Last season, the Buckeyes were able to make the College Football Playoff as the youngest team in a power five conference — returning only six starters from their immensely talented 2015 squad. With only a handful (elite) players moving on to the NFL, Ohio State will be in a different spot than they were last season. This year, they’re returning eight starters on offense and seven starters on defense — tied for the second most returning starters in the Big Ten.
With spring practice kicking off last week, there aren’t as many positional battles for starting jobs, but rather to crack the two-deep. Let’s check out the biggest positional battles as we get deeper into spring practice.
Joe Burrow vs. Dwayne Haskins
With J.T. Barrett returning for his final season, the backup job will come down to Burrow and Haskins. With a mobile quarterback who runs the ball as much as Barrett does (much to the chagrin of Buckeye fans), the backup is one play away from stepping behind center.
Last season, Joe Burrow won the job over true freshman Dwayne Haskins but Urban Meyer repeatedly praised Haskins throughout his first season, even labeling him as the “best QB at his age I’ve ever seen.” High praise for the Maryland native.
Not only is this spot important for 2017, but it’s even bigger for 2018. With Tate Martell set to redshirt in 2017 and 5-star dual-threat Emory Jones arriving in 2018, there will be a logjam at this position next season. If Burrow loses the job to Haskins this season, will he transfer after the season? This is a huge spring for both signal callers, both on the field for 2017 and for their respective futures in 2018.
Antonio Williams vs. JK Dobbins
Here’s another battle to crack the two-deep. We all know Mike Weber had a tremendous first season where he showed power and some quickness (a surprising attribute we didn’t know about). Ultimately though, Weber is a two-down back who excels as north-south ball carrier, rather than a guy who can get to the edge.
This is where true freshman JK Dobbins comes in. Dobbins is a true tailback, rather than a H-back, who brings more speed and quickness than Weber or Antonio Williams. Williams is a big-bodied back who will bring the hammer to opposing defenses. With Dobbins already on campus as an early enrollee, he will be able to show off his catching ability and different skillset to running backs coach Tony Alford.
Binjimen Victor vs. Austin Mack
Austin Mack got all the headlines last spring when he was the first freshman to get his black stripe taken off, but it looked like he hit the freshman wall as the season progressed as he never got on the field as a main member of the wide receiver rotation. On the other hand, Binjimen Victor was noticed as a long, very skinny true freshman who looked like he would definitely redshirt to bulk up, but ended up seeing time late in the season — and against Clemson — which has most fans and writers penciling him in for a starting job in 2018.
Not so fast my friend. Mack is Meyer’s most talented receiver recruit since he’s been at Ohio State and is a better route runner than Victor. But on the other hand, Victor brings something that no other Buckeye wideout possesses: height. Sure, both will definitely see the field and Kevin Wilson will find a way to get both on the field at the same time, but it will be an interesting battle between two stud sophomores.
Demetrius Knox vs. Matthew Burrell vs. Josh Myers vs. Malcolm Pridgeon
With Billy Price kicking over to center to replace Rimington Award winner Pat Elflein, the right guard spot is the lone opening on the offensive line. Demetrius Knox looks like he has the inside track from Meyer, but he hardly looked like he belonged when he subbed in for Michael Jordan in the Fiesta Bowl.
Knox has a handful of talented guys behind him, with Matthew Burrell, the highly touted Josh Myers and Malcolm Pridgeon, who was a highly touted JUCO player who was expected to be the starter at right tackle before suffering a season ending injury. With the amount of pulling that Meyer’s guards do throughout the game, athleticism may win this battle.
Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard
Nick Bosa vs. Jalyn Holmes vs. Jonathon Cooper vs. Rashod Berry vs. Chase Young (not on campus yet)
This isn’t as much of a battle as the other positions because Larry Johnson does a great job of mixing and matching, creating sub-packages and rotating players throughout the game. Luckily for Johnson, he has arguably the most talented positional group on the team with an abundance of talented vets, mixed with a barrage of highly touted youngsters. Get this: Nick Bosa was the lone Buckeye to crack Pro Football Focus’ “Top 25 Returning Players in College Football” list... and he doesn’t even start.
Denzel Ward vs. Kendall Sheffield vs. Jeffrey Okudah vs. Shaun Wade
Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley are both headed to the NFL as projected first round picks, so this will be the first time that Meyer and Kerry Coombs will have to start two new corners since Meyer has been at Ohio State. Luckily for them, they arguably have the most talented defensive back recruiting class already on campus, competing for two starting jobs.
Denzel Ward is the elder in this group and should solidify one corner spot, while 5-stars Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade, and former Alabama corner Kendall Sheffield will be battling it out for the other spot. This should be the fiercest positional battle of them all.
Erick Smith vs. Jordan Fuller
There are some pretty big shoes to fill at the free safety spot. Malik Hooker came out of nowhere to win last year’s opening left by Vonn Bell, and all he did was make himself into a future top-10 pick in this year’s draft and draw comparisons to future NFL Hall of Famer Ed Reed.
Erick Smith came to Ohio State way back in 2014 as a high 4-star U.S. Army All-American, but injuries have kept him off the field. Jordan Fuller arrived on campus last season and surprisingly cracked the two-deep and got time as a true freshman. As we saw with Bell and Hooker, the free safety position in this position is designed for players with range, ball skills and elite instincts, so may the better athlete win this one.