Try playing against FBS schools with only 55 scholarship players. That’s the number Ohio State was down to at the end of the 2013 season, 30 fewer than what major college football programs are allotted and eight fewer than FCS schools. A travel roster includes 70 players.
That’s right. The Buckeyes couldn’t fill its travel roster with scholarship players. And when Ohio State played Florida A&M last season, the Rattlers, incredibly, had more resources in the name of scholarships.
If you wondered why head coach Urban Meyer was so gung-ho on depth and having bodies, the answer is now in front of you. Attrition came in all forms; there was no discrimination for the Buckeyes. NCAA sanctions, transfers, injuries, redshirts.
For one more season, Ohio State is limited by three scholarships, to 82, because of violations committed under Jim Tressel. Unlike his former SEC brethren, Meyer refuses to stockpile the roster by oversigning. So when 24 players transferred over a four-year period, the Buckeyes were left with little in the way of depth.
The entire spring roster – walk-ons included – features 93 players. Of those 93, 67 have scholarships and 45 are underclassmen.
But coaches shouldn’t be given a free pass on the thin roster. A group that preaches loudly against redshirting opted to sit 19 players in 2013. Meyer vowed that won’t happen again.
“We wanted to do it last year. We didn’t,” he said on Signing Day. “Gareon Conley should have played last year. That’s Gareon’s fault and our fault. We’re counting on these guys to go play. What you don’t want to do is have a young man come in and play 12 snaps and lose a year. If we’re going to play him, play him. But you have to get him ready to go. If it’s the way it turns out, we’ll redshirt a very minimal amount of this class.”
Seven of them will take part in today’s spring drills with an additional 16 joining the team in August. That means the Buckeyes will have 67 scholarship players to tinker with during spring practice and a full compliment of 82 in August, though as it stands now they’re one over the limit.
But for Meyer and Co., whittling down a roster is preferred over filling gaps with inexperience.
Who: Braxton Miller (SR), Cardale Jones (SO), J.T. Barrett (R-FR), Stephen Collier (FR)
What to watch: Not Miller since he just underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder. But fear not, the quarterback position is one of intrigue this spring because Kenny Guiton’s departure opens up a must-see derby for the backup spot. Jones will get the nod on Day 1, but it’s not expected to last.
Barrett was the first quarterback signed by offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Tom Herman, and conventional wisdom says the Buckeyes would like to have him spend one year as the understudy to Miller. The native of Wichita Falls, Texas, holds all the necessary skills to lead a Meyer-Herman offense.
Who: Ezekiel Elliott (SO), Dontre Wilson (SO), Rod Smith (SR), Bri’onte Dunn (SO), Warren Ball (SO), Curtis Samuel (FR)
What to watch: It’s one of the deepest positions on the team, and that’s a welcome thing considering Ohio State must replace a 1,500-yard rusher. For the past two seasons, the Buckeyes have been fortunate to have a go-to tailback when bursts of yardage were needed.
The favorite is Elliott, who averaged nearly nine yards per carry on 30 attempts as a true freshman. Similar to Hyde, Elliott can use his speed and be a bruiser. Wilson is due to get the ball more frequently, whether it’s in the backfield or as a slot receiver. Expectations were too high for him a year ago, but Year 2 should give way to more dynamic plays.
Smith, Dunn, who redshirted last season, and Ball also will receive carries. Samuel, an early enrollee who’s listed as hybrid player, possesses blazing speed and elusiveness. He could make an immediate impact, beginning in the spring.
Who: Devin Smith (SR), Evan Spencer (SR), Michael Thoams (SO), James Clark (R-FR), Corey Smith (JR), Jalin Marshall (R-FR), Johnnie Dixon (FR), Curtis Samuel (FR), Jeff Greene (JR), Frank Epitropoulos (SO)
What to watch: Devin Smith and Spencer combined for almost 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns a year ago. Spencer will not take part in spring drills, though, while still rehabbing his leg from an injury suffered in the Orange Bowl. Thomas redshirted last season and has been a spring sensation since he arrived on campus. But he’s never been able to build on those performances. In 2014, Ohio State is likely to lean more on the veteran Thomas.
Behind those three players is an abundance of talent, but little to no statistics. Clark and Marshall redshirted, Corey Smith suffered a season-ending injury, Dixon and Samuel are true freshmen, Greene transferred from Georgia Tech and Epitropoulos has played sparingly.
Greene led the Yellow Jackets in receiving as a sophomore, but he’s walking on at Ohio State. His size and sure-handed pass-catching ability could thrust him into the rotation. Much is also expected from Marshall, Dixon and Samuel.
Who: Taylor Decker (JR), Pat Elflein (SO), Jacoby Boren (JR), Antonio Underwood (JR), Darryl Baldwin (SR), Chase Farris (JR), Kyle Dodson (SO), Evan Lisle (R-FR), Joel Hale (SR), Tommy Brown (JR), Billy Price (R-FR), Marcelys Jones (FR), Kyle Trout (FR)
What to watch: Plenty. The line, Ohio State’s strength the past two seasons, lost four starters and 135 career starts. Finding suitable replacements for the fifth-ranked rushing attack begin in earnest. Decker will slide from right tackle to left, replacing Jack Mewhort, while Elflein and Boren are almost certain to replace Marcus Hall (right guard) and Corey Linsley (center), respectively.
Baldwin is the presumptive starter at right tackle – Meyer said as much – with Lisle providing the competition. An assortment of players will compete for the other guard position. Underwood is coming off a knee injury and Farris and Hale are moving over from the defense. Marcelys Jones and Trout should benefit from getting immersed into the system. In the fall, Jamarco Jones arrives with a great deal of hype.
But Meyer’s philosophy centers on spring practice, not fall camp. It’s rare for a position battle to be decided in August. That piece of information makes March and April exciting for the Buckeyes. The offensive line should play host to the best competition this spring.
During Meyer’s first two season, only seven teams topped Ohio State’s rushing output: 7,228 yards, 278 yards per game and 82 rushing touchdowns.
Who: Jeff Heuerman (SR), Nick Vannett (JR), J.T. Moore (SR), Marcus Baugh (FR)
What to watch: Heuerman is the clear No. 1 at tight end and figures to be one of the main pieces of the offense this season. He’s the best all-around pass-catcher and blocker the Buckeyes have, though Vannett isn’t far behind. Moore and Baugh have their work cut out for them, especially Baugh. He was suspended indefinitely in January for another run-in with the law.
Who: Noah Spence (JR), Michael Bennett (SR), Joey Bosa (SO), Adolphus Washington (JR), Tommy Schutt (JR), Steve Miller (SR), Jamal Marcus (JR), Chris Carter (JR), Tyquan Lewis (R-FR), Michael Hill (R-FR), Tracy Sprinkle (R-FR), Donovan Munger (R-FR)
What to watch: The top storyline on the defensive line is their coach – Larry Johnson. The veteran Penn State assistant moves west in search of that elusive national championship. He already showed his recruiting prowess by flipping Michigan State commit Darius Slade on Signing Day. Next comes coaching.
Spence is suspended for the first two games. Marcus filled in for the Orange Bowl and displayed a high motor and knack for finding the ball. He should be the guy for Navy and Virginia Tech. Names like Bennett, Bosa, Washington, Schutt and Miller fill out the line. The main objective this spring will be replenishing depth.
A slimmed down Carter is the only other Buckeye with game experience. But Hill, Sprinkle and Munger came to Columbus as highly regarded recruits. This should be another building block in their development. As for Carter, he continues to drop weight, add muscle and become a legitimate defensive lineman. Slade, Jalyn Holmes and Dylan Thompson arrive in the fall.
Who: Curtis Grant (SR), Joshua Perry (JR), Trey Johnson (SO), Cam Williams (JR), Raekwon McMillan (FR), Devan Bogard (JR), Darron Lee (R-FR), Craig Fada (JR), Joe Burger (JR)
What to watch: The position that’s caused Meyer – and Luke Fickell – great stress. Four true freshman join the crop this year, but only one will be on the field this spring. It happens to be the best of all, though – McMillan.
It’s not often a senior incumbent who was formerly the No. 1 overall recruit in the country is challenged for his starting position. But it appears that could be the case this spring. Whether it’s a real open competition or the coaches attempting to motivate Grant remains to be seen. One thing is certain, McMillan is intent on making a noticeable impact.
Perry should keep hold on his starting spot, while Johnson is the next man in line for Ryan Shazier’s vacant position. He’ll receive a challenge from Bogard, but he’s still nursing a season-ending knee injury, his second in as many seasons.
Fada and Burger, both walk-ons, are two of Meyer’s favorite players for their work ethic and grit.
A trio of true freshmen – Kyle Berger, Sam Hubbard and Dante Booker – will be welcomed in August.
Who: Doran Grant (SR), Armani Reeves (JR), Gareon Conley (R-FR), Eli Apple (R-FR)
What to watch: Chris Ash will be tasked with fixing the Buckeyes’ broken pass defense. In the final three games of last season, Ohio State allowed 539 yards and 38 points per game. Most of the damage was done through the air, where the Buckeyes ranked in the hundreds nationally.
This season is expected to feature more press coverage, a staple of Ash’s philosophy. At every job, he’s been able to improve the on-field product and many times thrive. Still, Bradley Roby’s loss will loom large over the group.
Grant and Reeves are sure-fire starters in 2014. Grant’s emerged the past two seasons as a potential all-Big Ten-caliber corner. Reeves has gone through growing pains, but appears poised to be dependable.
On Signing Day, Meyer lamented Conley’s redshirt, so chances are he’ll be on the field this season. Offseason rumblings point to a breakout year for the Massillon product. Apple is another redshirt freshman many believed would play last year.
Who: Tyvis Powell (SO), Vonn Bell (SO), Cam Burrows (SO), Ron Tanner (JR), Chris Worley (R-FR), Jayme Thompson (R-FR)
What to watch: The biggest overhaul on defense will come at safety. Ohio State lost three seniors and returns just one upperclassman. Luckily for the Buckeyes, their freshmen and sophomores happen to be uber-talented. Powell, the hero in Ann Arbor, and Bell are in line to receive a bulk of the playing time.
Communication is the biggest factor. Breakdowns have plagued Ohio State in recent seasons. Ash’s voice should help steady any confusion. Powell is the most experienced safety and Bell is the most talented. They should be a focus in the secondary all year.
Burrows and Tanner should be solid contributors on special teams and could be involved in nickel coverage. Tanner’s become a durable utility guy who’s among the best tacklers on the team.
The redshirt freshmen are still a year or two away from becoming regulars in the rotation. Thompson is coming off a season-ending ankle injury.
Highly touted freshmen Erick Smith and Malik Hooker will partake in fall camp.
Who: Cameron Johnston (SO), Bryce Haynes (JR), Sean Nuernberger (FR), Kyle Clinton (SR)
What to watch: The only intrigue surrounding the specialists is Nuernberger. He’s the lone scholarship kicker on the roster, and the true freshman from Germany by way of Kentucky is expected to be the starting kicker. If not, the duties will likely fall to walk-on Kyle Clinton.
Johnston returns as the Big Ten’s top punter, and Haynes, after receiving a scholarship out of high school, seems to be rounding into a superb long snapper.
[Kirk Irwin photo]