The long and dreary offseason is finally over, and we will have some real football to talk about. Ohio State's fall camp begins today, and the road to Baltimore, MD to take on Navy is officially underway.
The Buckeyes will practice today, with the freshman reporting this morning, while the varsity kicks things off in the afternoon. Two-a-days will begin on Aug. 9, and will continue on the 11th, 13th, 15th, 18th and 20th. Ohio State will make the trip to Baltimore to take on the Navy Midshipmen on Aug. 30.
The Buckeyes open the season at No. 6 in the preseason Coaches Poll, and many believe they will be in the mix for both the Big Ten title and a potential playoff birth, but that doesn't mean there aren't some unanswered questions about the roster. Here are some of the potentially more interesting storylines that could be resolved during fall camp.
So just who is playing on the offensive line exactly?
Ohio State lost four starters on an exceptionally efficient offensive line, including an All-American (Jack Mewhort) and two other All Big Ten honorees (Corey Linsley and Andrew Norwell). Replacing that kind of production may be impossible, but Ohio State will need to come as close as they can to filling those shoes, if they want their offense to be similar to the destructive force that it was last season.
We know one of the starters will be Taylor Decker, who will slide over to left tackle, and it is probably safe guess that Pat Elflein, who filled in for Marcus Hall the last two games of the season, will grab one of the two guard spots, but that still leaves three openings. Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay was thought to be the frontrunner to slide in at the center position, but at Media Days, Meyer said that Jacoby Boren and Billy Price are still very much in the running to take over the spot. Price is a little bigger (6'4, 305 to 6'1, 285) and has a little higher upside if recruiting pedigrees are accurate, but Boren comes highly praised.
The current favorites to fill out the rest of the offensive line are probably Antonio Underwood at left guard and Darryl Baldwin at right tackle, as they are the most experienced options, but don't be surprised if some of the highly regarded underclassmen from the last few classes, like Evan Lisle, Chase Farris, Kyle Dodson, Demetrius Knox, Jamarco Jones or Joel Hale (who flipped from the defensive side of the ball) make some big pushes for playing time. Lindsay could also see time at guard.
Meyer has mentioned that he was expecting more growth within the unit over the spring, and that protecting Braxton Miller was "priority number one", but also praised the work ethic and the character of the group. Whether this unit can grow and mesh over the fall will play a large role in how successful Ohio State's offense is going to be this season.
What's going on at running back and wide receiver?
We know that Braxton Miller will be lining up under center, and that Cardale Jones will be backing him up, but other than that, there aren't too many other spots along the skill position depth chart that are written in permanent marker –although there is a lot of potential talent all over the field.
The Buckeyes are faced with the unenviable task of replacing super back Carlos Hyde, but there is a lot of depth at the running back position. Sophomore Ezekiel Elliott is widely expected to step in as the number one back on the depth chart (while Meyer hasn't anointed him as such yet, he has admitted that if the season started today, that's probably where he will be), but who gets the carries behind Elliot is a much more open question.
Perhaps the favorite right now is Rod Smith, a senior who ran for 127 yards and a touchdown last season, but that may depend on his ability to prove he can secure the football. Behind him is Warren Ball, a local product who is more of a power back type, or Bri'onte Dunn, who redshirted last season. There probably aren't enough footballs for everybody, to seeing who separates themselves from this group during the fall will be a key battle to watch.
At wideout, deep ball specialist Devin Smith will hold down one spot, and perhaps the single most electric player from last season not named Braxton Miller, Dontre Wilson, will also see action in a receiver hybrid like role. Beyond that though, there are lots of different players who could produce, and they'll need to this season. Michael Thomas has been the perennial "spring football breakout star", but hasn't translated that into fall production yet. He'll certainly get a chance this season.
Highly touted recruit Jalin Marshall, who missed most of last season with an injury, will be in the mix this year, and freshman Johnnie DIxon has also drawn rave reviews. Four-star JUCO transfer Corey Smith may be in the mix, and Meyer also went out of his way to praise freshman Curtis Samuel, who is extremely fast and cut from the Wilson cloth. And all of that is to say nothing of the incumbent Evan Spencer. This group will need to significantly step up their production from last year to help Miller, but where that production will come from remains to be seen. There is a lot to be excited about from this group, though.
Is Ohio State's secondary going to get better?
It's going to have to if the Buckeyes want to reach their goals this season, after getting torched by Clemson, Michigan State and effectively by Michigan. There are going to be significant changes to the unit, both personnel wise and schematically.
Senior Doran Grant will be manning one of the corner spots, and either Armani Reeves or Eli Apple should lock down the other spot (that spot isn't set in stone yet). Safety could be one of the more interesting battles of the fall, with super recruit (and super athletic) Vonn Bell likely to man one of the openings, while the other most likely to fall to Tyvis Powell, or Cameron Burrows could get some time. Youngsters Erick Smith and Marshon Lattimore have also apparently earned high praise. I also wouldn't be surprised if the people who are starting against Navy are not the same people who will be starting against say, Michigan State, later in the year.
Perhaps the biggest change with this unit though, comes from Chris Ash, who was brought in from Arkansas (via Wisconsin) to help overhaul this unit. Meyer has said that Ohio State's pass defense has been "totally blown up" from last year, and Ash's record at his previous coaching stops indicate that he knows what he's doing. Can Ash take advantage of what should be a devastating defensive line to cobble together better production from an athletic, but green unit? That may end up being the key to Ohio State's season.
I think it's fair to assume that even though Ohio State is 24-2 over the last two seasons, and undefeated in the regular season under Urban Meyer, that players won't forget how the team finished last season, or that all of those regular season victories haven't produced a championship yet. How the team handles that disappointment and that drive, along with their various position battles and meshing, will be worth watching this fall.