A leader heading towards legend status - Mike McGinnis
An undefeated inaugural season has ratcheted up expectations for the Buckeyes. How the answers to these questions pan out will determine whether or not they can live up to those expectations.
On Tuesday, spring practice begins for the 2013 Buckeye football team, kicking off a boatload of spring football activities. Per the university, Ohio State will begin their earliest documented start for spring football in school history after a 103 day layover since beating Michigan, 26-21, and completing just the sixth unbeaten regular season in school history.
Ohio State will practice Tuesday and Thursday this week and then then off until March 19th, due to the university's spring break. One of the more interesting bullet points to come from the university is that Jamie Wood, who left the team in October indicating he was done playing football, will attempt to return from his second surgery.
Starting on March 5th logistically also means that the Buckeyes will be be more than halfway through spring ball before the date they started practices last year (March 28th, 2012). Ohio State's 2013 spring game in Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium will represent the earliest spring game in school history, besting the previous mark of April 19th.
With the return of football comes a season of heightened expectations. But well before OSU will be able to lay claim to raise the coveted crystal football, there are questions that need to be answered, in all three phases of the game.
Can Braxton Miller raise his game to an elite level? If he can, the sky is the limit for the Buckeyes in 2013. Obviously, there's no denying the talent that Braxton Miller has – after all, there's a reason folks call him XBRAX 360. But all of that talent aside, Miller (as admitted by both Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman) needs to really improve his passing game. He made a lot of progress between his freshman and sophomore year, but he was still far too erratic to be considered in the same breath as some of the nation's truly elite signal callers. Miller and the Buckeyes only averaged only 140 yards a game through the air, and at times were maddeningly inconsistent for large stretches of games. The Buckeyes aren't going to be going north of 300 yards a game on a regular basis, but consistency and increased production from 2012 is high on the 'to-do' list.
Which receiver(s) will step up? Miller is only half of the equation in the passing game. Although Corey Brown and Devin Smith had their moments, they were as responsible for the inconsistency in the passing attack as Miller and the rest of the receivers were. A said to be healthy Jordan Hall will move full-time to the 'Percy Harvin' pivot/hybrid h-back position, which means he'll line up more like a wide receiver, and there are three exciting incoming players to watch in James Clark, Corey Smith, and Jalin Marshall. Of those three, Smith is probably the most ready, as he is a JUCO transfer as opposed to the freshmen Clark and Marshall, but they both have a world of speed and pass catching potential. Incoming frosh running back/pivot Dontre Wilson and Marshall will probably also vie to spell Hall. There is a solid depth of players and potential playmakers in this group, something that wasn't necessarily true last year. But that potential needs to be converted into production.
Can a second running back emerge to help take the load off Miller? When Miller was hurt against Purdue, it set up Kenny Guiton for his Clint Longley moment, and was one of the best comebacks in recent OSU history. However, it highlighted the fact that Miller took a beating running the ball last year, and somebody besides Carlos Hyde needs to emerge. And this isn't a dig on Hyde – he is devastating between the tackles, but there needs to be a speedy change of pace guy that can take pressure off Miller and keep him healthy for what we all hope is a championship run. With Hall focusing more on the hybrid position, this presents an opportunity for Rod Smith, Bri'onte Dunn, Ezekiel Elliott, or Dontre Wilson. As mentioned, Wilson projects more to the pivot position with Jordan Hall, so his carries might be more limited, but he'll still get opportunities.
Who will lead the defense? Johnathan Hankins and John Simon were the leaders of the 2012 defense, both in the locker room and on the field. Replacing them will be tough, but if I had to put my money on anyone it would be Ryan Shazier. Shazier had an inconsistent first half, plagued by minor injuries that would see him miss time, and that led to inconsistent play on the field. But he got his sea legs under him the second half of the Purdue game, and morphed into a monster by the end of the season, with a pick six against Penn State...and this:
The linebackers opposite Ryan Shazier will be...? But Shazier won't be able to do it alone. We're deservedly very excited about the potential of the defensive line, as guys like Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington look to be the real deal heading into their sophomore seasons. But the linebackers, a weak link last year outside of Shazier, have more questions entering spring practice than any other unit on the team. Curtis Grant, the #1 LB prospect in the country in 2011, will be entering his junior year and has yet to make an impact. Internet rumors were that he was briefly moved to the defensive line after the season ended, but recently moved back to linebacker. This has to be coming up on his last chance, but if he can't do it, the 2012 and 2013 recruiting classes have some promising talent, almost on par with the famed defensive line class from last year.
Camren Williams, David Perkins, Josh Perry (all 2012 kids) will be in the thick of the mix with 2013 signee-studs Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson. If you're making us choose, we really like Mike Mitchell to see early playing time in the Mike spot if Grant can't make the cut, and Josh Perry and maybe even Trey Johnson on the outside.
Will special teams really be special this year? If there's one area of the football team outside the linebackers that really worries the Ohio State faithful, it's special teams. There was at least one field goal, extra point, and punt blocked last year, and it's hard to remember that happening under any of the previous regimes. Ohio State also gave up two punt returns and one kickoff return for a touchdown, and all of this was topped by the signing day mini-fiasco of punter Johnny Townsend flipping to Florida, leaving the role of primary punter in flux. Though walk-on punter Jake Russell from Twinsburg could combine with Drew Basil (who's the betting favorite to both serve as the kicker and punter this coming fall) to form an effective core, every single special teams unit needs to improve dramatically, or the mistakes made by this unit will cost Ohio State a football game at some point, and potentially even a shot at a national title.
How will this team respond to pressure? 2012, in many ways, was a freebie for Ohio State. They had nothing to play for other than pride, and you wonder that if a high national ranking and a potential spot in the national championship were on the line, would they have been able to pull out close games against Purdue and Wisconsin? With the senior leadership on that team, we'd like to think that the results would have been the same, but it will be interesting to see who the team will turn to, and how they'll react to adversity. This is a still relatively young group that will be going through a pursuit for a conference title for the first time under this staff. If all other things are equal, they should respond as well as they did last year, but until this group finds themselves under the gun for the first time, nothing is certain.
Ohio State will have five new walk-ons joining the program this fall:
- RB Devin Hill (Columbus Northland, a Purdue transfer)
- FB William Houston (Dublin Scioto)
- WR Kato Mitchell (Cleveland John Hay)
- P Jake Russell (Twinsburg H.S, Twinsburg OH)
- WR Devonte Butler (Columbus Eastmoor)
Ohio State's full 2013 spring practice schedule is as follows:
- Practice #1 - Tuesday, March 5; shorts
- Practice #2 - Thursday, March 7; shorts
- Practice #3 - Tuesday, March 19; pads
- Practice #4 - Thursday, March 21; pads
- Practice #5 - Saturday, March 23; pads
- Practice #6 - Tuesday, March 26; pads
- Practice #7 - Thursday, March 28; Buckeye gear
- Practice #8 - Saturday, March 30; pads
- Practice #9 - Tuesday, April 2; pads
- Practice #10 - Thursday, April 4; Buckeye gear
- Practice #11 - Saturday, April 6; pads
- Practice #12 - Monday, April 8; pads
- Practice #13 - Wednesday, April 10; Buckeye gear
- Practice #14 - Friday, April 12; shorts
- LiFESports Spring Game, presented by Nationwide - Saturday, April 13
Luke Zimmermann contributed to this report.