Ohio State Practice Observations: A Glimpse at the Quarterback Battle, Different Looks on Defense and Young Buckeyes Making Plays

By Dan Hope on April 5, 2021 at 11:51 am
C.J. Stroud

For the second time in four days, Ohio State opened up the beginning of its practice to members of the local media on Monday to get a glimpse at this year’s Buckeyes, who are now past the midway point of spring ball after completing their eighth practice of the spring on Monday morning.

While reporters and photographers were only able to watch two periods of practice on Friday, we were allowed to remain at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for six periods this time, giving us our first opportunity to watch the three potential starting quarterbacks throw passes against the defense. 

Some quick observations from the portion of Monday’s practice session that was open to the media:

Stroud leads the QB rotation

While Ohio State does appear to be splitting reps between the three scholarship quarterbacks about as equally as possible, C.J. Stroud was the first quarterback in the passing order throughout the portion of Friday’s practice that was open to the media, followed by fellow second-year Jack Miller and true freshman Kyle McCord.

Our first opportunity to watch the quarterbacks throw in a competitive setting this year came in a red-zone pass drill during the fourth period of practice. Stroud led the way by completing four of his six passing attempts in that drill, highlighted by a fade completed to the left rear corner of the end zone to true freshman wideout Marvin Harrison Jr.

McCord went 1-for-3 in the red zone passing drill, highlighted by a touchdown pass to Jeremy Ruckert, who made a toe-tapping grab on the right side of the end zone.

Miller did not throw any touchdowns during the drill; he completed one to Harrison, but it was ruled a defensive stop because of the time it took Miller to find an open receiver thanks to strong coverage.

Defensive highlights from the red zone passing drill included Lathan Ransom breaking up a McCord pass intended for Emeka Egbuka in the left rear corner of the end zone, and walk-on cornerback Lloyd McFarquhar breaking up a Stroud pass intended for Garrett Wilson in the right side of the end zone.

After practice moved outside, highlights from the quarterbacks included Miller zipping in a throw past coverage to Ruckert over the middle of the field and Stroud zipping a throw past coverage to Wilson near the sideline. One of McCord’s passes was intercepted by Tyreke Johnson after it was tipped by a defensive lineman, while Ronnie Hickman made a nice play to break up a McCord deep ball to Ruckert, with true freshman Jantzen Dunn also showing nice range from his deep safety spot to get to the sideline and help with the PBU.

Could nickel be the base defense?

Aside from the quarterbacks passing, the other area of interest I kept an eye on during Monday’s open practice window was the defense, specifically to see if I could notice any schematic changes on that side of the ball. And while it’s hard to draw any major conclusions from watching less than an hour of practice, I did find the personnel groupings during practice drills interesting.

Noticeably, Ohio State appeared to have just two true linebackers on the field during 7-on-7 and team drills. It seems as though the Buckeyes could at least be experimenting with the possibility of transitioning to a base defense with five defensive backs and just two linebackers, with two safeties and two outside cornerbacks joined by a fifth defensive back lining up in the slot or in the box.

“We have the ability to do both. We can line up in nickel or we can line up in base,” Day said after Monday's practice. “That's something that we've always been able to do, and we're gonna continue to look at that and figure out what gives us the best chance based on what the offense is giving us ... and we'll just try to put the best guys on the field, who can do the most.”

During one defensive drill on Monday, Teradja Mitchell and Cody Simon took the first-team reps at inside linebacker (with Dallas Gant sidelined by a foot injury) while Ransom lined up alongside them. With Sevyn Banks and Cameron Brown sidelined by injuries and Marcus Williamson also absent from practice, the first-team cornerback reps went to Johnson and second-years Lejond Cavazos and Ryan Watts, while Josh Proctor and Ronnie Hickman lined up as the deep safeties.

Craig Young, who’s been viewed as a potential candidate to start at linebacker, was practicing with the defensive backs on Monday and was also among those getting reps with the first-team defense at safety. Tommy Eichenberg and K’Vaughan Pope took the second-team reps at inside linebacker.

Day said Young, Hickman, Kourt Williams (who is still limited in practice recovering from a torn ACL) and walk-on Ryan Batsch are among those playing the hybrid safety/linebacker role – aka the “bullet” – for Ohio State this spring.

Melton out with “long-term injury”

Another addition to the injury list for Ohio State this spring is second-year linebacker Mitchell Melton, who was not in uniform and was walking around on crutches during Monday’s practice. Ryan Day said after practice that Melton suffered a “long-term injury,” though he did not get into details about what the specific injury was.

Gant and defensive tackle Haskell Garrett, who were already both known to be unavailable this spring, were both walking around with boots on one foot.

Players who were not spotted at Monday’s practice include Williamson, wide receiver Chris Olave, offensive lineman Dawand Jones and recently converted defensive back Demario McCall. None of those players have known injuries, but Day said Friday that Olave and several other players had been absent from practice due to a non-COVID illness.

Early enrollees in the mix on special teams

Egbuka was among those included in punt return practice on Monday; Wilson, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Cameron Martinez were among those seen fielding punts during the special teams portion of practice. 

Along with Egbuka, many other early enrollees were seen taking reps on either the punt or punter coverage teams during special teams drills, including Harrison, running back Evan Pryor, defensive end Jack Sawyer, linebacker Reid Carrico and cornerback Denzel Burke. (There may have been others, too, but those were the ones I noticed.)

Special teams is often viewed as the first step to getting on the field for young Ohio State players, so whether those young Buckeyes can earn roles on kicking or punt teams this year could determine how quickly they push for significant playing time on offense or defense.

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