It seemed like football just ended a week ago, but the 2016 Ohio State football season is about to truly begin in earnest, as the Buckeyes begin their Spring Practice tilt on Tuesday. With such an experienced roster last season, other than the QB battle, Ohio State's spring practices lacked in drama, as virtually every position on the two deep was already penciled in.
That's not the case for this season. Ohio State knows what it has at QB, but virtually every other position has question marks, thanks to a massive send-off to the NFL Draft. The talent is there, and the expectations of success are still there, but the Buckeyes will need to break in a lot of new faces, and answer a lot of big questions for next season. Spring is when we'll begin the process of finding some answers.
Here are some of the biggest questions heading into the next few weeks.
1) How is this team going to score? The talent level on offense for Ohio State isn't in question, as there are loads of blue-chip recruits at every position group on this side of the ball. The triggerman isn't in question either, as a healthy and engaged J.T. Barrett has already proven he's capable of performing at a near Heisman-level. The question is, what happens everywhere else? The Buckeyes will be breaking in at least three new offensive linemen, virtually an entirely new wideout corp, almost an entirely new running back rotation, and new players are also expected to contribute at tight end and H-back. Ohio State will almost certainly need to throw the ball more than they did last year, now that Ezekiel Elliott is gone. What will that identity look like, and who will be making those plays?
2) How smooth a transition will Ohio State's new coaches have? Last season, the failure of Tim Beck, Ed Warinner and Urban Meyer to establish a consistent offensive identity in the wake of changing personnel and Tom Herman's departure might have been the single biggest reason for their failure to make the playoff. Now, Ohio State must yet again work in two more coaches, as the highly successful Chris Ash must now be replaced by big personality (and former Rutgers head coach) Greg Schiano, while Greg Studrawa is worked in as the new offensive line coach. How smooth a transition will this be, and how will Ohio State's offense look in year two of the Beck/Warinner era?
3) What's happening with Ohio State's secondary? Thanks to the departure of Eli Apple, Vonn Bell and Tvyis Powell to the NFL, Ohio State's defensive backfield is now perhaps the biggest cause for concern, depth-wise, on the team. Gareon Conley is the only returning starter, although other likely contributors, like Erick Smith and Cam Burrows, have seen time before. There are promising athletes at corner and safety on this team, but many have injury histories or other question marks. Coupled with the departure of Ash, if there was any group to worry about, it might be this one.
Wide Receiver: Basically everybody who caught passes last year for Ohio State is gone. Noah Brown, who was projected to start last season but missed the year due to leg injury, will return, along with regular contributor Corey Smith, but almost everybody else in the rotation will be a new name, and both of those two still have plenty to prove. Ohio State has a bevy of talented choices to step up, like redshirt freshmen K.J. Hill and Torrance Gibson, and true freshman Austin Mack.
Running Back: Do-everything back Ezekiel Elliott is off to the NFL, and Ohio State doesn't have a lot of experience behind him. Curtis Samuel, who has also played H-Back and WR, should get carries out of this position, but it is unclear if he will be the primary back or not. Other candidates include redshirt freshman Mike Weber, who also likely would have played last season if not for injuries, true freshman Antonio Williams, and redshirt senior Bri'onte Dunn, a former blue chip recruit himself. Samuel and Weber are probably the favorites, but don't rule anybody out yet.
Linebacker: The Buckeyes have recruited this position exceptionally well, which is important, since they now need to replace two standouts in Joshua Perry and Darron Lee. Raekwon McMillian returns, and his starting spot at middle linebacker can be tattooed, but who lines up next to him will be up in the air. Chris Worley and Dante Booker are your favorites, but don't rule out star recruits from the 2015 cycle, Justin Hilliard and Jerome Baker, who will push for time, along with Nick Conner. The Buckeyes will have plenty of options.
Spring injuries of note:
Ohio State has seven early enrollees who will be eligible to participate in spring practice. Those players are defensive end Jonathan Cooper, wideout Austin Mack, offensive linemen Michael Jordan and Tyler Gerald, running back Antonio Williams, defensive tackle Malik Barrow and linebacker Tuf Borland. Of that group, Austin Mack is probably the most likely to play early for the 2016 campaign, but Cooper and Williams could potentially get involved as well.
Spring Practice opens for Ohio State on Tuesday, Mar. 8. Other practice dates include Mar. 10, 22, 24, 29, 31 and April 5, 7, 11, 14, and 16. The 2016 Ohio State Spring Game will be played on Apr. 16. Tickets to the Spring Game are $5, and can be purchased here. That ticket also includes admission to the Ohio State lacrosse match against Michigan, which will be held before the game.
Offense: The Buckeyes are likely to return just three. QB J.T. Barrett, and offensive linemen Pat Elflein (at center) and Billy Price (at left guard). Curtis Samuel (at RB or H-back) and Marcus Baugh (tight end) will have seen experience before.
Defense: There's a bit more returning production here, but not much. Ohio State returns Tyquan Lewis at defensive end, Michael Hill at defensive tackle, Raekwon McMillan at middle linebacker and Gareon Conley at corner. Other returning defenders saw significant playing time though, like Sam Hubbard at defensive end and Donovan Munger at defensive tackle. Ohio State's defensive line will have new faces, but they won't be completely new.
Specialists: Ohio State returns their kicker, Sean Nuernberger, and their all-world punter, Cameron Johnston.