At Ohio State, the term spring cleaning brings on a different meaning. Ohio Stadium and the Woody Hayes Athletic Center aren’t swept and given a fresh coat of paint. The sweeping changes for the Buckeyes are done on the field.
Head coach Urban Meyer’s never hidden his philosophy when it comes to spring practice. Not only are the 15 practices used to fine-tune both sides of the ball; they also serve as competition for starting jobs.
After losing four offensive linemen, a 1,000-yard running back, one of the most productive linebackers in school history and a bulk of the secondary, Meyer and Co. have been preoccupied since the season-ending loss in the Orange Bowl. And it only ramped up with the dawn of spring practice.
New to the program, Chris Ash is not unfamiliar with position battles and setting a tone for the upcoming season. The co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach has come away impressed with the level of play exhibited during the first two weeks of Ohio State’s practice.
“They’re all competing. Whether you are on the first line or second line, it doesn’t matter right now,” Ash said. “We just want to see guys compete and see who is going to be consistently doing things the right way.”
Darron Lee might headline that list on defense. The redshirt freshman linebacker has been a constant presence on the first-team defense and frequently earns praise from Meyer. Lee is penciled in at the position previously occupied by Ryan Shazier.
Many believed Trey Johnson, who recorded 11 tackles last year as a true freshman, would succeed Shazier. But Lee’s surprised observers with range and speed.
“The guy who has stepped up, who is playing four to six [seconds of relentless effort] is a kid named Darron Lee,” Meyer said last week. “I have no idea what he’s doing, and he probably has no idea, but I don’t care. That’s the thing, I want to make sure that culture is out there.”
“Everybody wants to play for Ohio State University.”– Bri'onte Dunn
A similar development is taking place on offense. Ezekiel Elliott ia the odds-on-favorite to replace Carlos Hyde’s gaudy numbers, but Rod Smith, Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball are applying pressure and adding depth. Dunn, in particular, is the name causing the most eyebrows to rise.
He was all but forgotten last season, as Hyde ran for 1,500 yards and Elliott emerged as a viable threat for opposing defenses. Dunn redshirted and took a place at the end of the tailback assembly line. Instead of sulking, though, he pushed forward and looks like someone vying to be part of the running back rotation come fall.
“Everybody is in the mix right now,” Dunn said. “There’s really no depth chart. It’s really competitive. Everybody wants to play for Ohio State University.”
Elliott said the competition drives the entire backfield to get better and bring their A-game to each practice. The man in charge of setting the pecking order is running backs coach Stan Drayton. He’s seen glimpses from Dunn in the past, specifically a freshman campaign that saw Dunn named the Big Ten Freshmen of the Week after tallying 73 yards and a touchdown against Illinois.
A year and half later, the explosiveness and game-breaking ability hasn’t departed from Dunn. He scored a touchdown on Saturday in an offense-defense scrimmage and broke a long run Thursday.
“We are starting to see the things that Bri’onte already had within himself,” Drayton said. “It’s just a matter of him becoming a student of the game. He’s learning the game and now he is playing it fast.”
Ohio State’s “next man up” mantra can translate multiple ways. If the team loses a starter, it’s next man up. If a first-stringer is injured, it’s next man up. If a starter is subbed out, it’s next man up.
So when sophomore safety Vonn Bell went down with a knee injury on the first day of practice, the Buckeyes’ succession plan was executed. In came Cam Burrows while Bell stayed involved, soaking in Ash’s new defensive philosophy and immersing himself in the mental reps.
“He’s still in all of our meetings,” Ash said.
And Bell doesn’t come with a dirt devil.