Watching Ohio State’s spring game, you got the sense that despite the 7-on-7-ish format and the piles of meaningless offensive yards, the Buckeyes have a ton of talent and are again the odds-on favorite to win the Big Ten and compete for the playoff.
Bruce Feldman couldn’t argue with putting the Buckeyes on top of the preseason projections. ESPN’s opaque FPI has Ohio State number one. And Bill’s S&P+ has Ohio State second, behind only Alabama. And this is likely Meyer’s most talented team he’s had at Ohio State, based on 247’s Composite total team talent.
Based on the statistical projections, feedback from reporters who watched spring practice, and evidence from the Student Appreciation Day and spring game (whatever insight you can get from that), there aren’t any obvious reasons why Ohio State shouldn’t again contend for the national championship.
So I tried as hard as I could to find potential problem spots for Ohio State next season.
No go-to receivers
By my count, nine receivers caught a ball in the spring game and Ohio State quarterback threw for a combined 654 yards — but what if no receivers separate themselves from the pack?
Curtis Samuel was the most explosive skill player as well as the most dependable receiving target. His target rate (24.5%) was just a little less than the next two players combined — Noah Brown and Marcus Baugh. But eight different receivers had more than ten catches last year, and if Curtis Samuel wasn’t getting open, then the passing game fell apart.
Outside of Samuel, the receivers were interchangeable. There was no explosive option like Devin Smith, with his ridiculous yard-per-catch average. Or a dependable receiver who had both a high catch rate and a high target rate. Behind Samuel, the next two targeted pass catchers had catch rates below 62%.
So the concern is essentially if we get a repeat of last year — but now minus Ohio State’s top three pass catchers. And as others have mentioned this off season, why should we feel optimistic about a group of receivers who failed to make an impact last year, when there were ample opportunities for someone to emerge?
Further, it’s difficult to gauge too much on the spring game. For every Malik Hooker or Jerome Baker spring game performance that actually translates to success in the fall, there is another Taurian Washington performance that doesn’t.
The receiver everyone talked about during spring and bowl practice was Binjimen Victor. As Feldman writes,
The most intriguing upstart guy is Binjimen Victor, a 6’4 former blue-chip wideout from Florida who should help remedy a big issue for the Buckeyes offense: hitting downfield pass plays...“His ball skills are a 10. He’s a great kid,” Meyer said. “He’s struggles in some areas with releases and getting off bump coverage. But he’s gonna be exceptional.”
But his impact was limited in the spring game, as he was held to three catches for 31 yards despite multiple attempts to get him the ball. I absolutely don’t think one performance — let along in a spring game! — means much, but it does illustrate the concern over whether a dependable intermediate and deep threat will emerge.
What if Kevin Wilson doesn’t mesh with Urban Meyer’s offense?
The Kevin Wilson hire was nearly universally lauded as one of, if not the, best coordinator hires of the offseason. According to Feldman again, “A few [coaches for other schools] gushed about how big of a hire Meyer made by adding former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson as his new offensive coordinator. ‘He’s one of the smartest guys I’ve ever coached with,’ said Pitt head man Pat Narduzzi. ‘He’s just understands the game at a different level. I think it’s a great hire for Urban.’”
But is there any chance that it doesn’t actually work out?
Ian Boyd similarly praises Wilson’s on-field coaching ability, but is one of the few to point out that it may not be a seamless integration for Wilson and Meyer’s offensive philosophies:
The Ohio State run game has been geared around inside zone and power blocking. Wilson tended to build his Indiana units around outside zone, which works rather differently and doesn’t feature the same kinds of QB option complements. While Wilson might emphasize balanced formations and the pass, it’s unlikely Meyer would stop combining inside zone and power, particularly the QB read varieties with Barrett entering his final season...While Wilson is used to calling plays at tempo and distributing widely, how will he do so with the zone/power-read schemes that have defined Ohio State?
What if the offensive line fails to improve?
Generally cohesiveness and returning starters are incredibly important for developing a dominant offensive line. That’s why the offensive line isn’t seen as a major point of concern entering the summer — the line has four returning starters.
But that’s also a little bit of a concern when that group (minus Pat Elflein) was 82nd in adjusted sack rate last season. As Bill Landis wrote following the Fiesta Bowl and freshman Michael Jordan’s injury, “Buckeyes' coach Urban Meyer said earlier this week that true freshmen starting on the offensive line at a place like Ohio State shouldn't happen.”
Now the Buckeyes have to decide between Matt Burrell and Jordan’s Fiesta Bowl replacement, Demetrius Knox, for the new starting guard spot. Despite little turnover, there’s no guarantee that the replacement guard will equal either Jordan or Billy Price. And even if they do, can the unit improve in pass protection from last season?
Obviously the biggest concern for the offense is whether the passing game — between the quarterback, the playcalling, the offensive line, and the receivers — can improve. It’s needed to for two straight springs. And while there are ample reasons for optimism (which we’ll get to later on), there are a few offseason concerns, too.