Ohio State’s spring game is rapidly approaching, set to take place this Saturday (April 16). Big Ten Network will televise the event, hundreds of thousands will watch at least some portion of the game, and tens of thousands more will attend. It is a great opportunity for fans to attend a live scrimmage (sort of) in The Shoe – when they otherwise might not be able to attend games – and it will give us a preview of new players, new coaches, new defensive schemes, etc... It will also be pretty meaningless, outside of a planned and meaningful Dwayne Haskins tribute.
The typical spring game – whether it is played in Columbus, Athens, or Tuscaloosa – is more of a fan appreciation event than it is anything else, and we’re thankful for that. We really are. We love watching our Buckeyes! Or any football game, in my case. But let’s not pretend that these intrasquad scrimmages carry a ton of weight. The action is controlled, and more or less directed by the coaches — not driven by the players on the field.
Very little is revealed about the team we will see in the fall, as the division of rosters makes it nearly impossible to predict a depth chart on either side of the ball. And high-profile players see limited reps and are protected at all costs, in order to preserve health and/or avoid potential injuries... C.J. Stroud, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and others will be so protected that any player who even looks at a knee or ankle wrong will earn a spot in Ryan Day’s doghouse immediately.
There will be players on the field who leave Columbus before the start of the season. Others will be missing, due to the fact that they aren’t even students at Ohio State yet. And coaches don’t want to tip their hand(s) at certain positions, so they view this as just another chance to experiment with players and positions — albeit on television, in front of thousands of fans.
The same things are accomplished during closed-door practices. OSU’s spring game, just like the one played in Ann Arbor or Austin, is a live-practice on steroids... More than a walkthrough, but not remotely indicative of what we will eventually see in the fall. Appreciate it for what it is, but don’t lose sleep if Stroud throws a pick or TreVeyon Henderson fumbles the ball.
While there are certainly examples of players breaking out in the spring and that momentum carrying over to the fall (Stroud and JSN performed well in last year’s spring game), there have been just as many – if not more – instances of scrimmage performance(s) being overhyped. Last year provided plenty of evidence.
In the 2021 game, Marcus Crowley led all running backs with 29 rushing yards and tied for the lead in carries. Austin Kutscher (not the guy from “That 70’s Show”) had 43 yards receiving. And Steele Chambers finished with four carries for ten yards and a TD. Yes, the same Steele Chambers who will likely start at linebacker in 2022! O
f course I’m handpicking certain stats, and maybe there wasn’t a ton of hype around these guys to begin with, but you could do this exercise on an annual basis.
On defense, Jack Sawyer was credited with three sacks in the 2021 game, causing some to project him as the next Bosa brother. Ryan Watts seemed like a threat to steal major playing time at corner, and Craig Young was a viable contender for the starting bullet position. How did all of that turn out?
I’m bullish on Sawyer, and I think he is going to ball out against actual competition this season, but Watts and Young rarely saw the field before transferring elsewhere. My intent is not to call any of these guys out or minimize their accomplishments, but rather to point out how little a non-tackling scrimmage in the spring translates to the real, finished product we see months later.
All of this is not to say we should do away with spring games or preseason events entirely. As I mentioned, they are generally great for fans. They give coaches a different environment in which to observe players (although I still argue the staff gains very little insight during these events), and there are players who do gain confidence or earn additional reps as a result of their performance. All good, all great. Play spring games forever... But what if there were alternatives? Alternatives that both appeal to fans, and provide valuable reps and experience for the players. That is what I would be interested in.
During the spring window, I would love to see some sort of skills challenge. Similar to what the NFL currently holds prior to the Pro Bowl, Ohio State (or any other team) could open their stadium and offer cheap tickets for a friendly competition between teammates. Stroud versus Kyle McCord in a distance throw? Sign me up. Emeka Egbuka and Denzel Burke racing through an obstacle course? Feed it to me. All capped off by a defensive line versus offensive line tug-of-war. Sounds great, right?
I know the Buckeyes do some cool things for the student appreciation day they hold, but a skills challenge in The Shoe would be reminiscent of the old NFL Quarterback Challenge — which was incredibly popular, and even spawned a video game. The risk of injury is also very low here, unless you are Carson Palmer, who has made a habit of falling on his face.
If a skills challenge is not in the cards, how about a scrimmage against an in-state or tri-state area opponent? Hold it during the summer when the world is starved for sports, and reach out to teams you don’t otherwise cross paths with. Admittedly, the risk of injury goes up here, so perhaps the likelihood of this ever happening goes way down. But it is fairly common in the NFL.
When professional teams are looking for a different challenge during camp, they hold joint practices with other teams that are either in the area or on the upcoming preseason schedule. This is a way to mix it up for the players, and measure their squad against real competition. Intrasquad scrimmages can only tell you so much, and you run the risk of plateauing against the same players and same looks.
Ohio State could schedule another Ohio team not already on the schedule, or venture outside the state and call up Marshall or Western Kentucky. Going up against Dayton or Youngstown State might not give the Buckeyes a great read on their team due to the level of competition, but scheduling a small school within state borders would definitely attract fans and shake up the monotony of facing teammates on a daily basis. No need for refs and/or flags here. Coaches from both teams could dictate pace and play, and break off into drills or smaller coaching sessions if they see fit. Low risk, low reward? Sure. But again I would ask: What is the football benefit of a two-hand touch game held in April?
Maybe I am just being a Debbie Downer here; I know tons of people look forward to the Ohio State spring game every year. But I think that is just a byproduct of our (fans) love for the Buckeyes. We haven’t seen them play since New Year’s Day. We get bits and pieces of action and information from practices, but we are all eagerly anticipating what this team will look like next season.
The spring game gives us a sneak peek at that... except, it really doesn’t. All I’m saying is, let’s look at some alternatives. I know the higher-ups are reading this, so give a little thought to the obstacle course. Schedule the Buckeyes to play a watered-down scrimmage against the best high school players in the state of Ohio. Let’s get nuts!
Until then... yes, I will be watching the spring game. Go Bucks! On both sides!