After eight long months of waiting, it’s finally here. No more preseason polls, fall camp speculation, or Jim Harbaugh pandering to every professional sports team in the country. Just honest to goodness regular season college football. In those eight months, much has changed for the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Gone is the backbone of a program that’s finished a combined 38-4 the last three seasons, and brought home a national championship, a Big Ten championship, and a victory in the Fiesta Bowl in the process. That success has also paved the way for a pipeline of talent from Columbus to the NFL.
12 Buckeye names were called in the first four rounds of this season’s draft, leaving Ohio State the with one of the youngest, and most inexperienced teams in the country this season.
While it’s a bummer that we won’t get to watch Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa, Michael Thomas and co. dunk on Michigan again, 2016 provides the Buckeyes an opportunity to hit the reset button on the roster, and develop a whole new crop of stars with national title aspirations. It also allows us as fans to once again enjoy an experience that at times became tedious last season.
Are the Buckeyes likely to win the Big Ten and go to the College Football Playoff again? Who the hell knows. But it should be a pretty damn fun ride, starting tomorrow against Bowling Green. Ohio State football is back, everyone. Let’s enjoy it.
With that in mind, here are five things to watch for in the Buckeyes’ opener against the Falcons:
Our time is now
With the departure of 16 starters from last year’s team — many from the heralded 2013 recruiting class — the fate of the 2016 Buckeyes resides in the hands of the 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes.
Of the 51 players listed as offensive or defensive starters on this week’s depth chart, 29 come from those two classes, with 15 listed as either outright starters, or having the ‘OR’ distinction next to their name.
While a few — Raekwon McMillan, Curtis Samuel, and Sam Hubbard — are already household names, it’s mostly a group of players with backup experience. While that may sound like a negative, it certainly wasn’t for lack of talent.
It’s hard to see the field in a bigger role when the guys in front of you are not only great players, but also 1st-or-2nd day draft picks. That amount of high-end talent makes it unsurprising that last season’s starting rotation was pretty tight.
But with the stars of 2015 gone, players like Jayln Holmes, Denzel Ward, Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker, Dante Booker and Noah Brown now have the opportunity to receive the lionshare of playing time.Each has shown promise at one point or another, and nearly all have the recruiting pedigree to turn promise into production.
The 2013 class has a case as the best in school history, but now it’s time to see what the players of 2014 and 2015 can accomplish. It just so happens that even under a new head coach, Bowling Green presents a good first test for the new-look Buckeyes.
Manning the trenches
Bowling Green’s offense exploded in 2015, ranking 11th in S&P+ behind one of the most devastating rushing attacks in the country. The Falcons weren’t a one trick pony, however, and complemented their ground attack with a solid passing game and the ability to efficiently move the ball, as well as generate big plays. Their success came at a price, however, as head coach Dino Babers took the Syracuse job, and the Falcons lose their starting quarterback, running back, and three of their top four receiving options from last season.
Enter new head coach Mike Jinks, who probably isn’t going to change much about the offense. Despite the losses, he’ll still have much to work with, starting with a physical offensive line that will test the Buckeyes’ ability to stop the run.
They bring back six players with 140 career starts along a line that finished last season 4th in adjusted line yards, 15th in stuff rate, and 36th in opportunity rate. Only Texas Tech ranked higher in rushing S&P+, which Jinks played a major part of as the Red Raiders’ running backs coach. Even with the loss of Greene, Jinks is sure to put running back Fred Coppet — who made the most of his touches last season — in a position to succeed behind a stellar offensive line.
This makes for an intriguing matchup with the Buckeyes defensive line, especially at tackle. Tracy Sprinkle, Michael Hill and the rest of the young Ohio State interior are likely to be tested often, and there’s a legitimate chance that Bowling Green pushes them around and has a big day on the ground. But, if they’re able to hold their own, it could be a very good sign of things to come this season, and also provide an inexperienced secondary needed help.
Falcons will fly
Ohio State’s secondary was awesome last season. The Buckeyes ranked in the top ten nationally in both yards per attempt, and completion percentage. Their sticky coverage allowed the front seven the freedom to attack, and tee off on opposing quarterbacks. For a school with rich history in the secondary, last season’s group has a place among the best. The problem is that most of those players are now in the NFL.
Between Vonn Bell, Eli Apple, and Tyvis Powell, the Silver Bullets not only lose a combined six interceptions and 20 passes broken up, but experience at an area where it’s a necessity:
Outside of Gareon Conley, Marshon Lattimore’s three passes defensed are all the production left from 2015’s secondary. The good news is that Malik Hooker looks like the real deal at safety, and nearly all the other players vying for time have were blue-chip recruits. It may take some time, but it’s a solid bet that multiple playmakers emerge. Until that happens, the new group will cut its teeth against capable passing attacks to begin the season, starting with Bowling Green.
A new quarterback and wide receiving corps should give the defense a bit of a break, but wideout Ronnie Moore is a proven playmaker, with the necessary quickness to give the secondary fits, much like Daniel Braverman did last year.
Despite working with new pieces, Jinks also knows a thing or two about throwing the ball given his background in Texas high school football and his three seasons spent at Texas Tech. Ultimately, it won’t be surprising if Bowling Green decides to test the young Buckeye secondary early and often, to complement their interior running game.
Sticking to your words
On this week’s podcast (Which you can now find at our sweet new soundcloud and iTunes pages) Matt Brown and I delved into Urban Meyer’s Monday press conference, in which he dropped a couple of interesting nuggets.
In response to a question about balance on offense, Meyer mentioned the idea of it being “50/50” between passing and running, before expanding on the topic further:
In Meyer’s four seasons, Ohio State has achieved that sort of balance in 11 games; Three times in 2013, and 8 times in 2014, including their dominant three game postseason run to the national championship. It’s a lot to ask of an offense, but it’s possible to achieve. But let’s disregard the arbitrary number of 250, and assume Meyer’s bigger point may be as much about the threat of balance as the actual distribution of yardage.
When Ohio State’s offense was at its best in 2014, it attacked defenses from all angles. Both Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott were efficient and explosive runners, giving the Buckeyes the best rushing offense in the country.
Out wide, Michael Thomas, and Jalin Marshall were efficient targets for Barrett (and Cardale Jones) to keep the chains moving. What tied it all together was Devin Smith’s proficiency as a deep ball threat.
When defenses overcompensated against the run, it usually meant corners in one-on-one for Buckeye receivers. Smith punished them in response, stretching the field and preventing opposing coordinators from creeping safeties into the box too often.
That was not the case in 2015. Whether they were unwilling, or just unable to take deep shots last season, it was clear that the offensive threat that made the Buckeyes so dangerous the year before wasn’t present.
It remains to be seen if one of the new receivers can bring to the table what Smith did (we’ll get to that next), but they at least need a chance to do so. We heard Meyer mention balance a lot last season — which includes running Barrett less, another theme of the press conference — but a lot of times, the gameplan reverted back to the old “Braxton left, Braxton right” strategy, this time with Barrett and Elliott. While it was effective, Ohio State still was still held back by lack of a consistent passing game.
History indicates running the ball likely won’t be an issue, despite the loss of Elliott, but if Ohio State wants to reach that lofty 250/250 status, it’s going to fall on the passing game to hold up it’s end. They not only need receivers to step up, but also consistency from Barrett, and the willingness of the coaching staff to make it a possibility. Tomorrow is the first chance for Meyer make good on his words.
Don’t let me get in my zone (six)
So, who exactly will be playing at wide receiver tomorrow? Per Meyer’s call-in show, expect the playing time for ‘zone six’ to look like this:
- Noah Brown (starter)
- Parris Campbell (starter)
- Terry McLaurin
- Austin Mack
- James Clark
- KJ Hill
We’ve already seen what Brown and Campbell can do as blockers, and both figure to also be Barrett’s top efficiency options this season. Brown in particular has earned high marks for his play this offseason:
Keep a close eye on the receiver rotation behind them and how they are used. Are Mack, Hill and Clark used as deep threats? Is McLaurin given the chance to use his quickness and turn short passes into long gains?
As the season goes on and other players step up, injuries occur, etc. the rotation is sure to change, but Saturday provides a good litmus test as to how ready these young receivers are. If one can step up as a big play threat — starting against Bowling Green — it could unlock the missing piece to eventually becoming the balanced offense that last season’s team didn’t have.