NCF Nation: Ohio State Buckeyes

We have a hard enough time predicting what's going to happen in the games in the fall -- you've seen our picks records, right? So trying to forecast what's going to happen in spring practice -- not a game, we're talking 'bout practice -- seems especially futile.

But let's be bold. Here are 10 predictions for spring practice in the Big Ten:

1. Cardale Jones takes command: You might remember Jones from such previous performances as "Whipping Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game," "Mauling Alabama in the Sugar Bowl" and "Beating Oregon for the national championship." Now he'll be the headliner in Ohio State's star-studded quarterback battle as the only one of the three who will be healthy enough to participate fully in drills. Expect Jones to have a big spring and take the lead in the race, though J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller will have their say this summer.

2. Tommy Armstrong Jr. leads in Lincoln: Nebraska's starting quarterback will have to prove himself all over again to a new coaching staff. But while Johnny Stanton and, to a lesser extent, Ryker Fyfe have their supporters among the Big Red fan base, Armstrong's superior leadership skills and experience will ensure that he's the man for Mike Riley this spring.

3. Penn State finds some answers on the offensive line: The Nittany Lions can't possibly be as bad up front as they were last year, and now they have a lot more options. Junior college transfer Paris Palmer will win the right tackle job and Andrew Nelson will take a step forward in a move to left tackle. Throw in some promising youngsters, and QB Christian Hackenberg will be feeling more secure heading into this fall.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsC.J. Beathard enters spring as the starting quarterback at Iowa.
4. C.J. Beathard wins Iowa's quarterback competition: Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz wouldn't abandon a two-year starter like Jake Rudock lightly. But Beathard seemed to give the entire offense a spark when he entered games last season, and the Hawkeyes could sure use some energy on that side of the ball. Ferentz surprisingly listed Beathard as the No. 1 quarterback on a rare January depth chart, so he's obviously serious about a possible change.

5. Joel Stave faces serious heat for his job at Wisconsin: Stave has a 20-6 career record as a starter, something few Big Ten quarterbacks can match. Yet, like Iowa, the Badgers need a jolt in their passing game. Either redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins or true freshman Austin Kafentzis will make this a real competition this spring, leaving the starting job up for grabs in fall camp.

6. Minnesota's receivers provide optimism: The passing games at Wisconsin and Iowa are prolific compared to the Gophers, largely because Minnesota has lacked playmaking wideouts the past few years. But Minnesota will emerge from the spring feeling much better about its options at the position as some redshirt freshmen make plays. Two names to watch: Isaiah Gentry and Jerry Gibson.

7. Hayden Rettig has a big spring for Rutgers: Chris Laviano has an edge in experience in the Scarlet Knights' quarterback competition, but Rettig has the pedigree. A former four-star recruit who transferred from LSU, Rettig's big arm will make a large impression this spring.

8. Indiana doesn't miss Tevin Coleman ... too much: Coleman put up the best rushing season in the Hoosiers' history, but his absence won't create a crater this spring. That's because UAB transfer Jordan Howard will step in and immediately replace most of that production. He might not match Coleman's pure explosiveness, but the offense won't suffer too much.

9. New defensive stars emerge at Michigan State: This happens every spring. Even with Pat Narduzzi gone, the Spartan Dawgs will remain strong behind new co-defensive coordinators Mike Tressel and Harlon Barnett. And they've always got a wave of players ready to step in for departed leaders. Some names to watch include Demetrious Cox, Malik McDowell, Riley Bullough, Montae Nicholson and Darian Hicks.

10. A couple of quarterbacks transfer: This has become a trend in college football -- a quarterback can be quick to bolt when he finds out he won't be the starter. Keep an eye on places where there are a lot of candidates bunched together, such as Purdue (Austin Appleby, Danny Etling, David Blough) or where the two-man competition is heated, such as Iowa. And, of course, Ohio State remains on high alert. But it's almost inevitable that there will be some quarterback transfers in the summer.
The opening of spring practice around the Big Ten brings competition to each of the league’s 14 programs. Departing top players and the maturation of others lead to fights for practice reps that will help shape depth charts and summer conversation topics.

At Ohio State, the nation’s most prominent position battle looks set to be waged at quarterback upon the return from injury of Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett. This spring, the spotlight belongs to Cardale Jones.

So which position battles require close attention over the next few weeks?

Michigan quarterbacks: It’s wide-open, with junior Shane Morris, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and true freshman Alex Malzone auditioning for Jim Harbaugh and coordinator Tim Drevno. Speight owns a size advantage. Morris has played in parts of the past two seasons, but was ineffective in place of Devin Gardner. The spring serves only as an appetizer in this race, which figures to extend to August, when freshman Zach Gentry joins the fun.

Minnesota running backs: David Cobb meant so much to the Gophers over the past two seasons as they rolled to 16 wins. Minnesota likely can’t replace his production with one back, though redshirt freshman Jeff Jones -- a homegrown, elite recruit from the Class of 2013 -- looks physically equipped to give it a shot. Senior Rodrick Williams Jr. (who showed flashes late in the year), sophomore Berkley Edwards and redshirt freshman Rodney Smith will likely also factor in the battle for the top job.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Beathard
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsJunior C.J. Beathard is in a battle with senior Jake Rudock to quarterback the Hawkeyes.
Iowa quarterbacks: Junior C.J. Beathard dodged rumors of a transfer in December and senior Jake Rudock did the same recently. Both remain in Iowa City, ready to resume the battle that ended in a bowl defeat against Tennessee with Beathard in charge of the offense. Soon after, the Hawkeyes placed him atop the depth chart. But any edge over Rudock, a 25-game starter over the past two seasons, is small and could disappear quickly this spring.

Ohio State cornerbacks: Opposite Eli Apple, the Buckeyes must replace Doran Grant. It’s no easy task, considering Grant’s value to the Ohio State defense during its national title run. But sophomores Gareon Conley and Damon Webb look up to the task. Conley played considerably more last season after a redshirt year that followed his arrival in Columbus as the No. 1 prospect in Ohio in 2013. Webb, the top prospect out of Michigan a year later, figures to make a jump after limited action last year.

Penn State offensive tackles: The urgency here outweighs the options, and the Nittany Lions have plenty of candidates to replace Donovan Smith, gone early to the NFL. Andrew Nelson started as a freshman at right tackle and may take over on the left side. Opposite Nelson, the race is on, with redshirt freshmen Noah Beh, Brendan Brosnan, Chance Sorrell and Chasz Wright set to enter the mix. Newcomer Paris Palmer, a junior, may be the man to beat, though. True freshman Sterling Jenkins joined the program in January.

Purdue quarterbacks: Juniors Austin Appleby and Danny Etling bring considerable starting experience into the spring. Redshirt freshman David Blough, who came to Purdue with credentials equally as impressive as the other two, has yet to take a collegiate snap. But for the Boilermakers, who’ve won just one Big Ten game behind the elder quarterbacks over the past two seasons, it’s all hands on deck.

Nebraska I-backs: This is a legitimate four-man race to replace three-time 1,000-yard rusher Ameer Abdullah. Senior Imani Cross has the size and experience, with 22 career touchdowns. Junior Terrell Newby is a quicker option with skills perhaps well suited to Mike Riley’s offense. Sophomore Adam Taylor offers an impressive mix of power and speed but missed last season with a knee injury. Redshirt freshman Mikale Wilbon showed promise last year in scout-team duty.

Michigan safeties: The Wolverines have a lot back at safety, including surefire starter Jarrod Wilson. But competition for the other spot may grow fierce between the likes of senior Jeremy Clark and juniors Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas. Most intriguing, Jabrill Peppers, after injuries shortened his much-hyped true freshman season, has taken spring snaps at safety. Michigan coaches continue to audition defensive backs, so it may take much of the spring to sort out who is vying for specific spots.

Rutgers running backs: If healthy, rising senior Paul James has earned the top spot. But James needed knee surgery last fall and has battled other injuries. He’s out this spring, leaving a glut of young backs to fight for time. Sophomore Robert Martin finished last season on a strong note, but not as well as classmate Josh Hicks, who gashed North Carolina for 202 yards in the Quick Lane Bowl. Juniors Justin Goodwin and Desmon Peoples, who led the Scarlet Knights in rushing last season, add flavor to this competition.

Northwestern quarterbacks: Senior Zack Oliver is the man with the most experience as the Wildcats prepare to replace Trevor Siemian. But Oliver’s late-season turnover trouble helped open this race up for sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson. Each of the three brings a different set of skills, so a decision would help simplify matters as the season nears.
Spring is springing in the Big Ten. Michigan and Northwestern have already hit the practice field, Minnesota, Maryland and Nebraska join them this week and the rest will follow soon.

With spring in the air, we've got some burning questions about the league during this season of practice and hope:

1. Who's going to win the Ohio State quarterback race? This is a question destined to not return an answer this spring. That's because only Cardale Jones will be healthy enough to go through full spring drills. J.T. Barrett will do some light seven-on-seven stuff as he recovers from a broken ankle, while Braxton Miller won't be cleared to throw with his medically repaired shoulder until at least May. So Jones has a chance to gain an early edge in perhaps the most interesting quarterback battle of all time. Can he seize it?

2. How quickly does Jim Harbaugh remake Michigan's culture? Expecting an overnight turnaround in Ann Arbor is unfair and unrealistic, even with Harbaugh's sterling track record. The Wolverines need to find answers at quarterback, running back and receiver, but the more pressing issue is simply developing more toughness than they showed throughout much of the Brady Hoke era. How quickly Michigan adapts to Harbaugh's ways will determine how fast this rebuilding effort will go, and Harbaugh let the message be known last week.

3. What will Nebraska look like under Mike Riley? Huskers athletic director Shawn Eichorst surprised the college football world by hiring Riley away from Oregon State. Riley couldn't possibly be more different, personality-wise, from previous Nebraska coach Bo Pelini. But what does that mean in how Big Red looks on the field? Riley has been known for running a pro-style offense, though he says he'll design the offense around the strength of his players. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. will need to fend off challenges to his job this spring. The Huskers seemed to take on the volatile traits of Pelini during his tenure; can they now mirror Riley's straight-forward, low-key approach?

4. Who'll win the quarterback job at Iowa, Northwestern, Rutgers and Purdue? Who starts under center will be the dominant story line at all four places this spring. At Iowa, head coach Kirk Ferentz will let C.J. Beathard battle incumbent two-year starter Jake Rudock. Northwestern has a three-man scrum, with Zack Oliver, Matt Alviti and Clayton Thorson fighting to replace Trevor Siemien. Chris Laviano and LSU transfer Hayden Rettig are the main candidates to succeed Gary Nova at Rutgers. And Purdue will open things up once again between Austin Appleby, Danny Etling and David Blough. These competitions could all last until fall camp but will be heavily scrutinized in March and April.

5. How does Michigan State replace its stars? Under Mark Dantonio, the Spartans have usually just moved on to the next guy when a star leaves. But Michigan State, which could be ranked in the top 10 in the preseason, still has to replace some of the most productive players in recent program history, including running back Jeremy Langford, receiver Tony Lippett, cornerback Trae Waynes, defensive end Marcus Rush and safety Kurtis Drummond. We'll get to see this spring just how well those holes can be filled.

6. Can Penn State fix its offensive line? Christian Hackenberg's bruises from last year might just now be healing, as the Nittany Lions' offensive line was one of the worst in the country in 2014. The best player on that line, left tackle Donovan Smith, left for the NFL, and starting guard Miles Dieffenbach also is gone. Yet there's hope for improvement, thanks to incoming juice transfer Paris Palmer, true freshman Sterling Jenkins and some young players who redshirted. Penn State must begin to find the right mix and build cohesion there this spring.

[+] EnlargeJoel Stave
Mike McGinnis/Getty ImagesJoel Stave will be fighting for the top spot as Wisconsin looks for a starting quarterback.
7. Can Paul Chryst work magic at the quarterback position for Wisconsin? The Badgers have been a consistent Big Ten title contender for the past several years, but the quarterback position has been lacking since Russell Wilson completed his one year in Madison. New head coach/old offensive coordinator Chryst could help rectify that situation, whether it's by building on the skills of veteran Joel Stave or going young with a fresh face such as D.J. Gillins or Austin Kafentzis. Wisconsin will need much better play at that position before opening 2015 against Alabama.

8. Does Minnesota have any receivers? Jerry Kill and his staff think they can improve one of the biggest problem positions in recent years for the Gophers. Redshirt freshmen Isaiah Gentry, Melvin Holland Jr. and Desmond Gant are full of promise. They need to start fulfilling it this spring, because the security blanket of tight end Maxx Williams is gone.
9. Can changes help the defenses at Illinois and Maryland? If the Illini are going to build some momentum after last season's bowl appearance, their leaky defense must improve. Tim Beckman hired former NFL assistant Mike Phair as co-defensive coordinator this offseason, and job No. 1 is figuring out a way to stop the run, which Illinois hasn't been able to do for a few years. Maryland parted ways with defensive coordinator Brian Stewart a little more than a year after giving him a contract extension and elevated inside linebackers coach Keith Dudzinski to the role. The Terps will also switch to a 4-3 base and hope to right a defense that rarely dominated in 2014.

10. Where's the next wave of running back stars? Last season saw an unprecedented amount of production from elite running backs, including Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, Indiana's Tevin Coleman, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah, Minnesota's David Cobb and Langford. All of those guys are gone, but budding superstars such as Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Wisconsin's Corey Clement and Northwestern's Justin Jackson remain. In a league that churns out tailback talent, plenty of new names are sure to emerge as well.

The real reason Urban Meyer was stuck at sea?

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
The official story is that Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was stuck at sea because a thick fog kept the Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas from returning to port in Tampa, Florida. Meyer was on the annual Buckeye Cruise for Cancer, a major fundraiser to benefit the Urban & Shelley Meyer Fund for cancer research and The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center. So instead of docking on Monday, they returned on Tuesday.

But maybe there was a little more to it than just the fog.

Ranking the Big Ten coaching jobs

February, 25, 2015
Feb 25
AM ET this week ranked the Power 5 college football coaching jobs, from No. 1 to 65. While those national takes on the Big Ten hit the mark, we'll offer a few minor changes in our Big Ten rankings, No. 1 through 14, of the league seats.

1. Ohio State
Is there really any doubt? The national championship is difficult to overlook. There’s no better job in the Big Ten -- both historically, though Michigan might argue, and in the current climate.

2. Michigan
The Wolverines deserve real consideration for a spot in the top 10 nationally. With more wins than any program in college football history and the second-highest winning percentage to Notre Dame, this is a truly special job. Just ask Jim Harbaugh.

3. Penn State
Resources galore. PSU may feature the best combination in the league of location, fan support and tradition. And the urgency to win is real, an important factor in comparison to other Big Ten programs striving for the top.

4. Nebraska
Some natural disadvantages exist, yes, but no school in the Big Ten creates unity and provokes passion among its fan base like the Huskers. This is not Tom Osborne’s Nebraska, but it’s still a top job with elite institutional support.

5. Michigan State
Natural competition with Michigan and Ohio State works for the Spartans in setting a high standard -- and works against MSU in that it may never be viewed, by comparison, as a true blue blood in the sport. Still, who cares about that if you’re in the discussion for a national title?

6. Wisconsin
While the Badgers don’t have the history of the Big Ten’s other top programs, and the resources in recruiting don't ever figure to stack up with a few competitors, Wisconsin wins and produces championship-caliber competitors.

7. Maryland
The Terrapins sit a ways back from the top tier of the league in many areas. But few can compare with Maryland’s recruiting ground and built-in support system courtesy of Under Armour.

8. Iowa
The Hawkeyes compensate their coach well: Kirk Ferentz had one of the top 10 salaries in the country in 2014. And they have a strong tradition. They are the biggest show in the state, but convincing talented players to come to Iowa City remains a challenge.

9. Minnesota
Minnesota has made an effort in the past few years to upgrade facilities and invest more in resources like nutrition and player support. The results are starting to show. While the local talent might be lacking, Minneapolis is one of the more attractive cities in the Big Ten.

10. Illinois
The Illini fall slightly behind Minnesota on our list because of location. Illinois coaches have had trouble consistently getting talent from Chicago to join them in the middle of the state. The focus remains more on basketball in Champaign.

11. Rutgers
One of the Big Ten’s newcomers is making strides toward matching some of the bigger schools in the conference, but the Scarlet Knights still have a ways to go before they can get out of catch-up mode.

12. Northwestern
Stringent academic requirements and a small, private campus are obstacles for any coach at Northwestern. A new facility on the edge of Lake Michigan should help the Wildcats when it is eventually completed.

13. Indiana
Football interest wanes quickly for the Hoosiers when basketball gets started in the late fall. The resources aren’t there, which makes it difficult to survive the improving gauntlet of the Big Ten East on a yearly basis.

14. Purdue
Purdue is Indiana without the added benefit of Bloomington, a great college town. Ross-Ade Stadium could use a face-lift, and West Lafayette lacks the charm of other campuses in the conference.
Take solace, Ohio State fans, in knowing that coach Urban Meyer, while stranded at sea, can enjoy the nine-story central atrium of Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas, the Solarium pool or perhaps take a shot at the rock-climbing wall.

Meyer is among 2,500 passengers, according to the Columbus Dispatch, who are stuck outside the Port of Tampa as dense fog delays the end of their cruise vacation.

“We are good. No worries,” Meyer wrote in a text to the newspaper.

The Florida fog is part of the same weather pattern that has brought unseasonable cold to much of the United States over the past week.

Meyer participated in the annual Buckeye Cruise for Cancer, a fundraiser for the Urban & Shelley Meyer Fund for Cancer Research. Meyer said in his text to The Dispatch that they raised “upward of $2 million” for the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Meyer’s late father, Bud Meyer, was a bladder cancer survivor. His mother, Gisela Meyer, and Shelley Meyer’s stepmother, Marlene Mather, battled breast cancer.

The vessel is among more than a dozen, according to this report, kept at bay out of safety concerns voiced by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Many former players are aboard the Royal Caribbean ship, which was due back in Tampa on Monday.

Dustin Fox, an ex-Ohio State defensive back who works as a radio host in Cleveland, posted a photo to Instagram of the ship’s circuitous route in the Gulf of Mexico over the past two days.

This has been our path for the last 36 hours. #stuckatsea

A photo posted by Dustin Fox (@dustinfox37) on


The fog is forecasted to lift Tuesday night, clearing a path for the ship’s return to port.

Meanwhile, Michigan is opening spring practice. We’ll let the Wolverines craft the proper response for that contrast.
Injuries have a tendency to make players disappear, especially when their stand-ins sparkle. It has been the case for Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, who has won seven Big Ten individual awards in his career yet finds himself as somewhat of a forgotten man.

Buckeyes fans are still giddy about the national championship, secured in large part because of Cardale Jones, the third-string quarterback who stepped up under the brightest of lights. Ohio State wouldn't have had a chance for a title run without J.T. Barrett, a redshirt freshman who started all 12 regular-season games and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting.

Miller always was loud with his play but incredibly quiet off of the field. That he hasn't addressed the media since re-injuring his throwing shoulder in August underscores his introverted nature. Speculation about transfers to Oregon, Florida State and everywhere in between has bubbled up, as has some buzz about a possible position switch.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller, Ohio State
Jeff Haynes/AP ImagesBraxton Miller still has designs on picking up where he left off for the Buckeyes.
But for now, Miller is at Ohio State, working his way back from injury as a quarterback. According to quarterback coach George Whitfield, who has worked with Miller during his career, Miller has every intention of reclaiming his starting job.

From The Blade's David Briggs:
In a wide-ranging interview at the combine on Thursday, Whitfield refuted speculation Miller entertained transferring from Ohio State, said the two-time Big Ten MVP has no plans to switch positions and expressed excitement at the pace of the quarterback’s recovery from a torn labrum.

Miller recently began throwing a football for the first time since undergoing surgery in August. Twice a week, he sends Whitfield video of his throwing sessions, which have advanced to include long toss.

Asked if Miller would be full strength by the start of fall camp in August — a timetable widely considered ambitious — Whitfield said, "Oh, yeah, that’s very realistic. When the summer hits and those guys begin summer workouts [in June], he'll be 100 percent."

Whitfield had high praise for Miller, telling Briggs that while Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are standouts in their own right, Miller is a "super hero."

Miller played the role of superman for much of the 2012 and 2013 seasons, making big plays happen with his feet and his arms. He got some help from running back Carlos Hyde and others, but was unquestionably the driver of the offense. It likely won't be the case in 2015 as Ohio State returns standout running back Ezekiel Elliott and a deeper corps of receivers than Miller ever had at his disposal.

It will be interesting to see how Miller works with this new, evolved Buckeyes offense, one that asks a lot from its quarterback, but not everything. Whitfield is convinced Miller would/will shine.

From The Blade:
Had Braxton played and ... you saw the development of the running game and you saw the young receivers like Mike Thomas and Devin Smith. You saw what the defense was able to do. You saw that [offensive coordinator] Tom Herman was on a heater this year and coach [Urban] Meyer was just masterful in how they approached each team. You have a veteran like Braxton, a two-time player of the year, he can draw from all that veteran experience, I mean, they would have been looking for the Roman Army to take on if he’d been leading them.

It's such a fascinating dynamic at Ohio State as Jones, the only healthy quarterback in spring practice, seemingly would have an edge over the others. But Barrett showed during the season that he's capable of doing big things, and Miller, the best athlete of the three, has a track record that should never be discounted.

If Miller is the same athlete who has evolved in other areas, he'll be tough to beat out.
The Ultimate ESPN 300 list is loaded with intriguing stories. From unheralded players rising to the top to players not yet reaching their potential, the list has everything. To outline a few of those intriguing players, here is a look at the top five within the Big Ten:

Many believe ESPN Junior 300 defensive Nick Bosa will be an even better college football player than his brother. That’s saying a lot because his brother is Joey Bosa, star defensive lineman for national champion Ohio State and one of the top projected picks for the 2016 NFL draft.

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There's obviously no reason to worry about having enough talent on hand.

To be sure, all Tim Beck has to do is count the individual honors piled up by the guys in his new meeting room at Ohio State or pop in game tape of any of his top three options.

[+] EnlargeTim Beck
AP Photo/Nati HarnikOhio State quarterbacks coach Tim Beck, who is coming from Nebraska, is getting to know his talented trio on a personal level.
There's no incentive to rush out a pecking order, either. For starters, Beck will have only one of the three trophy-winning passers completely healthy for spring practice while the other two heal from injuries ahead of what could be a monumental battle in training camp in August.

For now, the pressure to evaluate and oversee a three-headed monster in his new role as Ohio State's quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator is mostly off, leaving Beck time to get to know the trio of Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller as something other than the potential centerpiece of a dominant offense and a defense of a national championship.

"Right now I'm trying to meet them more as people, not as position, depth-chart type guys," Beck said. "Try to get to know them, let them get to know me.

"We're in a unique position. No. 1, I'm replacing a great guy [in Tom Herman]. He did an outstanding job here and I'm coming in here and have to bond with three super young men -- really, more than that. ... But I've got to bond with all those guys in that room. Before I could really coach them and reach them, I've got to get to know them."

Of course, Beck is already aware of what they can do on the football field, which is really no secret to anybody in college football given the résumés they have built with the Buckeyes.

Miller's dynamic rushing ability and pair of Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Awards, Barrett's accuracy and record-setting 45 total touchdowns last season, and Jones' rocket arm and fairy-tale postseason run have been well-documented, and Beck didn't need a refresher course after coming over from Nebraska after the season.

It also didn't take long for him to figure out how much attention will be paid to him and the high-profile competition that will decide who will lead the Ohio State attack moving forward. At the moment, though, there's really not much that can be sorted out until Miller's surgically repaired shoulder allows him to throw again and the ankle Barrett broke in the regular-season finale against Michigan heals enough to enable him to run without limitations.

That leaves only Jones among that decorated group to take the first-team reps when practice resumes for the Buckeyes next month. And while that doesn't assure him of anything in the long run, odds are it won't hurt to have the first chance to make an impression on his new position coach, even while Beck and the rest of the staff take their time before making a decision.

"I think that one thing is they've all got a lot of game experience under their belt," Beck said. "Both Braxton, J.T., those guys, they've played a lot of ballgames, took a lot of snaps. You could just put the film on and have the opportunity to evaluate those guys a little bit -- and even, really, Cardale has played a fair amount.

"But there's still growth in all of those guys, there's no question."

There's certainly nothing wrong with the production each of them has already provided, and there is no shortage of evidence on hand to remind Beck just how much talent he's inheriting with the Buckeyes.

The key to Ohio State's success at quarterback the past few seasons, though, was finding the right way to balance it all while keeping the whole group both prepared and on the same page. That process starts with relationships before getting into fundamentals or reading coverages, and at this point that's where Beck is keeping his focus.

"It's an interesting group," he said. "The little bit I've been around them, they're great young men, hardworking. There's a tremendous bond among all three of them, which is a great tribute to Tom, what he was able to put together. They compete hard, because they want to win and they want to play, but they also help each other.

"I'm excited to get a chance to get to know the guys and look forward to seeing really what develops. I don't know, this is kind of a good problem to probably have right now, isn't it?"

It's probably the envy of every quarterbacks coach in the nation, and one more reason Beck has nothing to complain about in his new gig.

Quarterback Kyler Murray grabbed all of the headlines at Allen (Texas) High School over the past few seasons, but it’s actually junior offensive tackle Greg Little who is a higher-ranked prospect.

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The relative lack of depth and the loss of a pair of starters doesn’t necessarily make the Ohio State defensive line a weakness.

After all, no position group with a foundation that starts with arguably the nation’s most feared pass-rusher and a defensive tackle who could have been an early-round draft pick had he left school early is going to be considered a pushover.

But on such a loaded roster with numerous positions overflowing with talent, it’s certainly fair to focus on the defensive line as the area with the most room for improvement heading into spring practice next month. And if comparisons of strength don’t really apply for Ohio State at this point, if nothing else the defensive line certainly looks like the unit with the most opportunity for new faces to contribute as the program starts gearing up to defend its national title.

[+] EnlargeJashon Cornell
Miller Safrit/ESPNJashon Cornell could make a push for playing time with Ohio State losing two starters on its defensive line.
“The defensive line is always going to be a priority here at Ohio State,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “Really, any successful program, if you’re going to be any good you have to have a plethora of offensive and defensive linemen. We were losing some guys, we’re going to lose some guys next year, and we needed to make sure that we replaced them in this year’s class.

“Getting not only quality but quantity was really important for us on the defensive line.”

The Buckeyes landed both last week on signing day, loading up in the trenches as part of a class that ranked No. 6 overall thanks in large part to the influx of linemen who could quickly become part of the rotation.

The loss of seniors Michael Bennett and Steve Miller up front makes the defensive line the only position group that must replace more than one starter, which is both part of the reason Ohio State is already establishing itself as a preseason No. 1 and why the position will likely spend the next few months facing scrutiny as maybe the only uncertainty for a team stocked with established contributors.

And while contributing right away in the trenches can be a tall order for true freshmen, the Buckeyes weren’t exactly targeting long-term projects when they put together a class of five linemen, including a pair of ESPN 300 selections. And with touted defensive end Jashon Cornell already on campus, the timetable for him in particular to contribute might be moved up even more as he potentially fills a void left not only by Miller, but in some ways former standout Noah Spence, as well.

“The players we recruit here at Ohio State, we recruit them for a reason,” Ash said. “They’re really good players, and if you’re a really good player, hopefully you’re going to have a chance to play early, regardless of the position. It’s probably a little bit harder at the defensive line position just because of the physical size and strength that those guys have.

“Those are really more developmental guys unless they’re really an elite player like a Joey Bosa coming out of high school.”

The Buckeyes still have that guy on the roster, and as long as Bosa is around it’s a relatively safe bet that there will be a fierce pass rush. With Adolphus Washington continuing to emerge as a force next to him on the interior, Ohio State doesn’t exactly have much reason to panic about the unit next fall thanks to those stout building blocks.

But even on the way to the title, the Buckeyes didn’t appear as deep as they would have liked up front and seemed unable at times to rotate snaps and keep the first-stringers as fresh as they planned. And if they’re going to do it this year, odds are they’re going to need some fresh faces to be involved -- before the pressure really mounts at this time next year with Washington out of eligibility and Bosa most likely heading to the NFL.

“We’re recruiting at a high level,” Ash said. “We are recruiting players that come in and help the program early. Can they all do that? I don’t know.

“We’ll find out when they get on campus.”

Once they arrive, the newcomers will find plenty of opportunity. Just don’t mistake that for being a weakness.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The sales pitch about developing players for the next level has long been a staple of the Urban Meyer playbook. It appears to work just as well on coaches.

On both fronts, the Ohio State coach has plenty of evidence that supports his claims he can develop anybody on the football field to get them ready for the next step. And if that wasn't already clear with the players on the turf and in pads, his recent run of molding the guys on the sideline and in caps is making the Buckeyes every bit as appealing for aspiring assistants as Meyer keeps his machine humming along.

[+] EnlargeTony Alford
Jeanine Leech/Icon SportswireTony Alford made the leap from Notre Dame to Ohio State with his long-term future in mind.
Now three seasons into his tenure with the program, Meyer has sent two coordinators off to run their own programs and groomed two assistants for jobs in the NFL, and his track record and rapidly expanding coaching tree seemingly helped make up the mind of yet another highly regarded position coach and recruiter over the weekend. And with Tony Alford already working at a prestigious program like Notre Dame, the fact he would leave that post to take over the running backs for Meyer speaks volumes about just how much momentum the Buckeyes have in virtually every aspect coming off their national title.

“This isn’t a move for today, this is a move where I’ve tried to calculate five years out,” Alford told Irish Illustrated. “There’s forward thinking here, where it could potentially propel me to.”

Maybe Alford still could have reached that level with the Irish, and there were certainly other factors at play with his decision, starting with his familiarity with Meyer dating back to his playing days at Colorado State.

But it's not hard to see the trend emerging with Meyer's staff at Ohio State -- which is following a pattern he established at Florida and to some extent Utah before that -- of making sure his coaches develop professionally for their next jobs, just like turning college players into NFL draft picks.

Tom Herman parlayed his three years under Meyer into the top job at Houston, following in the footsteps of former co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers, who took over at James Madison last year. After two seasons with Meyer , Mike Vrabel made the jump from a position coach at his alma mater to the Houston Texans. Last week, Drayton made a similar move, working down to the wire to recruit running back Mike Weber and then taking a job with the Chicago Bears.

Alford may have some fences to mend with Weber given the unfortunate timing of Drayton's departure, but thanks to his role as the recruiting coordinator for the Irish, a previous relationship with the touted tailback should work in his favor as he settles into his new job. And given how quickly Ohio State was able to hire Alford, the opportunity to work with Weber and a preseason Heisman contender like Ezekiel Elliott probably was every bit as enticing as working under Meyer.

But regardless of his motivations, Alford's willingness to join the Buckeyes is yet another indication of just how hot their brand is at the moment, and not just with recruits. Meyer has been increasingly fond of highlighting the difference between theory and testimony, and the number of assistants that can vouch for the latter with his approach to grooming coaches continues to grow.

"When you recruit these players you’re telling them it’s not a four-year decision, it’s a 40-year decision," Alford told Irish Illustrated. "But what you’re really talking about is the concept in life that you have to get out of your comfort zone to grow.

"This is a leap of faith, one I feel I need to make for my professional development."

Typically that first leap to Meyer leads to another down the road to a higher level, and coaches appear to have noticed that just as much as players.
The ceaseless debate over conference strength waged here and in other forums ultimately centers on one question: How many teams in League X are capable of winning a national championship in Season Y?

The Big Ten entered the 2014 season with what many believed were two capable candidates: Michigan State and Ohio State. Although Wisconsin and Nebraska also appeared in the preseason Top 25 polls, the Badgers and Huskers were fringe contenders to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff.

It turned out both Michigan State and Ohio State were worthy of contender status. Ohio State won the national title; Michigan State won the Cotton Bowl and recorded its second consecutive top-5 finish.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer and Ezekiel Elliott
Darren Carroll for ESPNBig seasons by Ohio State and Michigan State brought respect to the Big Ten, but the conference needs more than two teams capable of winning the national championship.
No single accomplishment helps conference perception like a national title. After all the mud slung the Big Ten's way for the better part of a decade, Ohio State showed that the laughed-at league was, in fact, capable of having the last laugh. There is a residual from ending the season with the shiny trophy, and the Big Ten is enjoying one right now.

But how long does it last?

Some will say the good vibes ended today as colleague Mark Schlabach produced his latest way-too-early Top 25 for the 2015 season. Ohio State leads off at No. 1, and Michigan State appears at No. 7. Only one other Big Ten team makes the rundown: Wisconsin at No. 17.

Schlabach's Top 25 includes four SEC teams in the top-14 and eight overall. The Pac-12 has three teams in the top nine and five in the top 20. Even the ACC has more Top 25 teams (four) than the Big Ten.

Longtime Big Ten blog readers know how much I love to needle Schlabach for his regional, uh, preferences. The memory of him shivering outside Spartan Stadium on a balmy 42-degree October day a few years back warms my heart. Thin Southern blood, y'all.

But I have no problem with his rankings. The Big Ten remains a top-heavy league looking to build sustained depth. Schlabach's list isn't dramatically different from where the preseason polls had the Big Ten in August.

Ohio State should be No. 1 after its dominant Playoff performance and with possibly an even better team coming back. Michigan State's march into the national elite, along with the return of quarterback Connor Cook, merits a place in the top-8. Wisconsin's run of very good, not quite great, has withstood one shocking coaching change. It can withstand another, especially with a coach (Paul Chryst) who knows the landscape and can fix the program's primary hindrance (the passing game).

After those three teams, though, I can't make a strong case for more Big Ten Top 25 representation.

Minnesota is on the borderline. The defense once again should be solid, possibly more than solid. But the passing game remains a huge unknown, especially with tight end Maxx Williams gone. The Gophers have taken significant steps under Jerry Kill, but of their 16 wins the past two seasons, only five came against teams that finished with winning records. They also have yet to win a bowl game under Kill. There is more to prove.

This is the point where Nebraska fans have to catch their breath after screaming, "What about us?!" There are things to like about the Huskers' roster, as well as Mike Riley's ability to develop quarterbacks and wide receivers. But Nebraska lost its best offensive player (Ameer Abdullah) and best defender (Randy Gregory). Add in a coaching change and this isn't a Top 25 team -- yet.

Neither is Penn State, although if the Lions can figure out how to keep quarterback Christian Hackenberg upright, they could soon enter the national rankings.

So what does this mean for the Big Ten? The league is no longer the scourge of college football. Ohio State and Michigan State are considered elite programs by anyone who matters. But league-wide respect likely remains in short supply.

It goes back to the central question: How many Big Ten teams are capable of winning it all in a given season?

Ohio State should be capable every year under Urban Meyer. Michigan State should be in most years under Mark Dantonio. Wisconsin could rise to that level, but hasn't quite gotten there in recent years. Penn State and Nebraska? History is on their side and both programs are recruiting well, but both must clear some hurdles. Kirk Ferentz's Iowa teams have shown elite-level capability at times, but the program needs to regain momentum.

Few doubt Michigan's capability as a championship contender. The history and resources are there, and Michigan seemingly has the the coach in Jim Harbaugh to facilitate a rise. But the Wolverines haven't been a national player since the 2006 season. Opposing coaches are conflicted about how much talent is in the program right now. Is Michigan fast-track-able? We'll soon find out.

TCU showed last season that a team nowhere near the Playoff radar in August can be in the mix for a spot in early December. Does the Big Ten have such a team in 2015?

Winning a national title was huge for this league, but the macro challenge hasn't changed. The Big Ten needs more Playoff-worthy depth so the league isn't pinning its hopes on one or two teams every year. The SEC pulled off its historic run with four different championship teams, and several others with win-it-all capability.

An Ohio State title defense in 2015 will resonate much more for the Buckeyes than the Big Ten. Ohio State fans might disagree, but the Big Ten's path to national respect isn't simply the I-270 "Outerbelt" that circles Columbus.

The route must include other cities in other states and ultimately lead back to Glendale, Arizona, where college football's next national champion will be crowned.

Teams trending up post-signing day 

February, 9, 2015
Feb 9
Who needs the NFL, Los Angeles? With the way USC and UCLA are going, the city is just fine when it comes to football.

The Trojans and Bruins lead our look at programs trending up following the end of the season, the coaching carousel and signing day.

1. USC
The Trojans just signed their first full recruiting class since 2011, when they were hit by NCAA penalties. Finishing behind only Alabama and Florida State in ESPN RecruitingNation's rankings, it wasn’t just a matter of quantity for USC. Among the 16 ESPN 300 prospects signed, it added the country’s No. 1 cornerback, running back and inside linebacker. The Trojans are stockpiling at this point.

Beyond recruiting, quarterback Cody Kessler -- the country’s most underrated passer -- is back. So are sophomore stars-in-the-making cornerback Adoree' Jackson and wide receiver JuJu Smith.

Pac-12 coaches always believed the Trojans had as much talent as anyone in the country, not just the league. With the numbers bouncing back, now they have the depth to counter any rash of injuries.

Given all that, and the Holiday Bowl win against Nebraska, this is why a number of people -- myself, included -- see USC as a playoff-type team in 2015. The talent is there. Can Steve Sarkisian coach the Trojans to that level?

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