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Column: Ohio State’s biggest spring storylines take center stage at annual Spring Game

The first checkpoint is here, but how many answers will the spring game provide for the Buckeyes as spring concludes?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 16 Ohio State Spring Game Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ohio State hosts their yearly Spring Game this weekend, and the first official step for the 2023 team will be taken on Saturday. With the culmination of spring practice ending, this is the last chance to get a look at the Buckeyes before they head into the Summer.

This spring has featured a lot of storylines as the Buckeyes look to rebound from a year they lost to their rival and fell a kick short of playing for the national title. Ohio State will have a new starting quarterback this fall, the defense is in year two under their highly paid defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, and there are plenty of questions at other positions to fill our offseason with conversation topics.

With the spring game incoming, the whole country will get their first in-depth look at the Ohio State Buckeyes of 2023. This is the first impression, and as the spring game rolls through this is not a definitive place to have any full takeaways for a seasonal outlook from anyone in the country – including the Buckeyes.

This spring practice has been filled with stories about new players stepping in, players getting their first shot, and Saturday we’ll get the first and final look before the countdown to next season begins.

Defensive backs first public appearance

Ohio State had a tough season last year when it came to defending the pass. Early in the year primarily with the corners, and later in the year the safety play took a step in the wrong direction. These issues should still be on the minds of Ohio State fans, but the coaching staff is now in year two, which should lead to additional improvement in regards to comfort in scheme and the techniques.

The Buckeyes brought in freshman All-American Davison Igbinosun from Ole Miss and Ja’Had Carter an All-ACC safety from a similar defensive scheme. Ohio State ranked 82nd in yards per completion allowed, and many of those yards came down the key stretch of the season against Michigan and Georgia. These two players will have their impact on the season, but the Buckeye faithful will only get to see Igbinosun on Saturday.

In addition to the new players, Ohio State has had a healthy camp at the position. There is an opportunity for Denzel Burke to return to form, and Jordan Hancock will have an opportunity to actually build momentum ahead of Fall camp. There is also the younger Buckeyes who played sparingly in relief duty last year getting to play in a more relaxed role than needing to start in spot duty.

Brian Hartline calling plays

This was the main topic at the end of last season as Ohio State came up short in The Game once again. Ryan Day finished off the season as a play-caller and had a dynamic performance against the Georgia Bulldogs until Marvin Harrison Jr.’s injury. Even without the top running backs and losing JSN in the first game of the season, Ohio State still paced the country in yards per play through the regular season and showed the offense is dynamic enough to play with the best.

The reason Hartline has been anointed the next in line to wear the headset is not because of the bowl games. The reason he is now calling plays is the nuances that goes into the weekly game planning that head coach is just unable to accomplish in today’s world. Additionally, Day has seen his defense falter at key times over the past three seasons, and the additional commitment to that side of the ball is a necessary next step for Day as a head coach.

Knowing how much control the coaches have over what goes on during the spring game, the drives will likely be heavily scripted. There is also the issue of missing starters and experienced players, so we’re not likely going to see Hartline really diving into his bag to call plays. Most of the day will rely heavily on base concepts to really challenge the players on both sides, but I would not be shocked to see a few fun plays called.

The last aspect of this is seeing how involved Day is due to McCord and Gebbia being the only two healthy quarterbacks. There will be a lot of reps for those two, and Day will have a list of things he wants to see from each quarterback throughout the day. Overall, the Buckeyes will not learn much about Hartline as a play-caller, but he will be the ones making the calls.

“Starting” offensive line vs. starting defensive line

Ryan Day’s most recent media availability hinted at the offensive line struggling of late in spring practice. This does not give a lot of confidence to a room that will be relying on three news faces at three positions that were helmed by NFL Draft Picks. There are significant shoes to fill, and the spring game will be the first instance fans have to see the new look offensive line.

“They need to get more and more experience, they need to learn what it is to be a starter. It’s one thing to be in the twos and go against the twos on defense every day in practice, and not really have to play as much in the game. That’s another thing on 3rd-and-five and the game on the line, you gotta go block the best defensive end in the country or else we lose the game. It’s a whole different feeling,” Day said about the progress in spring.

The importance is obviously there with a new starter at quarterback. They need to get better and he also said he felt a little similar to the line last year. This is a touchy position that takes time to build camaraderie, and as a group the cohesion will be what makes them great. In the spring game they will likely be overmatched by the defensive line, but if they battle I think that is plenty to go into fall with some belief this group can figure it out.

To finish this out, the competitions are incredibly clear, and no one has locked up the spots that are up for grabs. Tegra Tshabola and Zen Michalski will have their opportunity to play at right tackle, and Carson Hinzmann can finish the spring with a stranglehold on the center position with a strong performance.

Who steps up at receiver?

Ohio State only has one returning starter healthy for the spring game. They will also be without Xavier Johnson and a few other young wideouts who have been battling injuries this spring. This opens up a significant opportunity for the younger players on the roster to get reps against the ones and with the ones.

Outside of Harrison Jr., the Buckeyes will have 11 returning receptions at the receiver position playing. That raises the importance of getting the younger players competitive reps for the season. Players like Noah Rogers, Carnell Tate, and Kaleb Brown have the most to gain. The other name to watch if healthy is Kyion Grayes who has a ton of speed, but has battled injuries. The battle between the second-year and the first-year receivers will be one to watch not only now, but in a year from now as well.

This group has a ton of talent – Brian Hartline has a done an okay job at that – but Jayden Ballard will be the No. 1 player being watched outside of Harrison Jr. for obvious reasons. He has a different skill set than the rest of the receivers in the room as a true deep threat and burner, and he is getting to the age range where it is now or never at Ohio State. These guys will have a big responsibility as Kyle McCord and Gebbia will be throwing a lot of passes Saturday, and the job of the receiver is to make them look good.

The Quarterback Battle

We’re just going to get out in front here and say this sucks for Brown to not see his work in the spring be rewarded with a scrimmage in front of fans. Day has said the competition has impacted both players involved, with the other being Kyle McCord, and now the fans will be treated to McCord on Saturday.

When breaking down the quarterback competition, it will not be won in the spring game, and the 13 or so practices the Buckeyes had with Brown at quarterback will hold much more weight in the evaluation process. The spring game is an opportunity for the healthy players to make a statement in front of a packed stadium, and really stamp the end of the first real step heading into 2023. Day talked about this in vague detail when asked about it this week, but the overall feel is the competition is still alive.

“I think there’s been really good quarterback play this spring. There’s been a lot of ups and downs along the way, and so we’ll kind of see how Saturday goes and then take a look at the spring and go from there,” Day Said about the competition this Spring.

This year will fall on the quarterback’s shoulders, and the weight on whoever wears the black jersey in practice will be heavy given all the skill talent on the roster. It is unfortunate Brown won’t be able to show his work in the spring to the fanbase, but as he said himself, a minor speed bump.

The spring game is an opportunity for fans and the rest of the country to get their first look at the Ohio State Buckeyes 2023 football team. The overall feeling of spring games is that they’re glorified scrimmages that give little to no information on the outlook of a team’s upcoming season. What they are great for is giving a glimpses into the players who are in battles and how they handle pressure.

This spring the stories have been dampened by the injury of Devin Brown and the Buckeyes missing some key starters. That means there will not be a full look into this years team, but there will be plenty of glimpses of players beyond 2023 to get excited about. The young receivers will be battling it out, C.J. Hicks will be starting the game defensively, and the young defensive linemen will have no seniority in front of them to keep them off the field.

Having the injuries does make this game lose a little luster, but this also creates an exciting atmosphere of youth that just hasn’t been lucky enough to find its way onto the field. The major questions will not be answered, but that was going to be the case until Fall anyways. For the game itself Ohio State football is back, and that is something to enjoy.