Our long nightmare without football is finally over, as the defending national champs begin their defense of their crown with the opening of Fall Camp, which kicked off today with the freshmen at 8:45 a.m., with the rest of the team practicing at 3:30 p.m. Two-a-day practices kick off on Aug 15, and the Buckeyes will first take the field under the lights of prime time on Labor Day as they seek revenge against Virginia Tech.
That's all coming up relatively quickly, and while this year's Ohio State team, on paper, doesn't look to have any glaring positional holes, that doesn't mean there aren't some compelling camp storylines, positional battles, or questions that need answering before the lights come on in Blacksburg. Here are the biggest storylines to keep an eye out for over the next few weeks.
Who is stepping up at wide receiver?
The Buckeyes lose deep ball standout Devin Smith, who is off to the New York Jets, and extraordinary blocker Evan Spencer, who will try to stick with Washington in the NFL, so there are openings to be filled at wide receiver. Of course, the cupboard isn't exactly bare at this position group, as Michael Thomas, who stepped up as Ohio State's best all-around wideout last season (59 catches, 799 yards, 9 TDs), returns for an encore performance. Ohio State also adds the explosive Jalin Marshall, previously as an H-back, to this group, although Marshall will be suspended for the first game of the season. The question is, who else steps up?
Corey Smith will undoubtedly play a big role here, as he is perhaps the most physically and naturally gifted of any of the remaining wideouts, but has struggled with consistency during his tenure in Columbus and is also suspended for the season opener. Who else potentially joins him could be a bit of a mystery, as the Buckeyes have a slew of highly regarded young players to chose from.
Sophomore James Clark could be a name to watch, if he's fully healthy, as could Johnnie Dixon. Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin, or even true freshman K.J. Hill could play themselves into conversation here as well. Ohio State has some experience at the top, and has a bevy of H-back types who will be getting the ball as well (ahem, Braxton Miller), but there should be some opportunities for young players to really move up the rotation here as well.
Who will be Ohio State's next right tackle?
The Buckeyes return four starters from one of the best offensive lines in college football this year, but the right tackle spot is up for grabs, with senior Chase Farris and sophomore Jamarco Jones likely to battle it out for the job. At Big Ten Media Days, Taylor Decker was quick to praise Farris for how much he's developed since he's been at Ohio State, and the staff has been highly complimentary as well. Jones may have the higher athletic upside at the position, though. Both players will likely see time along the offensive line at some point this season, and though Farris is widely regarded as the leader in the clubhouse at this point, if Jones is able to push him, it'll just make the Buckeyes' line that much better.
Who will fill out the rest of the defensive line?
Michael Bennett is off to the Jaguars, and all-everything defensive end Joey Bosa will be missing the first game of the season. The Buckeyes have recruited exceptionally well on paper along the defensive line, and their ability to establish a strong pass rush has been a critical key to their domination of the Big Ten during these past few regular seasons. This is another area where younger players will be expected to contribute, but exactly which ones isn't totally clear. Sophomore Jalyn Holmes is heavily favored to slide in as a defensive end, but who else is perhaps a little less clear.
Sam Hubbard has drawn a lot of praise at Big Ten Media Days and elsewhere, and now that he's finally settled in on a position, it's very probable that he'll play significant snaps along the line. Will Michael Hill live up to his recruiting profile and play important snaps on the inside, or will senior Tommy Schutt hold down the job all season? Will Donovan Munger crack the regular rotation? Could some true freshman secure snaps as well? Ohio State would like to play a deeper rotation along the line, and on paper, they should have plenty of options, but which ones create separation for themselves during the summer remains to be seen.
Can any freshmen crack the two deep?
When you have a championship team that returns most of their starters, you wouldn't expect many true freshmen to play, no matter how big of prospects they are. But a few may manage to avoid a redshirt and crack the two deep this year for the Buckeyes anyway. Five-star linebacker Justin Hilliard could slip in as a backup linebacker or a major special teams contributor, and running back Michael Weber could potentially steal carries from Bri'onte Dunn as a backup to Ezekiel Elliott later in the year. Big-time defensive end Jashon Cornell also has a chance to crack the defensive line rotation, especially if he's able to play a few snaps on the inside. It's also possible that a lower-ranked recruit, like Branden Bowen along the offensive line, could make a case for playing time as well, especially if there are injuries.
And oh yeah, who is starting at quarterback?
Expect hard news about this battle to be hard to come by, but J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones will be battling hard all month to secure the coveted starting QB slot. Both are dynamic but very different players, and it seems probable that both will play at least a little bit against Virginia Tech, but how they handle a high pressure, high visibility training camp battle will be worth paying close attention to.
Further down the depth chart, it will be interesting to see if true freshman quarterbacks Torrance Gibson or Joe Burrow are able to pass redshirt frosh Stephen Collier for the QB3 position. Given the talent coming down the pipe for Ohio State in future QB classes, the competition isn't going to be any less intense for backup positions.
Compared to many other teams in the conference, if not nationally, these are relatively benign questions. The Buckeyes' biggest concerns appear to be at backup positions, or which of their highly successful quarterbacks will take the lead. Historically though, some under-the-radar names have been very important during the year, and you typically hear about those players first in fall camp. If Ohio State wants to repeat this season, they'll need a healthy, productive month of practice from everybody, all along the depth chart. We'll find out how that is going very soon.