Well, friends, here we are at the unofficial first day of the Ohio State Buckeyes’ fall football camp. I mean, sure they technically started back in August before the Big Ten initially shut down the season, and they’ve been practicing since the league decided to reverse course earlier this month, but today is the first day that Ryan Day and his staff are able to work the players out in pads, and it is the first day of the B1G-mandated daily COVID-19 testing.
While the team is still ramping up to having a full-contact practice, Sept. 30 feels like a major beginning nonetheless. Due to the pandemic, media members won’t be able to get glimpses of practice this fall, and all of their interviews will occur on Zoom, so while Ohio State already keeps a pretty tight seal on information, you’d have to imagine that the Woody will be locked up like Fort Knox when it comes to substantive details sneaking out in the lead-up to the season.
Since the info that we are likely to get will almost certainly be well-vetted before being released, I have come up with half a dozen questions that I would like to see answered before the Buckeyes kick off the season against the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Oct. 24.
In media availabilities thus far, Buckeye coaches have indicated that both Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon and All-Big Ten back Master Teague are both healthy and taking reps. They’ve said that they will be splitting first-team snaps 50/50, but that’s before any hitting happens on the practice field.
Presuming that quarterback Justin Fields runs the ball more than he did in 2019, I think that will open up bigger holes for when the backs get the ball, but it will also likely decrease their non-garbage time carries.
Sermon rushed for 2,076 in three season with the Sooners for an average of 6.1 yards per carry. After getting 17 carries in his redshirt season, Teague went for 789 yards on a 5.8 ypc clip last fall. Now keep in mind, Sermon was running against legendarily porous Big 12 defenses, while Teague was backing up J.K. Dobbins and getting most of his carries after games were well in hand.
I would imagine that both will get their share of carries, especially early in the season, but with Sermon being an almost completely unknown for OSU fans, and Teague looking to build on his All-B1G selection last year, I am really excited to see if one of the two emerges as the go-to option out of the backfield.
Nicholas Petit-Frere came to Ohio State as a five-star prospect and the No. 1 offensive lineman in the 2018 recruiting class. Paris Johnson Jr. has arrived in Columbus as a five-star prospect and the No. 1 offensive line in the 2020 recruiting class.
Both monstrous young men brought incredibly high expectations with them when they arrived on campus, but as of yet, NPF has not been able to grab hold of a starting spot on the offensive line. Now granted, the o-line is arguably the most mentally demanding position on a football team, and it generally requires the biggest body transformation from high school, so it can take time to acclimate to the role on the collegiate level.
But, with Petit-Frere now in this third season with the Buckeyes, there are some who have begun to question whether or not he will ever live up to expectations. Is that fair? Probably not. Considering that he’s been behind some pretty good players over the last three season, and that he has put on roughly 50 lbs. of muscle since coming to college, it makes sense that he it took him some time to be ready to join the starting lineup.
It is highly unusual for a true-freshman to start on the offensive line, but if anyone is going to do it, it will likely be a physical freak like Johnson. If he takes the starting job from NPF, that could be the beginning of a great career for Paris, and the end of a disappointing one for Nick.
3) How will Kerry Coombs reconfigure the defensive secondary?
Now that Shaun Wade has officially been confirmed to be back with the Buckeyes, we can lock him to one of the outside cornerback positions along with Sevyn Banks. So, what does that mean for the slot-safety position that Wade occupied in 2019? Early word is that senior Marcus Williamson has been getting some reps there, but third-year players Tyreke Johnson and Cameron Brown will obviously also be in that discussion as well.
Then we get to safety; how will Coombs’ return impact the “bullet” position that never really happened last season? Josh Proctor is presumed to be the starter heading into camp, as he has the most seniority, but redshirt-sophomore Marcus Hooker could give him a run for his money. Then, freshmen Lejond Cavazos and Lathan Ransom will certainly also be fighting for playing time as well.
While we assume that we will see the same single-high look that the Buckeyes employed last year, could Coombs’ return mean that we will see two safeties in the back of the OSU defense? I don’t know, but I am anxious to find out.
4) Who will be Justin Fields’ backup?
We already know who OSU’s QB1 is going to be for this season, as Justin Fields enters the campaign as one of the country’s top Heisman candidates and a contender to be the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft. But what happens behind him?
Last season, Day and the offensive staff strategically tried to prevent Fields from using a huge portion of what makes him so special by limiting how often he ran the ball. Due to the thinnest of quarterback rooms in recent memory, had Fields suffered an injury, Ohio State had next to nothing to replace him (no offense, Chugs).
This season though, Day and new quarterback coach Corey Dennis have two highly sought after true freshmen in Jack Miller and C.J. Stroud. Coming into the fall, I assumed that without the benefit of a spring camp, or normal summer workouts, Stroud would likely be the first to get the nod if Fields was out for an extended period of time due to a serious injury or COVID-related absence. Miller spent almost an entire year recovering from a knee injury, so he hasn’t played football at all since last October.
But, perhaps the extra time has allowed him to even more fully recuperate so that he and Stroud are entering the competition on equal footing. Then, of course, there is Gunnar Hoak, the Kentucky grad-transfer and Ohio State legacy. If Fields goes down in a game, I could see Hoak stepping in to serve as a stop-gap, either for a few plays or series, or to finish a game before Day gets a freshman ready for the next week.
However, if the worst happens, and Day has to turn the offense over to someone for an extended period of time, it will almost certainly be a freshman. And while I assume that starter will be Stroud, whomever it might be will have a huge advantage to becoming the future of the OSU offense.
5) Will they finally #FreeDemario?
Look, folks, this is our last chance. We have been beating this #FreeDemario drum for years. Heck, in 2016, I compared him to Spider-Man (something I very much stand by), and then in 2018, I tweeted this:
WHAT DO WE WANT?— Matt Tamanini (@BWWMatt) September 8, 2018
WHEN DO WE WANT IT?
At least on punt returns & kickoffs, but preferably also on a handful of plays from scrimmage as well. He's a uniquely talented playmaker that we believe could bring excitement & productivity to the #OhioState offense.#FreeDemario https://t.co/SUiAKj91lb
I guess at this point, McCall’s best option to see substantive playing time will be as a return man and perhaps as a backup in the slot. On Tuesday, wide receiver coach Brian Hartline said that he liked the “game-plan advantage” that putting Garrett Wilson in that position creates, so it might be tough for Demario to crack the starting lineup, but we have seen that you don’t need to be a starting WR to make a difference in Day’s offense.
So, I am just hoping — nay, praying — that we finally see the explosive potential of Demario McCall manifest itself on the field.
6) Since we aren’t getting the traditional fashion show, what t-shirts would the specialists would have worn as they moved in to the camp hotel?
One of the very few blessings of the B1G’s nightmare handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was that the start-and-stop to fall camp meant that Buckeye beat writers didn’t feel the need to stand outside of the team’s hotel to serve as some sort of odd paparazzi as the players moved in for the three weeks of camp.
I’ve always found this tradition to be incredibly weird. I mean, I get why reporters do it, because it is like the kickoff to the most exciting part of the year for their readers, but it’s more than a little strange that they are out there snapping pics of 18-22 year olds just walking into a hotel.
However, the only downside to this weird annual exercise not occurring in 2020 is that we were robbed of the opportunity to see what t-shirts the Buckeye specialists would have rolled up in this year.
Over the years, punter Drue Chrisman has used his wardrobe to keep us all every updated on his relationship with his “Mormon girlfriend” Avery Eliason. After proposing at the 2019 spring game, his shirt last fall confirmed that he did, in fact, love his “Mormon fiance.”
Well, the happy couple got married in March of this year, but without the pre-camp fashion show, we haven’t yet gotten to see an “I ❤️ My Mormon Wife” shirt. Hopefully we will soon; Drue, Buckeye fans need this after everything we’ve gone through this fall.
Also, there’s the question of how Roen McCullough would have continued the tradition started by his older brother — and long-snapping predecessor — Liam. During his time with the Buckeyes, Liam always wore a t-shirt that featured a picture of himself from the previous year’s hotel check-in; creating an “Inception”-like hall of mirrors.
While Roen rocked a nice scarlet, Block O shirt to last year’s hotel fashion show, Liam had promised us something special this year. But, alas, it was not to be... at least not yet.
After some unexpected start and stops, I am back to posting a column every single day from preseason camp until whenever Ohio State’s football season ends. Some days they will be longer and in depth, some days they will be short and sweet. Let me know what you think of this one, and what you’d like to see me discuss in the comments or on Twitter. Go Bucks!