After a disappointing ending to a great season, Ohio State already has next year on their minds. With the start of spring practices only two and a half months away the Buckeyes are eager to get started.
In particular, seven early enrollees and a whopping 19 players coming off redshirt seasons are ready to prove they belong on the field in crunch time.
While last year's highly-touted freshman class and early enrollees in particular were expected to compete for playing time right away, only one of the six early enrollees saw time at all and 15 of the 23 freshmen redshirted.
This year feels different though. With the exception of Eli Apple and Cam Burrows, none of last year's early enrollees were expected to contribute right away. The 2014 class however, has multiple players capable of competing for a spot in the two-deep, and maybe even start.
While Ohio State does return 13 starters from this past season, a disappointing ending means the two-deep could be much more fluid this spring. There are certainly a few players who will undoubtedly start (see: Miller, Braxton), but the offensive line and defensive backfield position areas are wide open and should be very competitive. The same can be said about the running backs and linebackers, who also lose key starters.
Even the wide receiver position could be wide open despite returning two starters, due to lackluster play in the passing game.
Urban Meyer has always said that starting spots are earned in the spring. Expect the youth movement that began in the Orange Bowl to continue in the spring, and that's where the early enrollees and players fresh off redshirts become a factor. So what young guys could be in line for starting spots or roles in the two-deep? Well I'm glad you asked.
Braxton Miller will be the starting quarterback for Ohio State next year (yeah you're really going out on a limb there, John). But with Kenny G. graduating, the backup quarterback spot is completely up in the air. Cardale Jones saw a little playing time in mop-up duty, then are a pair of relatively unknowns - JT Barrett (redshirt freshman) and Stephen Collier (early enrollee).
Barrett is the real deal, if you follow recruiting you may recall that he was the top ranked dual-threat QB in the country before tearing his ACL during his senior season. During the course of the season I got a chance to see him throw several times after Wednesday practices. He has good arm strength but his accuracy and fundamentals are what stand out. He's a natural thrower with great mechanics and is just smooth throwing the ball. Add in the fact that he runs a 4.6 forty and you'll see why the staff is so excited. For being a dual-threat QB, Barrett is a quarterback first and a runner second - he looks to throw first and throws well on the run. While not the elite runner that Miller is, he will more than get the job done on designed runs. Seeing him work on his passing by himself after practice was a great sign too, he "gets it," and has a great work ethic, something you can't teach.
The other young gun looking to compete for the backup job is Stephen Collier, an early enrollee from Leesburg, Georgia. While a few fans questioned why the staff offered Collier, only a 3-star, he has all the traits to be an excellent QB at Ohio State. Collier is 6-4 and mobile, but like Barrett is a pass-first guy. Also like Barrett, Collier took part in the Elite 11 quarterback competition. The thing that stands out about Collier though is his intelligence - he was offered by Harvard. Braxton Miller coming back should give him an opportunity to learn the college game for a year and compete for the starting job next year. A redshirt is probably in the works for Collier, but as Johnny Manziel, Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and others have shown, that may not necessarily be a bad thing.
Outlook: Good three-way competition between Jones, Barrett and Collier for backup job in the spring. Barrett ultimately wins the job, Jones is the third-stringer and Collier redshirts.
El Guapo leaves big shoes for the Buckeyes to fill, but with a huge stable of backs to choose from one should emerge. The 2014 recruiting class doesn't have any true running backs committed, though Bri'onte Dunn redshirted last year. After an excellent spring in 2013 and limited action in 2012, many expected Dunn to get a lot of work while Hyde was suspended. This wasn't the case and Dunn ended up redshirting. Despite past rumors of a possible transfer, expect Dunn to be ready to prove something in the spring and hopefully be in line for carries next year.
For right now it's hard to say who will fill in for Carlos Hyde, but Ezekiel Elliott and Rod Smith are probably the best bets, with Warren Ball and Bri'onte Dunn next in line. With none of the backs having much experience it should truly be an open competition.
Outlook: Dunn should get a fresh start this spring with a couple of years under his belt, ready to challenge for playing time. If he buys in to what the coaches tell him, he could have a great spring and should be in line for carries in the fall.
With Devin Smith and Evan Spencer returning, Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon enrolling early, and four receivers coming off redshirts,the receiver competitions could be interesting in the spring. Smith and Spencer will probably be given the first opportunity to retain their starting positions, much to the demise of Mike Thomas.
So where do Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon fit in? Samuel will probably be used in a similar role to Dontre Wilson as an H-back - hybrid between a running back and a receiver. I wouldn't be surprised if Samuel really lit it up this spring, he's really a bigger version of Dontre Wilson and might even be faster too. Of the offensive players in the 2014 class, I think Samuel was the most likely to make an impact anyway, but the fact that he's enrolling early should make that even more true. Look for Samuel to compete right away at the slot position this spring and get your popcorn ready for the spring game.
As for Johnnie Dixon, he has a bit of a less obvious role. He's much more of a pure receiver than Samuel or Dontre, though at 5-foot-10 he's probably also going to be playing in the slot. I think Dixon will play a similar role to Philly Brown - working across the middle, option routes and the occasional deep ball. Dixon also has more competition at his position, competing with the likes of James Clark, Jalin Marshall and others for a two-deep position.
This being said, I expect Meyer to play the best receivers regardless of position. Now this is within reason of course, don't expect to have four receivers under the field all under 6 feet tall. However, the majority of the receivers that Meyer has recruited in these three classes are all pretty similar physically - around 6 feet tall and running a 4.5 forty or less. Dixon isn't huge, but he plays bigger than 5-foot-10. Ultimately, I think he redshirts this year due to incredible depth at the position though I do think he will have a nice spring.
What about the redshirted guys? Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith, James Clark and Mike Thomas all redshirted last year and are hungry to get on the field. Smith, Marshall and Thomas are all players Meyer specifically mentioned as guys that stood out in the bowl practices. Meanwhile, James Clark did not redshirt initially and earned some playing time in September before injuring his ankle against Florida A&M. Clark received a medical redshirt and should hopefully be good to go for spring practice. Mike Thomas is probably the best positioned to earn a starting receiver position of these guys for one key reason - size. At 6-3 he's one of the biggest receivers at Ohio State. He earned some playing time as a freshman before redshirting last year but will hopefully build upon his great bowl season this spring.
Outlook: Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith and Mike Thomas will all compete for receiver positions in the spring and should be in the two-deep at the end of spring ball. James Clark's injury status will determine how his spring goes but if healthy he can really play. As for the freshmen, I think Samuel will compete for playing time right away in a similar way that Dontre Wilson did this past year, while Dixon may be more likely to redshirt unless he has a great spring.
No early enrollee tight ends (likely no freshmen tight ends at all actually), but one freshman returns from a redshirt year - Marcus Baugh. After a rocky start, Marcus finally had his black stripe removed this winter and should be a very valuable player moving forward. With Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett returning this season, it will be tough for Baugh to crack the rotation. Still, I expect Baugh to have a strong spring and Ohio State may experiment with finding ways to get him on the field during spring scrimmages. Baugh has elite size and athleticism for a tight end, and is more of the spread/pass-catching tight end that Meyer looks for. Maybe Ohio State will experiment with splitting him out wide (like Michigan has done with Funchess) and working him like a receiver. The one thing the Buckeyes lack at receiver is size and Baugh could provide that in a unique way.
At the very least, Baugh may sit and learn behind Heuerman and Vannett this year before challenging for a starting spot next year. If the Buckeyes try more two TE sets this spring, Baugh would be an interesting option since he is pretty different stylistically from the other two tight ends the Buckeyes have.
Outlook: Baugh pushes for playing time and the coaching staff gets creative with him this spring.
The biggest hole that Ohio State has to fill this off-season is that left by four graduating seniors on the offensive line. Kyle Trout and Marcelys Jones are the two 2014 commits who are enrolling early on the offensive line, while the Buckeyes also bring back three players who redshirted in 2013 - Evan Lisle, Billy Price and Antonio Underwood.
Earning playing time on the offensive line as a freshman is incredibly difficult, but if there was ever a year for it to happen this could be it. Still, Kyle Trout probably isn't going to beat out the likes of Darryl Baldwin, Kyle Dodson, Chase Farris or Tommy Brown for the remaining tackle spot. Realistically, Trout is probably a third-stringer at one of the tackle positions, meaning he will probably redshirt in 2014. However, if Chase Farris remains on the defensive line Trout may battle Evan Lisle for the final spot in the offensive tackle two-deep, meaning he would not redshirt. Certainly a storyline to watch this spring.
At guard, the Buckeyes bring in Marcelys Jones and bring Billy Price and Antonio Underwood back from redshirts. Pat Elflein has probably secured one of the starting guard positions, though the other one is completely up for grabs. Antonio Underwood is a bit of a forgotten man, but could be the other starting guard in 2014. Underwood started one game in 2011 as a true freshman before serving as a backup in 2012. In the spring of 2013 though, Underwood made a real push and was in line to be the second-string left guard before tearing his ACL. According to Meyer, Underwood was "having a heck of a spring." He missed all of 2013 but should be ready for spring practice. If he can pick up where he left off, he will likely be the other starting guard.
Ohio State is certainly thinner at guard than tackle, making Jones' early enrollment even more important. Billy Price will likely be in the two-deep coming out of the spring and Marcelys Jones will have an opportunity to do the same.
Outlook: Antonio Underwood is a starter coming out of spring camp, Billy Price is in the two-deep with Marcelys Jones in the mix for a two-deep spot as well.
The 2014 class does not feature any defensive line early enrollees, but Ohio State does bring back four defensive linemen that redshirted last year. Michael Hill, Tyquan Lewis, Donovon Munger and Tracy Sprinkle were all redshirted as freshmen this past year and will look to compete for time this spring. This being said, the defensive line two-deep is pretty solid right now. Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Jamal Marcus and Adolphus Washington will all be in the two-deep at defensive end, while Mike Bennett, Joel Hale, Tommy Schutt and Washington will likely secure the defensive tackle positions.
While Mike Vrabel leaving was a huge loss for the defensive line, one positive takeaway is that Urban Meyer will likely get his wish of rotating more bodies on the line now that Vrabel is gone. This likely means that all players that make the two deep should see significant playing time.
Assuming Noah Spence's suspension holds up, the third string defensive ends will see some action early in the season as well, making those battles important in the spring. Tyquan Lewis and Tracy Sprinkle will likely battle with Steve Miller to be third in line at one of the end positions.
At defensive tackle, Hill and Munger will try to beat out the likes of Chris Carter for third string defensive tackle. Tracy Sprinkle will also be in the mix for the defensive tackle battles.
Outlook: Hill, Lewis, Munger and Sprinkle all miss out on two-deep spots but challenge upperclassmen for third-string roles. Overall, Ohio State has incredible depth at defensive line and experiments more with rotating a lot more guys this spring.
Ohio State has one freshman enrolling early and another coming off a redshirt year, and both of these guys are big time players. Raekwon McMillan wants to start from day one and he certainly has a decent shot. Mike Mitchell had an excellent fall camp last year before being redshirted. Both McMillan and Mitchell are middle linebackers, though Mitchell could easily move to outside linebacker which he may be better suited for.
This being said, middle linebacker depth is so thin that they may both go into the season working with the middle linebackers. Eventually, however, I think the Buckeyes would prefer to have McMillan and Mitchell on the field together some time in the future.
The path to making the two-deep out of spring is fairly straightforward for 'Kwon and Mitchell - beat out Joe Burger, the second string walk-on linebacker. Burger is very good and this is no easy task, but it is one that both are certainly capable of. For Mike Mitchell, one way or another he should be in the two-deep by the end of spring - whether it is at weak-side linebacker or middle - and should have a good chance of earning a starting position. Mitchell is just too talented to not at least be in the mix as a starter. He's a freak athlete (4.39 forty at 6-foot-4) and has pretty good instincts as well. He will need to beat out Curtis Grant at MLB or Trey Johnson at WLB.
Raekwon on the other hand is likely locked into playing middle linebacker, meaning he will need to beat out Joe Burger and possibly Mitchell to make the two-deep.
Outlook: I think Mitchell will move to weak-side LB and will at least be in the two-deep, battling with Trey Johnson for the starting WLB position. I think McMillan will beat out Joe Burger to make the two-deep and will challenge Curtis Grant for a starting spot but will be the second-stringer coming out of the spring.
Ohio State doesn't bring in any early enrolled defensive backs this spring, but four freshmen coming off redshirt seasons are looking to take advantage of three openings due to graduations and the NFL draft. Eli Apple, Gareon Conley, Jayme Thompson and Chris Worley were all very highly thought of upon arriving at Ohio State but due to depth were redshirted last season. For Apple in particular this was a bit surprising, as he enrolled early and had a great spring. Now, with Bradley Roby, C.J. Barnett, Christian Bryant and Pitt Brown leaving there will be plenty of holes for the Buckeyes to fill.
The two starting corner positions will likely be occupied by Doran Grant and Armani Reeves, though Apple, Conley and Cam Burrows will also be competing for a spot. Conley actually made the two-deep as Doran Grant's backup for the B1G championship game despite redshirting, and should hold onto that role for the time being. All this being said, while Grant and Reeves have the upper hand, the cornerback competition this spring should be wide open. There are five talented players and the best will play, period. I am pretty confident Grant will hold onto his starting job but any of the other four guys could start at the other corner and it wouldn't surprise me.
With both starting safeties graduating, Thompson and Worley will have an opportunity to compete for a spot in the safety two-deep this spring. Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell will likely be the starters and Ron Tanner is in a good position to remain in the two deep, but Thompson and Worley are in the mix. Worley is probably in line to compete for the STAR position or Nickelback, where he might compete with Cam Burrows and could earn some playing time. Burrows played very well at corner this year but might play more of the nickel position to get on the field more. He's a bit thicker than most corners so this could be a nice fit for him.
Outlook: I think Apple and Conley make the two-deep at corner, Thompson is the second-stringer at one of the safety positions and Worley backs up Cam Burrows at the Nickelback position.
The Buckeyes final early enrollee is kicker Sean Neurnberger. After hitting a home run with freshman punter Cam Johnston, Ohio State hopes they did the same with Neurnberger. Neurnberger is a composite 3-star and is ranked as the No. 7 kicker in the nation. If you followed our high school football notebooks this year, you may remember some of Sean's highlights from this season: multiple 40+ yard field goals, just missing a 58-yarder (into the wind) and a couple 70+ yard punts.
He certainly has a strong leg and is well-positioned to replace graduating Drew Basil. He will need to beat out walk-on kicker Kyle Clinton to do so, but I expect Neurnberger to be the starter. Between Neurnberger and Johnston, Ohio State is in pretty good shape with their specialists for the next few years.
Additionally on special teams, look for Curtis Samuel to work on kick/punt returning this spring. Ohio State needs to replace Philly Brown (punt returns) and Jordan Hall (kick returns) and has plenty of speed to choose from. Jalin Marshall is also a good option, but do yourself a favor and think about a kick return duo of Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson for a few seconds.
Outlook: Neurnberger should be the starting kicker coming out of camp, Curtis Samuel should have a good opportunity to return kicks and I think Jalin Marshall may get a good shot at being the next punt returner this spring.
Overall, the Buckeyes should be a deeper team moving forward. Even their thinner positions like linebacker will have a lot of talented players this coming season. While many of the freshmen will likely redshirt, the guys coming in early may compete for playing time, while many of the guys coming off redshirts are ready to go try and earn a starting job. It should be a great spring and Buckeye fans have plenty to be excited about as these talented recruits are transforming into talented college football players.