Six months separate Ohio State from its season opener, but the Buckeyes start their title defense now. After clinching the first-ever College Football National Championship in January, coach Urban Meyer and company will hit the practice fields on Tuesday in what is the beginning of a campaign they have dubbed “The Grind.”
It’s a mantra that’s supposed to define Ohio State in 2015. We’ll see if it applies to spring ball, too. Here’s a primer to get you ready.
The Basics: Ohio State opens spring camp Tuesday morning. After that, the Buckeyes will hold 13 more practices before the annual Spring Game on April 18 at 1:30 p.m. at Ohio Stadium.
Barrett and Elliott Nursing Injuries: As far as key players go, it’s unexpected that J.T. Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott will do much this spring as they recover from their respective injuries. Barrett, the redshirt freshman quarterback who combined for 45 total touchdowns last season, is on the mend after breaking his ankle against Michigan. Elliott, who emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate after storming through the postseason, had wrist surgery late last month. He is currently in a pink cast.
Can Jones Cap on Momentum: With Barrett and Braxton Miller on the mend, Jones should take the bulk of the snaps in spring ball. After guiding Ohio State to a Big Ten Championship, a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama and a national title in his first three career starts, Jones has a golden opportunity to build upon the momentum he found in the postseason. If he can continue to take control of the Buckeyes, it's hard to imagine that he won't be the team's starter come August.
Defensive Line Depth: Between Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington and Steve Miller, Ohio State’s starting defensive line was regarded as one of the best in the country. After that? The production seemed to drop off of a cliff and Meyer lamented the group’s depth with a certain venom last season. With the departures of Bennett and Miller, it is expected that players like Tommy Schutt, Jalyn Holmes, Michael Hill and Tyquan Lewis will lead the pack in competing to replace the two former seniors.
Strength at Linebackers: Once a unit that seemed to double as Urban Meyer’s favorite punching bag, Ohio State’s linebackers enter spring ball as perhaps one of the team’s strongest groups. Between Joshua Perry, Darron Lee and Raekwon McMillan, the corps might have the potential to be the program’s best since 2010.
Who Replaces Doran Grant? Grant wasn’t the flashiest player on Ohio State’s defense, but he was a veteran leader that seemed to buoy a relatively young and inexperienced secondary. He locked down the likes of Alabama’s Amari Cooper, Michigan State’s Tony Lippett and Cincinnati’s Mekale McKay. So how do the Buckeyes replace the senior cornerback? For starters, Eli Apple, the redshirt freshman, will assume the role as the team’s top pass defender. In his place, expect Damon Webb and Gareon Conley to be among the frontrunners to fight for the right to play opposite of Apple.
How Will Beck and Alford Fit In: After the departures of Tom Herman and Stan Drayton, Ohio State faces its first coaching transition on the offensive side of the ball since Meyer took over the Buckeyes three seasons ago. To fill their shoes, he hired Tim Beck, the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and Tony Alford, the running backs coach, to keep one of the nation's top offenses humming. How will they fit in?
Michael Thomas Poised for Big Season: Last season, Thomas emerged as one of Ohio State’s best wide receivers, catching 54 passes for 799 yards and nine touchdowns. This year, he might be the clear cut favorite to shoulder the load of receptions regardless if the passes are coming from Jones, Barrett or Miller. At 6-foot-3 and 209 pounds, Thomas is a future NFL talent and he made professional-level catches last year, too.
The Grind Against Complacency: After winning the national title, Meyer said that Ohio State's biggest enemy might be itself during its national title defense. "I think we have to watch for complacency in the program, and we're going to watch that very closely,” he said in January. “We have a little bit of transition of coaching staff. This is a very complicated machine, college football, when you start thinking about all the different hurdles that are along the journey … so we'll visit today at some point and start putting our calendar together and having conversations with players about futures. It's a very complicated machine.”