Ohio State Buckeyes: spring position battles 14

Top spring position battles: No. 1

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
9:00
AM ET
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Nobody is walking into a stress-free environment when Ohio State returns to the practice field this spring as long as national-title aspirations hang in the air and Urban Meyer prowls the sideline.

But the pressure isn't the same for all the Buckeyes since a healthy handful have their names etched at the top of the depth chart and won't be sweating a competition for a starting job -- obviously beginning with a quarterback who has finished in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy voting two years running. But determining the backup to Braxton Miller is just one of the intriguing positional battles that will be waged in March and April, and after already tackling that topic and three others, the countdown concludes with what figures to be the hottest, most critical competition in camp.

[+] EnlargeArmani Reeves
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsArmani Reeves had 26 tackles and an interception as a sophomore in 2013.
No. 1: Cornerback

  • Predecessor: Bradley Roby (69 tackles, 16 passes defended, three interceptions, two blocked kicks, two touchdowns; declared early for the NFL draft)
  • Candidates: Junior Armani Reeves, redshirt freshmen Eli Apple and Gareon Conley
  • Why to watch: The weakness of the Ohio State defense last season was obviously no secret, and removing the supremely talented Roby from the equation in pass coverage only adds to the degree of difficulty in trying to fix it for co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash. Thanks to a recruiting haul in the secondary during the last two seasons that might be the best in the nation, though, the new assistant coach is inheriting a roster with enough skill and athleticism to make those improvements and turn the Buckeyes back into an aggressive, lockdown defense. Doran Grant didn't receive nearly as much acclaim for his work in coverage last year as Roby, but he left little room to doubt that he's capable of taking over as the top dog at cornerback, leaving at least three guys to fight for the other spot. The battle is only going to become more heated when Damon Webb and Marshon Lattimore arrive on campus in the fall, but the Buckeyes definitely won't be short on options during the spring.
  • Pre-camp edge: Grant parlayed some action off the bench two years ago into a springboard to a starting job last spring, and Reeves appears to be in line for the same type of jump after being pressed into a fair amount of action as a sophomore. Reeves finished the season with 26 tackles, eight passes defended, an interception and a forced fumble, and while he didn't quite seem ready for a full-time role yet, he has had a taste of success and what it takes to succeed at this level, which should give him an early advantage over Apple and Conley. Both of those young guys, though, were highly coveted recruits a year ago for a reason, and their athleticism could help them close the gap and make a legitimate push for a starting spot as the Buckeyes try to address their biggest defensive shortcoming from 2013.

Top spring position battles: No. 2

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
9:00
AM ET
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Nobody is walking into a stress-free environment when Ohio State returns to the practice field in spring as long as national-title aspirations hang in the air and Urban Meyer prowls the sideline.

[+] EnlargeDarryl Baldwin
AP Photo/David DurochikDarryl Baldwin has the inside track to winning Ohio State's starting right tackle job.
But the pressure isn't the same for all the Buckeyes since a healthy handful have their names etched at the top of the depth chart and won't be sweating a competition for a starting job -- obviously beginning with a quarterback who has finished in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy voting two years running. But who will back up Braxton Miller is just one of the intriguing positional battles that will be waged in March and April, and after already tackling that topic and a critical spot on defense, the series focuses on a potential anchor up front.

No. 2: Right tackle

  • Predecessor: Rising junior Taylor Decker held the starting job throughout last season for the Big Ten's best rushing attack, but he'll swing over to the left side with Jack Mewhort heading off to the NFL.
  • Candidates: Senior Darryl Baldwin, junior Tommy Brown and redshirt sophomore Kyle Dodson
  • Why to watch: For all the firepower the Buckeyes have returning at the skill positions and, more importantly, at quarterback, that might not mean all that much unless four new starters are able to get close to the level of production the veteran blockers provided over the past two seasons. Replacing all that experience and talent is no small task, but Ohio State has known this moment was coming for a while and has certainly taken steps to make sure it's prepared to move on without its core four up front. Decker's move to the high-profile gig on the left side opens up what could be a competitive battle for the starting job he left behind, particularly if Dodson is able to live up to the recruiting hype from two years ago and become a factor on the practice field during camp. The Buckeyes are likely set with Decker on the left edge, Pat Elflein at one guard spot and Jacoby Boren at center. And right tackle isn't the only battle that will be waged during practice in March and April as they audition guys for the other vacancy at guard. But Ohio State will need somebody to come in and make an instant impact without much experience at right tackle like Decker last season and Reid Fragel before him if it is going to keep the spread offense humming.
  • Pre-camp edge: Much of his prior playing time has come on special teams, but Baldwin did see some action off the bench at times last season and has been in the program for years, developing physically and spending plenty of time absorbing the blocking schemes. He'll have the inside track heading into camp, and at 6-foot-6, 310 pounds, he's certainly got the size required to deal with his responsibilities at tackle. So, too, does Dodson, and he's already been publicly challenged by Urban Meyer to "show up and start playing." Those two guys figure to be under intense scrutiny leading up to the spring game, and the Buckeyes would ideally be able to settle on a clear-cut starter by then.

Top spring position battles: No. 3

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
9:00
AM ET
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Nobody is walking into a stress-free environment when Ohio State returns to the practice field in spring as long as national-title aspirations hang in the air and Urban Meyer prowls the sideline.

But the pressure isn't the same for all the Buckeyes since a healthy handful have their names etched at the top of the depth chart and won't be sweating a competition for a starting job -- obviously beginning with a quarterback who has finished in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy voting two years running. But who will back up Braxton Miller is just one of the intriguing positional battles that will be waged in March and April, and after already tackling that topic and another position on offense in the countdown, the series shifts to the other side of the ball for a critical competition in the middle of the defense.

[+] EnlargeTrey Johnson
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesTrey Johnson, a top prospect signed in the 2013 class, could step in for Ryan Shazier at outside linebacker.
No. 3: Outside linebacker

  • Predecessor: Ryan Shazier (143 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 4 forced fumbles; declared early for the NFL draft)
  • Candidates: Sophomore Trey Johnson, junior Camren Williams, sophomore Darron Lee, true freshmen Sam Hubbard, Raekwon McMillan
  • Why to watch: With two returning starters, on the surface there appears to be only one hole to fill, and it's the gaping one left behind by Shazier at the most beleaguered position group on the roster. But even with Curtis Grant in the middle and Joshua Perry looking like a viable option at strongside linebacker, there still could be shakeups at those spots, depending on just how quickly some of the young talent can transition to life at Ohio State and the Big Ten. Assuming Grant and Perry build on their steady, but certainly not spectacular, 2013 seasons and solidify themselves in those jobs, that will put an even brighter spotlight on the guys trying to replace a player who was one of the most productive linebackers in the country in the last two seasons. The Buckeyes counted on Shazier to do so much work from sideline to sideline, in the backfield and in pass coverage, that simply plugging in one guy and expecting similar results isn't realistic. That will make it imperative for Ohio State to weigh its options at each spot during the spring, regardless of previous position or experience, and make sure it has the best group of three it can put on the field as it tries again to live up to the high expectations the program has for its linebackers.
  • Pre-camp edge: There aren't many positions more difficult for a true freshman to make an instant impact than linebacker, but the hype around McMillan is already building thanks to his early enrollment and a mature body that clearly has impressed Urban Meyer. His development figures to be aided by going through spring practice, and that should also be a big benefit for the coaching staff as they get a look at where he might fit best. But either way, Johnson is a sure bet to line up with the first-team defense when camp opens in March, and he has been praised for his football intelligence and sharp instincts. He's certainly no slouch as an athlete, either, and the Buckeyes are expecting more from him than the six games and 11 tackles he chipped in as a freshman.

Top spring position battles: No. 4

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
9:00
AM ET
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Nobody is walking into a stress-free environment when Ohio State returns to the practice field in spring as long as national-title aspirations hang in the air and Urban Meyer prowls the sideline.

But the pressure isn't the same for all the Buckeyes since a healthy handful have their names etched at the top of the depth chart and won't be sweating a competition for a starting job -- obviously beginning with a quarterback who has finished in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy voting two years running. But who will back up Braxton Miller is just one of the most intriguing positional battles that will be waged in March and April, and after already tackling that topic in the countdown, the series rolls along with a look at who else might be lining up with him in the Ohio State backfield.

[+] EnlargeEzekiel Elliott
Trevor Ruszkowksi/USA TODAY SportsEzekiel Elliott averaged 8.6 yards and had three touchdowns on his 33 touches as a freshman in 2013.
No. 4: Running back

  • Predecessor: Carlos Hyde (208 carries for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns; 16 catches for 147 yards and 3 touchdowns)
  • Candidates: Senior Rod Smith, redshirt sophomores Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball, true sophomores Ezekiel Elliott and Dontre Wilson
  • Why to watch: The Buckeyes will again spend the spring and summer months emphasizing improvements in the passing game and seeking to find more balance in the play-calling, but Urban Meyer's version of a successful spread offense will always start with a powerful rushing attack. And after two seasons of leaning on Hyde to do the heavy lifting between the tackles and keep the chains moving, the Buckeyes now need a new sidekick for Miller -- or maybe a couple of them. With such a deep stable of options returning to fill the void left by Hyde and his 19 carries per game, Ohio State might not need to tab just one guy to handle the majority of the work. They could try to spread around touches among as many as four rushers. That was also the plan to some extent last year, though, before Hyde clearly proved he was the most reliable and consistent threat on the ground and ultimately soaked up most of the snaps. All that playing time is available now, and the competition to earn it will no doubt be heated.
  • Pre-camp edge: If the Buckeyes are purely looking for a strong, rugged rusher who fits the physical mold of Hyde, Smith or Dunn might have the advantage. Should Meyer want to feature a more dynamic athlete like he always intended to do with Jordan Hall, Wilson might be in line for more work as a traditional tailback instead of shifting around as a hybrid weapon. But the best combination of size, speed and game-breaking ability appears to be Elliott, who showed glimpses of his potential while racking up 262 yards on just 30 carries with a pair of touchdowns during his first season on campus. Of the many candidates the Buckeyes can sort through, the process is likely to start with Elliott when the pads go back on next month.

Top spring position battles: No. 5

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
9:00
AM ET
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Nobody is walking into a stress-free environment when Ohio State returns to the practice field in spring as long as national-title aspirations hang in the air and Urban Meyer prowls the sideline.

But the pressure isn't the same for all the Buckeyes since a healthy handful have their names etched at the top of the depth chart and won't be sweating a competition for a starting job -- obviously beginning with a quarterback who has finished in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy voting two years running. But who will back up Braxton Miller is just one of the most intriguing positional battles that will be waged in March and April, and that's where this week's countdown begins as we look at the candidates for some critical gigs for a team with its sights set on winning it all come fall.

[+] EnlargeKenny Guiton
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsBackup quarterback Kenny Guiton was the ultimate security blanket the past two seasons. Will Cardale Jones or J.T. Barrett earn that spot in 2014?
No. 5: Backup quarterback

  • Predecessor: Kenny Guiton (75 for 109, 749 yards, 14 touchdowns, two interceptions; 40 carries for 330 yards and five TDs)
  • Candidates: Redshirt sophomore Cardale Jones and redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett
  • Why to watch: Given the amount of hits Miller takes and the number of times he's been forced out of games even briefly due to injury, there's no question that having a security blanket behind him is crucial for the Buckeyes. Nobody made Meyer feel cozier than Guiton over the last two seasons, and he became something of a legend for his uncanny ability to keep the offense rolling along when Miller was forced out of the lineup. Ohio State is unlikely to get the same level of maturity and leadership the fifth-year senior provided from two guys with such limited experience, but it will need to quickly identify whether it's Jones or Barrett who has the best chance to duplicate Guiton's on-field success off the bench.
  • Pre-camp edge: The Buckeyes made a point of getting Jones some significant reps during spring ball a year ago, and he was then given a couple opportunities to show what he could do in a live setting by appearing in three games last season. There's not much to be learned about his ability throwing the football with just two passes on his resume, but Jones showed how dangerous he can be running it with 17 carries for 128 yards and a touchdown. Even that small amount of experience and the time he's had to absorb the playbook should give him a head start in March, but Barrett certainly can't be ruled out after arriving on campus and instantly impressing the coaching staff with his grasp of the system and devotion to learning his craft.

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