10 Players Who Stood Out at Ohio State’s Student Appreciation Day Practice

By Dan Hope on April 4, 2022 at 7:35 am
Devin Brown

For the first time all year, we had the opportunity to watch the Buckeyes’ offense and defense go head-to-head in team drills, 7-on-7 drills and offensive line vs. defensive line drills as they opened their doors to members of the local media and Ohio State students on Student Appreciation Day at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on Saturday.

While previous media viewing opportunities this spring only enabled us to watch individual drills, providing a very limited window into how the Buckeyes were looking in three of their first six practices of the year, Saturday gave us a chance to actually evaluate this year’s Buckeyes in a competitive football setting. And there were plenty of Ohio State players, from established stars to freshmen who just arrived in January, who stood out in the process.

Before we continue, we should acknowledge that what we saw on Saturday was only one hour out of Ohio State’s 15 spring practices, with 25 preseason practices still to come in the summer before the Sept. 3 season opener against Notre Dame. Coaches will consider that entire body of work when setting the depth chart for Week 1, so one should be cautious not to put too much stock into how well a player performed during one individual practice session.

That said, Ohio State’s coaches surely wanted to see which Buckeyes would shine under the added spotlight of having students literally on the field to watch them practice up close and in person, which could add a little more weight to how they performed on Saturday than in other practices. And considering that it’s the most extensive opportunity we will have to watch Ohio State football practice before the spring game – the Buckeyes aren’t expected to open up any more practices to the media prior to the April 16 exhibition at the Shoe – it’s a natural chance for us to evaluate which players might be trending up a little over halfway through the spring.

With that in mind, the following players were the ones who caught my eye the most as I watched Saturday’s practice.

QB C.J. Stroud

We’ve now had two extended opportunities to watch C.J. Stroud throw this spring – during Ohio State’s pro day two weeks ago and on Saturday – and in both settings, Stroud has looked as good as a Heisman Trophy candidate should.

After impressing NFL scouts with his arm strength and accuracy at pro day, Stroud was equally sharp throwing against actual defenders during Saturday’s practice. While practice does afford him the benefit of knowing he won’t be tackled as a quarterback, he delivered several perfect passes under pressure on Saturday, a day on which Ohio State’s defensive linemen often got the better of Ohio State’s offensive linemen.

Even on the practice field, Stroud’s confidence in his ability is evident right now, and he looks just as comfortable throwing to Ohio State’s current crop of receivers as he did throwing to Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson last year. Stroud doesn’t really need to wow on the practice field this spring – while he was competing for the starting job at this time last year, he has a firm grasp on the gig now – but he managed to turn heads on Saturday anyway.

QB Devin Brown

Saturday was our first opportunity to watch Brown throw in a competitive setting in an Ohio State uniform, and the true freshman quarterback didn’t disappoint.

While watching him throw the ball in 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 drills on Saturday, it wasn’t hard to see why Brown was ranked by On3 as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2022 class. His natural arm talent was on full display as he connected on multiple precise deep balls, including one that found fellow true freshman Kyion Grayes on a fade to the left rear corner of the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown.

Brown also had his share of freshman moments during the practice, such as one three-play sequence in which he fumbled two snaps, and I believe Kyle McCord (who also looked sharp throwing the ball on Saturday) still has a firm grasp on the No. 2 spot on the quarterback depth chart right now. But Brown’s long-term potential was evident on first impression, showing why he will be a real contender for the starting job next year if Stroud leaves after this season.

WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba

Like Stroud, Smith-Njigba looked on Saturday like a player who’s ready to pick up where he left off after a record-setting Rose Bowl performance and chase All-American honors in 2022. Although he doesn’t actually need to prove anything this spring, he’s a player who’s hard to ignore any time you have the opportunity to watch him at work.

Simply put, Smith-Njigba was dominant during the scrimmage portions of Saturday’s practice. Just as he did throughout last season, Smith-Njigba got open with a wide variety of routes and consistently caught the passes that came his way, even when Ohio State defensive backs were in position to contest the catch.

While he was far from the only wide receiver who made impressive plays on Saturday, it remains clear that Smith-Njigba, who continued to line up mostly in the slot on Saturday except in red-zone drills when the Buckeyes had only two wide receivers on the field, will be the go-to playmaker in Ohio State’s receiving corps this year. 

WR Marvin Harrison Jr.

Harrison’s stock has been rising ever since he arrived on campus as a true freshman 15 months ago, and his trajectory only continued to climb upward on Saturday.

The sophomore wideout seems to already be entrenched as a starter – as he was consistently taking first-team reps while Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka were splitting first-team reps – and just as he did when he got the opportunity to make his first start in the Rose Bowl, he kept getting open and making plays at student appreciation day, highlighted by a diving deep-ball catch after he beat Jakailin Johnson during a 7-on-7 rep.

WR Emeka Egbuka

Egbuka made the catch of the day during 7-on-7 drills on Saturday when he smoothly snagged a deep ball from Brown with just one hand away from his body.

Student appreciation day was also our first opportunity to see Egbuka return kickoffs this spring, and while it’s hard to truly gauge a kickoff return in a non-tackling drill, he looked like he could have taken it to the house on just about every return. Egbuka came close to breaking Ohio State’s 11-year kickoff return touchdown drought on a couple of occasions last season, and it looks as though the Buckeyes plan to keep him in the kickoff returner role to try to make that happen this season.

Egbuka might not be in line to start at wide receiver quite yet, as Fleming took most of the first-team reps ahead of Egbuka on Saturday, but he continues to flash every time we see him on the field. If he continues to make plays in practice like we saw at student appreciation day, it’s going to be hard to keep him out of the lineup.

WR Kyion Grayes

It’s not going to be easy for a true freshman to break into Ohio State’s wide receiver rotation this year, but if Saturday was any indication, the top candidate to do so among this year’s crop of freshman wideouts might be Grayes.

As aforementioned, Grayes caught a touchdown pass from Brown during the team period of practice, and that wasn’t the only nice play he made on student appreciation day. He showed great route-running polish for a receiver going through his first spring practices and also made a tough sideline grab on a throw from Stroud during 7-on-7 work.

Grayes worked mostly with the second- and third-team offenses during Saturday’s practice, and he’ll have to battle just to earn a spot on the two-deep, as Jayden Ballard (who’s garnered plenty of hype this spring) and walk-on Xavier Johnson (who also made multiple highlight-reel catches on Saturday) were the primary second-team receivers at student appreciation day. But he certainly looks the part of a player who could emerge as one of Brian Hartline’s next star playmakers over the next two to three years.

DE Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau

These two probably get grouped together more often than they should be, but I’m going to be guilty of doing it again here. After both of them flashed in limited opportunities as true freshmen, they look like they could be ready to take the next step and become every-down impact players as sophomores.

Although it was eye-catching, it doesn’t necessarily mean much that Sawyer and Tuimoloau took most of the first-team defensive end reps on Saturday, as veterans Zach Harrison and Javontae Jean-Baptiste have both been limited in practice this spring while Tyler Friday is still working his way back from a torn ACL. What certainly is notable, though, is how often Tuimoloau and Sawyer were each winning their reps on Saturday, even when they were matched up against starting tackles Paris Johnson Jr. and Dawand Jones.

Also notable: Sawyer started many of his reps standing up rather than putting his hand in the dirt, an indication that he will likely play at least some of his snaps this year as a Jack hybrid linebacker rather than as a traditional defensive end. 

DE/LB Mitchell Melton

There’s been a lot of chatter about Melton through Ohio State’s first eight practices of the spring, and Saturday’s practice viewing opportunity backed up the notion that he could be a potential breakout player to watch on the Buckeyes’ defensive front this year.

Along with Sawyer, Melton also took reps with the first-team defense at the Jack position, and he looked like he belonged there. He was credited with a sack after breaking through into the backfield during team drills, showing his ability to rush the passer off the edge, while he also looked fluid dropping back into coverage during 7-on-7 work.

While he faces a lot of competition to get on the field at defensive end, his background as a linebacker makes him a natural fit for the hybrid role, and that could open the door to significant playing time if the Jack becomes a major part of Jim Knowles’ defensive scheme.

DE Caden Curry

Among Ohio State’s defensive newcomers, the one who stood out the most on Saturday was Curry, who exploded past offensive tackles multiple times during team drills to blow up plays in the backfield.

Listed at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, Curry already looks the part of a collegiate defensive end, and his quickness was evident on student appreciation day. Like Sawyer and Melton, Curry stood up as a Jack linebacker for many of his reps on Saturday, though his work primarily came with the second- and third-team units.

Like Grayes at wide receiver, Curry faces the challenge of a loaded depth chart that could stand in his way of earning substantial playing time as a true freshman, but Knowles and Larry Johnson might have to find an immediate role for him if he continues to practice as well as he did on Saturday.

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