meyer’s message was clear as he turned his team loose for conditioning and summer workouts -- the work isn’t done for the Buckeyes if they’re planning on repeating.
Who is stepping into starting roles?: There weren’t many holes to fill in the first place in spring practice, but barring injury, it looks like Ohio State is pretty much set at the only positions that appeared uncertain in March.
Chase Farris claimed the job at right tackle heading into the summer, Noah Brown appears to be a legitimate threat at wide receiver, Gareon Conley has moved into the lineup at cornerback and Tommy Schutt and Tyquan Lewis will likely round out the defensive line, providing Meyer some sense of security when training camp opens in August.
Settling early on Farris, in particular, could be a boost for an offensive line that was occasionally a punching bag for Meyer during spring workouts. That was largely due to the fact that most of the returning starters were either banged up or getting a breather, but when the Buckeyes get everybody back, they’ll be able to start building chemistry right away up front.
What’s next in the passing game?: Replacing arguably the nation’s most prolific deep threat is no small task, and the Buckeyes probably don’t have anybody on the roster who can completely match Devin Smith’s blazing speed and uncanny ability to haul in bombs at just the right moment.
But there are a pair of talented targets emerging to help shoulder the load and give whoever starts at quarterback more options, and both Noah Brown and Corey Smith appear primed to be dangerous weapons on the perimeter. Corey Smith actually did a decent Devin Smith impression in the spring game, sneaking deep for a pair of touchdowns that covered 58 and 37 yards, respectively, finishing with six grabs and 174 yards. And after drawing high praise throughout camp, Brown provided an example of what the fuss was all about with a sparkling one-handed snag on a ball thrown behind him over the middle, a glimpse at the kind of athleticism he might provide at wideout.
Who will lead the defense?: Technically, Ohio State had another vacant position to fill in the spring at middle linebacker. But there was never any question that Raekwon McMillan would fill it, and the only thing the Buckeyes really needed to find out was if he was capable of handling the responsibility as the leader and quarterback of the defense after sharing the load with Curtis Grant last season.
By all accounts -- including those from veterans Joshua Perry and Darron Lee, the guys lined up next to him at outside linebacker -- McMillan is already flourishing as the signal-caller in the middle, making the most of all the challenges and responsibilities the coaching staff has heaped on his plate. His physical skills weren’t ever really up for debate, especially after putting them on display in a limited role as a true freshman, but Ohio State has quickly found out he’s got the mental ability to go with them.
Who’s the boss?: Let the battle begin.
Stuck in a holding pattern during March and April while J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller continued rehabbing their injuries, leaving Cardale Jones as the unchallenged starter during the spring, perhaps the most hotly-contested, closely-scrutinized quarterback battle in recent memory can officially begin when the Buckeyes report for training camp.
Meyer doesn’t have a definitive plan in place yet to handle it, though he indicated after the spring game he would have to devise a system for handling the competition in August and that he would need to “chart everything that everyone does” to make the right decision.
That means there will be no gut feeling or counting up trophies those three decorated passers have accumulated.
“It’s got to be statistical analysis and data backing up who is going to play,” Meyer said. “ ... I want to be able to look people in the eye and say this is where we’re at and not let it be a shocker when it happens.”