With spring practice well underway and the spring game quickly approaching, it is time to move from “way too early looks” at each position into some more informed analysis based on practice reports.
[Note: I apologize for not getting to the defensive backs in my “way too early looks”.]
This offseason has been a tumultuous one to say the least. The tattoo revelations leading up to the Sugar Bowl and the resulting suspensions guaranteed a shadow over the off season. The additional news concerning Jim Tressel didn’t exactly make that shadow go away.
Fortunately, time heals all wounds, and cracking pads on the field helps to speed up that process- at least for me. After some time off from writing following the Tressel news conference (which is part of the reason why I didn’t get to the DBs), my enthusiasm for football is back in full swing.
So what follows will not only be a look at the DBs for the first time, but also a review of all of the position groups with some updated thoughts based on news from practice. I apologize ahead of time if this ends up being lengthy.
My rebuttal: FOOTBALL!
My attitude this offseason has always been that no matter what happens, when the Buckeyes take care of business on the field everything else will fade into the background.
Redemption through wins.
Off field BS be damned.
Here is a look at how each position is looking heading into the spring game.
Who starts at quarterback? That is the question that will be repeated early and often over the next five months.
The answer is that nobody knows at this point. Not even the coaches or players.
In all likelihood, the coaches will keep the competition open until deep into fall practice. Unfortunately, the answer “just wait and see” won’t stop people from speculating endlessly, particularly if someone stands out, or worse yet, performs badly, in the spring game.
On top of that, the opinions on who should be the starter will be thrown around deep into the season- no matter who is playing.
There is nothing that stirs up more controversy or debate than a quarterback competition in Columbus. Throw in a loss along the way and heaven help us all, but I digress.
The way I look at it, the quarterback competition breaks down into two simple criteria; experience and ability.
Terrelle Pryor is easily tops in both of these categories- he will be the starter when he returns from suspension. However, he is still recovering from foot surgery following the Sugar Bowl. He hasn’t participated in spring practice and he won’t participate in the spring game.
That leaves Joe Bauserman, Ken Guiton, Taylor Graham, and Braxton Miller as the quarterbacks competing for the starting spot this spring.
As a fifth year senior, Joe Bauserman is the second most experienced quarterback on the team. He is also the least exciting, and as harsh as it may sound, the least talented, which drops his appeal as the starter significantly. He will not be the fan favorite, but the coaches are unsurprisingly making it his position to lose based on experience.
Bauserman may drop down the depth chart at some point, but like most senior players on a Tressel coached squad, he is receiving the benefit of doubt and has been taking the most reps with the first team this spring.
True freshman Braxton Miller is the opposite of Bauserman in almost every conceivable way. He is by far the most dynamic QB competing this spring and is easily at the top of the ability category. He is also as inexperienced as you can possibly be.
At the beginning of the season, the average Buckeye fan will be pushing hard for Miller as the starter due to his tremendous natural ability and potential (aka hype, a fan favorite). The coaches, on the other hand, will weigh experience and decision making much more heavily in their calculations, which is why Miller is spending the spring fourth on the depth chart.
It is still possible for Miller to win the starting spot, but he will have to earn it facing an uphill battle due to his lack of experience. I personally would be surprised if he were the starter by game one.
Outside of a meteoric rise from Miller, the main candidate to earn the starting spot from Bauserman will be redshirt sophomore Ken Guiton. In the absence of Bauserman at an early practice, Guiton took a majority of the first team reps and by most accounts was impressive.
In terms of experience, Guiton is slightly behind Bauserman but well ahead of Miller. In terms of ability, Guiton is behind Miller but well ahead of Bauserman. Confused yet?
The point is that Guiton is the only quarterback this spring without a glaring weakness. That makes him my preference to hold down the starting spot until Pryor’s return.
Coming in as the dark horse in the QB derby is Taylor Graham. Only time will tell what he can bring to the table this season, but it would be a surprise if he won the starting spot. This means less than nothing, but he looks a lot like Craig Krenzel (at least to me), so we will see where that comparison goes.
Heading into the spring game, Bauserman and Guiton look like options 1A and 1B, with Graham and Miller working to move up.
Once again, this competition will likely go deep into fall practice, so stay tuned.
While the Buckeyes lack a proven super star like Beanie Wells in 2011, they more than make up for that with tremendous depth, talent, and versatility in the backfield.
For simplicities sake, the backs can be broken down into two categories, ‘quick’ backs and ‘big’ backs.
Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry are the ‘quick’ ones, Roderick Smith and Carlos Hyde are the ‘big’ ones, and Boom Herron is right in the middle.
First up is redshirt senior Boom Herron, who quietly put together an 1155 yard, 16 touchdown season in 2010. Those are doubly impressive numbers given his frustratingly slow start. Herron is easily the most experienced back and has been taking a majority of the snaps with the first team this spring.
Herron has taken it upon himself to be a vocal leader in the backfield, which is good because he will be watching the first five games from the sidelines. Despite being suspended, Herron is clearly working hard this offseason, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him jump back to the top of the depth chart in game six.
Herron will find his way back to the top partly due to Tressel’s loyalty to his seniors, and partly because he has an outstanding combination of quickness and power that the other backs on the roster (outside of possibly Smith) just can’t match.
Suspensions are never a good thing, but in this particular case the silver lining is that it provides the young backs some extra opportunities to show what they’ve got early in the year.
From my own observations at a winter conditioning practice, Jordan Hall and Jaamal Berry are primed to take advantage of that opportunity. They were two of the most impressive players going through drills regardless of position, and they are clearly pushing each other to get better every day.
Hall is the quicker of the two with excellent balance and vision (as demonstrated returning kicks last season) while Berry has better straight line speed and explosiveness (as anyone who watched him last season knows all too well).
If I had to decide today, I would guess that Hall and Berry will receive a majority of the carries during Herron’s suspension. However, both players (Hall in particular) have been utilized in the passing game this spring. If that alignment sticks, the bigger backs will have more opportunities to carry the ball.
Speaking of the bigger backs, one of the more exciting stories in the backfield has been Roderick Smith. He received rave reviews in bowl practice and has continued to impress in the spring.
If you could judge by looks alone, Smith would be the next Eddie George. Obviously, ‘looking like’ and ‘being’ the next great back at Ohio State are very different things, but all signs are pointing to excellence in Smith’s future. It will be exciting to see what he can do in the spring game.
Finally, there is big back Carlos Hyde. Of all the backs, Hyde may be the purest power runner. Compared to Hall and Berry, he looked a step slow to me in winter conditioning. In retrospect, given the running style and size differences, that probably isn’t an issue, particularly since other writers have singled out Hyde as one of the more impressive players in pads.
Hyde does lack elite speed in the open field, but so did Maurice Clarett. Like Smith to George, that is a lofty comparison based on little actual production, but isn’t that what spring is for?
All together, the backfield has the talent and depth to win games, even during Herron’s suspension. If Ohio State starts the year 5-0, it will be through successfully running the ball combined with a stout defense (AKA Tresselball). Call me optimistic, but with these backs, I think the Buckeyes will be more than capable of doing just that.
The wide receivers will be a big question mark in 2011. Devier Posey is the vocal leader and go-to target of the unit. He has been the most impressive receiver this spring, but he is (of course) suspended for five games, leaving a pretty big void in experience and proven production behind him.
I personally have high hopes for Corey Brown. He has the ability to be a dynamic game changer on the perimeter. Unfortunately, given his inexperience and lack of time with whomever the starting QB ends up being, I am not sure how consistent of a weapon he can be for the offense- at least at the start of the season and as the #1 target.
As the #2 target opposite Posey (with Pryor slinging the rock), I think Corey Brown will be outstanding.
The other player receiving a lot of attention this spring is T.Y. Williams. He towers above everyone else at 6’5″ and has plenty of upside on the perimeter. Like Brown, however, I am not sure what kind of consistent presence he can be given his lack of experience and time with the QB. Only time will tell.
Inexperience or no, Brown and Williams will likely be the two perimeter receivers replacing Posey’s production for the first five games.
Another option is Chris Fields. I pegged him as the next great slot receiver in my ‘way too early look’ and he is living up to that billing. Fields is playing as the third receiver with Posey on the field, but he may get a shot on the perimeter if Williams falters (Brown is a lock to be on the field, with Posey or without).
The only other receivers on scholarship this spring are James Louis and converted QB Verlon Reed. Both are redshirt freshman and any significant contributions from them this early in their careers would be a pleasant surprise.
Louis compares favorably with former Buckeye Santonio Holmes, who was able to make some pretty significant contributions early in his career, so there is that comparison to look for at least.
As incoming freshman, Devin Smith and Evan Spencer will miss the spring game but they could make an impact once they arrive for fall practice, particularly given the thin numbers here. Both are noted for their polished route running, which could help them get on the field quicker.
Somewhat surprisingly, the tight ends and fullbacks might be some of Ohio State’s most effective offensive weapons this season.
At TE, Jake Stoneburner provides an excellent down field threat and has developed into an above average blocker over the course of his career. He has been, and should continue to be, one of the top receiving targets, particularly during the suspension of Posey.
Reid Fragel, on the other hand, has tremendous size and is a great blocker (to the point that he could be considered a third tackle) who can stretch the field with surprising effectiveness, as he demonstrated in the Sugar Bowl.
Between the two, the Buckeyes have an outstanding 1-2 punch to take advantage of on the ground and through the air, and I expect to see plenty of two TE formations this season (especially if you count Stoneburner out wide or in various other places on the field as a two tight end formation).
Another TE to keep an eye on in the spring game is incoming freshman and early enrollee Jeff Heurerman. He was one of the most impressive players during winter conditioning and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the field in the fall.
Nick Vannett is another freshman TE, but he isn’t enrolled for the spring game and a redshirt season is likely in his future.
At FB, the Buckeyes have two experienced and effective options in Zach Boren and Adam Homan.
Boren is a sledgehammer lead blocker going into his third season as the starter who is surprisingly effective catching the ball out of the backfield. Homan is a more than capable backup also heading into his third season in that role.
The two provide some of the best depth the Buckeyes have had at fullback in years.
I, for one, am excited about the offensive line this year.
Thinking back, one of Ohio State’s biggest problems against elite competition was the subpar play in the trenches against superior defensive fronts. A player like Alex Boone was a four year starter, but there was no depth to push him and he never got any better over the course of his career.
Not being pushed by depth will not be an issue this season, which is somewhat ironic considering the Buckeyes have so few scholarship lineman on the roster.
If you break down the lineman into tackles and interior players, the Buckeyes can put together an elite offensive line and still have the players left to not only provide depth, but who can continue to push for a starting spot.
First, let’s go over the sure things.
The surest of sure things is Michael Brewster at center. A 4th year starter, probable captain and all around leader, he will be what the line is built around, both literally and figuratively speaking.
The second sure thing (and let me say that I was wrong about this in my early look) is J.B. Shugarts at right tackle. I previously speculated that he may move down to guard to mask some issues on the edge, but based on practice, it doesn’t look like he is going anywhere.
The third sure thing is Mike Adams at left tackle… after a five game suspension. Despite being unable to play, Adams is receiving a majority of the reps with the first string O-Line. This will create some interesting scenarios early in the year, but like the rest of the suspended players, Tressel is allowing him to be a senior leader both on and off the field this spring.
Now let’s go over some of the moving parts that will form the rest of the line.
First there is do everything utility man Jack Mewhort. When your numbers are thin, having a versatile player like Mewhort is a nice luxury to have.
Mewhort has been working as the starting left guard this spring, and guard is where he will likely end up when the season starts. However, he has also been getting time at center and left tackle. He is being prepared to play those positions if the need arises, but hopefully it does not.
Next up are tackles Marcus Hall and Andrew Norwell.
Both players received significant playing time as true freshman at right tackle, and in my opinion they are two of the best linemen on the team. They will compete for Adams’ spot during his suspension, but it may take until fall practice before we find out where they ultimately end up (possibly even at one of the guard spots).
Finally, there is interior lineman extraordinaire Corey Linsley. He is getting time with the starters at right guard as well as being the primary backup at center.
That leaves the Buckeyes with a spring depth chart that looks something like this-
Center: Mike Brewster, Corey Linsley, Jack Mewhort
Guard: Jack Mewhort, Corey Linsley, Andrew Norwell, Marcus Hall
Tackle: Mike Adams, J.B. Shugarts, Marcus Hall, Andrew Norwell, Jack Mewhort
It is not an ideal situation to have so many players pulling double duty on the depth chart. At the same time, when all of the players how such high ceilings, it’s not so bad.
The biggest issue is depth on the inside, which is the reason the Buckeyes loaded up on interior lineman in the 2011 recruiting class. Incoming freshmen like Tommy Brown, Antonio Underwood, Brian Bobek, and Chris Carter Jr. will all provide immediate depth in the fall which should help out tremendously.
Depth is clearly a concern, but barring injury issues (knock on wood), the Buckeyes have the pieces necessary to put together a damn good offensive line.
Going into the 2011 season, the defensive line will lack a true star. Instead, they will rely on a solid rotation and versatility to dominate their opponents.
That is not to say a lineman or five can’t be stars. In fact, almost any of them could break out with an all-conference caliber season. While all-conference players across the board is an unlikely scenario, the fact that it is not hard to imagine any number of linemen earning post season honors highlights the depth that the Buckeyes boast.
Let’s start with arguably the only true defensive tackle on the team, Johnathan Hankins. Listed at 335 lbs, he provides a lane clogging presence in the middle that the defense has lacked for most of the past decade. On the downside, his size caused stamina issues last year, limiting his ability to consistently make an impact in games.
However, given the aforementioned deep rotation and another year of training under his belt, Hankins should be able to stay fresh and take on double teams like it’s his job… because it will be. Only a true sophomore, Hankins is one of the most gifted and exciting young players on the roster who could be a surprise candidate for post season accolades.
Next up are the hybrid defensive tackle / strong side defensive ends. John Simon, Adam Bellamy, Garrett Goebel, Melvin Fellows, Darryl Baldwin, and Joel Hale all fall into this category. If my description of the position weren’t clear enough, all of these players could spend time at tackle or at end depending on the situation.
John Simon is a proven player in the trenches and a returning starter. He will play mostly at tackle but will move to the edge on occasion (most likely in passing situations). It shouldn’t be news to many that he is an absolute beast in the weight room and on the field. I would peg him as another candidate for a breakout season, but I’m not so sure you could call him dominating a surprise.
Adam Bellamy is the heir apparent to Cam Heyward as the starting strong side defensive end. Like Heyward, he can and will move down to tackle as needed. Bellamy got his feet wet last season and saved his best for last, coming on strong by making several nice plays in the Sugar Bowl. A redshirt sophomore, Bellamy has a bright future, particularly if he is able to put together a solid season in his first year as a starter.
Along with Hankins, Bellamy is one of the players on the line that I am most excited to see what they can do this year.
Garrett Goebel is a redshirt junior who looks like he will be spending time rotating with Hankins at tackle. He has gotten his feet wet over the past few seasons and will look to take his game to the next level with an increased roll in the rotation.
Melvin Fellows (injuries), Darryl Baldwin (redshirt year), and Joel Hale (true freshman) provide depth and are all talented, but for the reasons listed in parentheses they have not seen the field to this point in their careers. That should change in the fall, and being the optimist that I am, any one of them could become a surprise impact player if things go well.
Joel Hale in particular has been getting a lot of positive attention this spring. Only a true freshman, big things will be expected of him in the future, and he could have an impact in 2011 reminiscent of John Simon during his freshman season.
Finally there are the LEOs, or weak side defensive ends. Nathan Williams, Solomon Thomas, David Durham, and JT Moore will be the primary contributors here.
Nathan Williams is a senior returning starter who has seen significant playing time since he was a true freshman. He is the most experienced defender on the team and will likely be a captain.
Explosive off the line of scrimmage with the ability to drop back into coverage, he acts as the wild card on the defensive line. More often than not he moves around pre snap before blitzing through gaps or dropping into coverage like a linebacker.
Williams has the ability to be one of the biggest impact players on the defense and it will be exciting to see what he can do in his final year.
Solomon Thomas is a redshirt senior that picked a good time to make his first significant contributions on the football field in 2010, hauling in the game winning interception in the Sugar Bowl. He faces a five game suspension at the beginning of the season, but upon returning he will provide solid depth and experience behind Williams.
David Durham and JT Moore both redshirted last season and will be seeing the field for the first time this fall. They will get their shot during Thomas’ suspension so their performances in the spring game will be worth tracking.
Throw in incoming freshmen like Kenny Hayes, Steve Miller, Chase Farris, and Michael Bennett, who will all be arriving in the fall, and this year’s defensive line could match the depth of the 2009 Rose Bowl winning squad.
Like the running backs, this unit might not have a proven star at the moment, but it is one of the deepest and most versatile positions on the team.
I write about it constantly, but linebacker is my favorite position and perennially one of Ohio State’s strongest. 2011 will be no different as the Buckeyes look to reload.
One thing worth noting is that the days of three linebackers on the field for a majority of the defensive snaps are long gone in Columbus. The star position has really taken hold, particularly against spread oriented offenses. With outstanding players like Tyler Moeller and Christian Bryant manning the star this season, the third linebacker may even have trouble getting on the field against power oriented offenses like Iowa or Wisconsin.
The bottom line is that it looks like only two true linebackers will be on the field at the same time for a majority of the snaps in 2011. Barring a big surprise, those two linebackers will be Andrew Sweat and Etienne Sabino.
Andrew Sweat will be manning the weak side spot and is the most experienced linebacker on the team. He received significant minutes on the strong side last season and replaced an injured Ross Homan on the weak side for two games. Sweat won’t overwhelm anyone with off the charts athleticism or speed, but he is a proven performer who will be a tackling machine in 2011.
After taking a surprise redshirt year in 2010, Etienne Sabino is back and finally living up to his immense potential. It looks like he has all but locked down the middle linebacker position this spring.
Sabino has always been noted for his superior athleticism, but he has not been able to put it together on the field- until now. Out of all of the players on the defense, Sabino may make the biggest impact for a newcomer.
Brian Rolle was a very successful middle linebacker for the Buckeyes, but Sabino’s elite size could make a big difference this season, particularly against power run teams.
Backing up Sweat and Sabino will be redshirt sophomore Dorian Bell and redshirt junior Storm Klein.
Bell could be the next great linebacker for the Buckeyes, but unfortunately he will be serving a two game suspension for violating team rules. Upon his return, I expect to see him on the field quite a bit as he is groomed to replace Sweat on the weak side.
Klein is a solid backup to say the least. Any team in the Big Ten would love to have him, most likely on their starting roster. The depth at Ohio State is such that he provides depth. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a shot on the strong side at some point during the spring or fall to try and get him on the field more.
Speaking of the strong side, former walk-on Tony Jackson is getting a majority of the reps there. Some fans may cringe at a walk-on in the starting lineup, but Jackson was one of the more impressive linebackers during winter conditioning, so don’t fret too much.
The other two linebackers on the roster are Jordan Whiting, who can play any of the linebacker positions but it serving a two game suspension, and Jon Newsome, who is a strong candidate on the strong side, but has not made much of a splash this spring.
Tyler Moeller and Scott McVey are also listed as linebackers on the roster, but their primary roll in the defense will be at the safety/linebacker hybrid star position.
Also worth noting are the incoming freshman. They aren’t around this spring but their arrival will be highly anticipated in the fall. They are Conner Crowell, Ejuan Price, Ryan Shazier, and Curtis Grant. Shazier will likely redshirt to pack on some more mass, but any of the other incoming LBs could make an immediate impact on special teams, if not on the field.
It is a shame I didn’t get to the DBs in my way too early previews because they will be reloading big time in 2011 as they replace three starters.
Fortunately, the Sugar Bowl provided a glimpse of the future thanks to numerous injuries, and the future looked bright. Against one of the best passing offenses in college football, the young DBs were able to hold their own.
The primary starters this spring have been Orhian Johnson and C.J. Barnett at safety with Travis Howard and Dominic Clarke at corner.
As the only returning starter, Orhian Johnson will be a leader of the secondary from the free safety position. It has been said that he rivals Pryor as the most athletic player on the team, and as a former QB in high school, his leadership has also been praised.
With a year at safety under his belt and the experience that comes with it, the game should slow down for Johnson this season, allowing him to think less and be in a position to make more big plays.
The SS this spring has been C.J. Barnett, who won the starting spot last season before sustaining a season ending knee injury (making way for Johnson). I had some concerns about Barnett making a full recovery this offseason given the nature of knee injuries, but jumping right back into the starting lineup this spring is a great sign. If he can pick up where he left off last year, Barnett is primed for a tremendous season.
One of the most exciting new players in 2011 will be Travis Howard. After working primarily as the third CB last year and making some huge plays, Howard looks like the next great corner for the Buckeyes. I would even call him a likely first round draft pick… but don’t lock that in just yet. Once again, optimism reigns supreme in the spring, but Howard has the potential to be a special player.
Starting across from Howard this spring has been Dominic Clarke. He has had a quiet career to this point, but when his name was called in the Sugar Bowl, he stepped in and performed admirably, which is likely why he quickly locked down the starting spot this spring.
Florida State transfer Dionte Allen has also been getting plenty of time at CB this spring. At corner or safety, Allen provides a nice boost in the secondary, which is a luxury the Buckeyes don’t typically get to enjoy considering not many players transfer to Ohio State.
Also worth noting is senior CB Donnie Evege. He has had an injury plagued career which has kept him from reaching his potential, but here’s to him turning things around in his final season.
Behind the starters, the Buckeyes have numerous players providing depth. Corey Brown, Bradley Roby, and Adam Griffin are the primary backups at corner and Zach Domicone, Nate Oliver, Jamie Wood, and Jeremy Cash provide depth at safety.
Finally, Christian Bryant has been getting time at the much talked about star position this spring as Tyler Moeller recovers from injury. Moeller was easily the most electrifying playmaker on the field before his injury last year, and Bryant is one of the most exciting young defenders on the team (he may also get time at safety).
As I mentioned previously, with these two at star, it is no wonder the strong side linebacker is spending less and less time on the field.
Providing depth at star will be Chad Hagan and Scott McVey, along with pretty much any of the other DBs not in the starting lineup.
In the fall, freshmen DBs Doran Grant and Derjuan Gambrell will join the team. During the recruiting process, I thought Grant could jump into the starting lineup almost immediately in the fall, but given how quickly the starters locked down their spots this spring and how well the backups performed in the Sugar Bowl, now I am not so sure.
The Buckeyes lost many key players from last year’s Sugar Bowl winning squad, and the suspensions obviously don’t help.
As usual, however, the Buckeyes have some of the most talented young players in the country competing for the vacated starting spots this spring. In the face of tremendous adversity, next year’s team could be truly special.
The live action on April 23rd will provide an excellent glimpse into next years’ squad, but before getting too far ahead of ourselves, it is important to take the spring game with a grain of salt and not get too excited or too downtrodden based on the results.
That said, exhibition game or not, it is the only football we have right now, and for that I am excited.
I will have plenty of time to write about next years squad over the summer, and believe me, I will. But for now, I hope that this lengthy write up has provided you with a nice primer for the spring game and all of the players that will be participating in it.