Ohio State’s first scrimmage of the spring came down to the wire.
With the defense leading 100-99 in the modified scoring system, the scrimmage was to be decided by whether the defense could keep the offense out of the end zone on the final drive. The defense came close, with Jaden McKenzie putting heavy pressure on Kyle McCord to force a 3rd-and-long throwaway, but Jelani Thurman kept the game alive for the offense by narrowly crossing the line-to-gain on a fourth-down catch-and-run. Two plays later, Dallan Hayden bounced off of multiple defenders to score the game-winning touchdown, giving the offense three points for a 102-100 final score.
Ryan Day was pleased with the way the Buckeyes competed on both sides of the ball.
“We'll look at the film and see about the execution. But I thought overall, the effort was there and the competitive nature was there,” Day said in an interview session with reporters immediately following the scrimmage.
For media members who cover Ohio State, it was our first opportunity to get an extended look at the Buckeyes in action this spring and see them go head-to-head in actual football drills for a full practice.
Our initial observations from the Buckeyes’ first scrimmage of the spring:
Quarterbacks improve as practice progresses
The quarterback battle between McCord and Devin Brown was in full swing on Saturday as the Buckeyes’ top two quarterbacks split reps equally with the first- and second-team offenses.
Things got off to a rough start for the quarterbacks – or a great start for the defensive back seven, depending on how you want to look at it – during the first 7-on-7 drills of the day. In a red-zone passing drill, Brown threw the only touchdown pass to Kaleb Brown, while the defense forced incompletions on every other play. Redshirt freshman linebacker Gabe Powers was among the standouts of that practice period, breaking up two passes.
As the practice transitioned to 11-on-11 work and the quarterbacks had the full field to work with, their performance improved. While neither of them yet showed the consistency that you’d want to see from Ohio State’s next starting quarterback, McCord made several impressive deep throws during the second half of practice, including a long touchdown pass to Jayden Ballard, who beat Jordan Hancock deep for a long touchdown.
“I thought he had some good plays. Better in the second half, especially when we got that ball to midfield,” Day said when asked about McCord after practice. “Early on was just OK, I think. But again, it's hard to tell. We gotta look at the film. But he certainly flashed there at the end. Had some energy about him, had some leadership and I think the whole offense was feeding off of that.”
McCord moved the offense down the field more consistently during team drills, but Brown made one of the plays of the day when he connected with Kaleb Brown again on a long throw across the field over coverage from Sonny Styles. He also showed his athleticism by taking off on several occasions and making throws on the move outside the pocket. McCord did so as well, though, nearly scoring a touchdown on a zone-read run on the final drive – and prompting a massive celebration from the offense before it was ruled that he, wearing a black non-contact jersey like all the quarterbacks were, had been tagged two yards short of the goal line.
Day believes the first scrimmage will give both quarterbacks – and everyone on the team – a lot to learn from as they continue to develop and compete.
“If you just look at one drive, you can come to a conclusion really easy, but over time, and I think that's why, when we talk about these in the meeting room there and we talk about where the quarterback’s at, it's hard to tell until you stack these days. And so we’ll grade every single snap today, we'll see how everybody graded out,” Day said. “One practice is one practice, but can you learn and grow from it? I learned just the other day, the quote that the brain doesn't grow from success, it grows from failure. So there was a lot of failure on this field today. So who can grow from that and build? And we'll see. But I thought there's a lot of film to look at of the guys moving down the field, especially in the second half of the scrimmage.”
On the other end of the spectrum, there were plenty of encouraging moments from Ohio State’s defensive backs on Saturday. Denzel Burke was stout in coverage, breaking up multiple passes including one intended for Marvin Harrison Jr. in one-on-ones. Davison Igbinosun performed well enough that he became one of the first two of this year’s January enrollees to have his black stripe removed.
Hancock was beaten twice on deep balls, also including one from McCord to Harrison in 7-on-7s, but responded with a third-down pass breakup in the end zone on a Brown pass to Carnell Tate on the day’s second-to-last drive to force the offense to settle for a field goal. Hancock was also named a winner on multiple reps during the goal-line tackling drill Ohio State opened practice with.
At safety, Styles was among those who flashed with multiple pass breakups while Martinez also had a PBU against Harrison. Lathan Ransom had what might have been the biggest hit of the day on a pass over the middle to Gee Scott Jr., though Scott held onto the ball to secure the catch and demonstratively signaled for a first down after standing up.
“I think they got their hands on some balls, especially in the third-down period,” Day said when asked about the secondary. “I think we got beat on a double move right there (Ballard against Hancock) coming out on the 50-yard line. Overall, I think the secondary has definitely challenged more of the throws. And so that's been encouraging.”
D-line impresses Day
When Day was asked after the scrimmage if there was one player who stood out to him, Day chose to name a position group instead.
“I really liked how the defensive line worked through the whole practice,” Day said. “I think Tyleik (Williams) and Mike (Hall) and all the guys up front, even late into the scrimmage were right in there and grinding … I thought those guys grinded. I think we need to continue to see that out of the defensive line because they can flash, but the name of the game is continually doing it over and over and over again and building that callus up.”
Standouts from the defensive line group on Saturday included redshirt freshman defensive end Kenyatta Jackson, who was credited with back-to-back sacks against Brown during one sequence in team drills.
“We're looking for that production,” Day said when asked about Jackson. “I think you're starting to see that he had a really good offseason, put a lot of weight on, now that we're trying to see that production, and it looked like he was in the backfield a lot.”
Jack Sawyer, JT Tuimoloau and Mike Hall were among the other Buckeyes credited with sacks during team drills, with Hall’s nullifying what would have otherwise been a game-winning touchdown pass from McCord to Patrick Gurd on the final drive of the scrimmage. Both Hall and Williams were seen blowing up run plays at the line of scrimmage.
Of course, those plays came against an offensive line that remains in flux – particularly at right tackle, where Tegra Tshabola and Zen Michalski split reps with the first- and second-team offensive line on Saturday. The other four spots along the first-team offensive line remained consistent over the course of the scrimmage with Josh Fryar at left tackle, Donovan Jackson at left guard, Carson Hinzman at center and Matt Jones at right guard.
Day said he expected some early struggles from the offensive line, considering Saturday was just Ohio State’s third practice of the spring in pads, but acknowledged that the Buckeyes have some work to do to get to a point where they’ll have five offensive linemen they’re fully confident in.
“Our first two practices really don't count because they're not in pads,” Day said. “I thought the defensive line got some sacks early on and kind of got after them. So I don't know, we’ll have to see. I think there's, when you say the offensive line, you’re talking about all five, and I don't think we've quite found all five just quite yet.”
Freshman receivers flash
All four of Ohio State’s freshman wide receivers for the 2023 class were at Saturday’s practice, though Brandon Inniss was there as only a visitor as he will not enroll until summer. As for the three freshman wideouts who are already practicing with the team, all of them had their share of impressive moments on Saturday.
Tate, like Igbinosun, lost his black stripe after just five practices as a Buckeye thanks to his performance on Saturday. His highlights included a play during team drills on which he caught an intermediate throw then proceeded to gain an additional 15-20 yards after the catch with his acceleration after turning downfield.
Noah Rogers also had a strong showing on Saturday, making several catches over the course of the scrimmage including one on which he got open deep going across the field to catch a long pass from McCord. Bryson Rodgers put his ball skills on display by making a pair of diving catches, including one in 7-on-7 that may have been the catch of the day when he lunged to grab an overthrown deep ball by third-string quarterback Tristan Gebbia.
Thurman also continued to look like a potential early contributor at tight end with his performance in Saturday’s practice, most notably on the aforementioned fourth-down conversion, where he used his impressive 6-foot-6, 253-pound physique to finish through contact for a first down.
All of them mixed in across multiple units on Saturday as Day said he wanted to see how they would respond in competitive situations. With Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka both out this spring and Xavier Johnson not practicing on Saturday, there were plenty of reps to go around as Ohio State also held Harrison out during live reps where receivers were being tackled.
- Steele Chambers certainly looked the part of a player who’s ready to take his game to an even higher level after starting at Will linebacker all of last season. The fifth-year senior linebacker blew up numerous plays in the backfield and also made a perfectly timed pass breakup on a throw over the middle to Chip Trayanum.
- Brown, Ballard, Harrison and Reis Stocksdale repped at punt returner in that order.
- On a busy recruiting weekend for the Buckeyes, visitors spotted at Saturday’s practice included Devontae Armstrong, Deontae Armstrong, Garrett Stover, Ian Moore, Marc Nave Jr., Elijah Moore, Tito Glass, Carter Lowe, Jackson Wiley, Payton Pierce, Jakob Gude, London Merritt, Ryan Montgomery, Zechariah Fort, Jordan Lyle, Nathan Roy, Jake Cook, Darien Mayo, Williams Nwaneri, Jordan Johnson-Rubell, Donte Ferrell and Preston Bowman.