Ohio State faces a tough challenge this offseason as it must replace more than half the starters that fueled a dominant 13-0 run to the College Football Playoff last fall.
Some of the work to identify 12 new starters is seemingly finished for head coach Ryan Day. It's easy to forecast players like running back Master Teague, wideout Garrett Wilson and linebacker Baron Browning sliding into the open slots created by NFL departures.
But there are certain areas in the starting lineup that are very much up in the air.
Here's an overview of the top five position battles to watch as Ohio State kicks off spring practice next week.
Ohio State has to replace Branden Bowen at right tackle, who was finally healthy and in a position to contribute in a big way during his senior season last year.
Bowen anchored the right side, and Day needs to plug someone in who can do the same in 2020. Nicholas Petit-Frere, the former 5-star stud who's been in the program two full seasons, enters spring practice as the favorite.
Petit-Frere backed Bowen up last season, and even started a game against Northwestern while left tackle Thayer Munford nursed a lower leg injury. But largely, Petit-Frere has spent most of his time learning and developing.
“As the season went on, I learned a lot from Bowen," Petit-Frere said. "I learned a lot from Thayer, Josh, all the tackles we have here, and then got better. So that's how I see this whole process, and I'm very glad to be a part of it. Whatever happened, whether I started or not, it's all about development and becoming a better player.”
What to watch for is whether a guy like Dawand Jones or incoming 5-star standout Paris Johnson Jr. can surge past Petite-Frere.
One of the biggest holes in the starting lineup is at H-Back after the departure of K.J. Hill, who set new records at Ohio State for career receptions and consecutive games with a reception.
That reliability in the passing game is gone, and it's interesting to consider the options Day has for the third receiver to complement Chris Olave and Wilson.
Jaelen Gill is a popular pick to replace Hill considering he was No. 2 on the depth chart in 2019. But the Buckeyes just got an absurd influx of perimeter talent thanks to wide receivers coach Brian Hartline's elite recruiting.
There's 5-star wideouts Julian Fleming (who ranked No. 3 nationally in the 2020 recruiting class) and Jaxon Smith-Njigba (No. 28), then high 4-stars Gee Scott Jr. (No. 65) and Mookie Cooper (No. 91).
Cooper is likely the only one from that group to wind up at H-Back based on his size (5'8.5" and 193 pounds), but Day and the offensive staff could use this spot to get some of its young talent on the field early.
Ohio State lost both of its starters on the interior of its defensive line and a key contributor with the departures of DaVon Hamilton, Jashon Cornell and Robert Landers. But thanks to defensive line coach Larry Johnson's philosophy of rotating players heavily throughout the game, there's experience on the inside for the Buckeyes.
Haskell Garrett played a partof that rotation and is an option to start at defensive tackle in 2020. He didn't stuff the stat sheet last fall (defensive tackles rarely do), but he was effective in plugging holes and recorded 2.5 tackles for loss.
The challenger here is Taron Vincent, a former 5-star who's coming into the season hungry and motivated after losing all of 2019 due to a right shoulder injury.
That injury derailed some startling progress he was making in the preseason. Ohio State was expecting him to play and make a big impact.
“Taron's so disruptive, so disruptive in the run game, in the pass rush,” Cornell said of Vincent in the spring. “We call him battering ram because once he gets off the ball, he's knocking everybody off.”
Ohio State's secondary situation is certainly the biggest question mark on the team right now.
Shaun Wade's return to Columbus was enormous for the Buckeyes, as he's expected to anchor the back end as the only returning starter in the secondary. Ohio State is expected to continue its three cornerback, one high safety look in 2020, and with the dismissals of cornerback Amir Riep and Jahsen Wint, depth and experience are hard to find.
Sevyn Banks makes the most sense for the cornerback spot opposite Wade. If Marcus Williamson or one of the incoming freshman (like Lejond Cavazos) aren't ready for the spotlight, the Buckeyes could make an interesting move and slot projected starting safety Josh Proctor there.
If Proctor moves to that slot spot, the safety position will be up for grabs this offseason.
This is a key role for Kerry Coombs' defense, and finding the right guy for it has make-or-break potential. That player needs to be rangy with a ball-hawk attitude, and if he can replicate those traits from his older brother, Marcus Hooker would be a perfect fit.
The younger brother of former consensus All-American Malik Hooker, Marcus Hooker was a bit of a project coming out of high school. Rated a 3-star prospect and the No. 640 player nationally in the 2018 recruiting class, former head coach Urban Meyer believed Marcus Hooker could carve out a similar path as his older brother in Columbus.
The Buckeyes are hoping that turns to fruition, because the options outside of Proctor and Hooker are unknown. There are incoming 4-star freshmen in Ryan Watts and Lathan Ransom and a few guys on the roster who haven't seen much of the field during their careers at Ohio State.