Eight Standout Performers From Ohio State’s First Spring Scrimmage on Saturday

By Griffin Strom on March 26, 2023 at 8:35 am
Kyle McCord
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch

Ohio State opened up practice Saturday to give media members their longest look at the 2023 Buckeye roster to date.

While photos and video were prohibited during a practice session that lasted more than two hours at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, Eleven Warriors took notes on everything that transpired as Ohio State held its first scrimmage of the spring schedule.

Ryan Day acknowledged there was “a lot of failure on this field” as Ohio State still has plenty of kinks to work out in the coming months, but there were several standout performances from individual Buckeyes nonetheless. We’ve compiled the exploits of eight scarlet and gray athletes who caught our eye during Saturday’s spring scrimmage.

QB Kyle McCord

Things didn’t start off so hot for the Buckeye offense. During Ohio State’s red zone passing offense period, the Buckeyes were held out of the end zone on all but one of 12 plays, with a touchdown pass from Devin Brown to Kaleb Brown being the lone exception. Kyle McCord didn’t lead his unit across the plane at all during that period, and the defense continued to get the better of the offense for the next several periods.

But McCord began to heat up towards the end of Ohio State’s 7-on-7 work. McCord hit Marvin Harrison Jr. deep downfield for what would’ve been a touchdown on one play, and followed that up with two more completions to Kojo Antwi and Cade Stover on consecutive snaps.

Once live play (no quarterback contact) began in period 17, McCord produced the highlight of the day for the Buckeye offense with a long bomb down the right sideline to Jayden Ballard that went for a touchdown against the first-team defense.

McCord continued to bring the offense back from its early deficit with another explosive completion on the move to Noah Rogers, and this time Dallan Hayden punched in a touchdown on the subsequent goal-to-go series. McCord was back on the field for the final drive of the practice, where he completed passes to Hayden and Jelani Thurman to put the offense at the goal line for a chance to secure a come-from-behind win over the defense. Hayden scored again on a pitch from McCord and the offense won the day.

Overall, the scrimmage was something of a mixed bag for McCord, but he sprang to life late and finished practice as the more impressive of the two quarterbacks vying for the vacant starting job.

“I thought he had some good plays, better in the second half. Especially when we got that ball to midfield,” Ryan Day said. “Early on it was just OK I think. But again, it's hard to tell, 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.”

WR Jayden Ballard

With Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming out this spring, Ballard took advantage of his increase in opportunities with the first-team offense. 

Fresh off of impressing NFL personnel while catching passes during C.J. Stroud’s pro day workout on Wednesday, Ballard showcased his signature speed by burning Jordan Hancock – who ran with the first-team defense at cornerback – on a double-move that led to a long touchdown reception in 11-on-11 action.

That play got the ball rolling for the Buckeye offense, which picked up considerable steam thereafter en route to a narrow victory over the defense in practice.

Day has taken notice of the momentum Ballard’s built over the past week, and given that he only hauled in nine passes in his first two seasons at Ohio State, Day said the speedy outside playmaker must continue to capitalize as he enters a crucial year in his development.

“I think he has to, right? I mean, this is it for JB. He knows that this is his time,” Day said. “Came in with some really talented guys, but he's talented too. You can see his speed, you can see his change in direction. Even at the workout the other day, I mean he caught a lot of people's eyes. So he has the ability and hopefully if he can continue to make plays like he did today, then he can start producing for us.”

LB Steele Chambers

Chambers played a big part in the Buckeye defense’s early success as Ohio State’s first-string Will linebacker made a number of disruptive plays during Saturday’s scrimmage. 

At the start of period 15, which featured 11-on-11 work with thud tackling, Chambers stalled the progress of Devin Brown and the first-string offense with a sack to move the sticks back after a completion from Brown to Ballard. Later on, Chambers showed off his coverage skills over the middle of the field as he broke up a pass attempt to Chip Trayanum.

Lined up next to Cody Simon, who filled in for injured Tommy Eichenberg as the Buckeyes’ No. 1 Mike linebacker, Chambers was undoubtedly the standout performer of the day for Jim Knowles' first-team LB unit.

LB Gabe Powers

Chambers wasn’t the only Buckeye linebacker to make a couple of highlight plays in Saturday’s scrimmage. Knowles’ two-linebacker alignment and tight rotations left highly-touted first-year prospects C.J. Hicks and Gabe Powers without any on-field opportunities at the position last season, but the latter made his second-team reps count on Saturday.

As mentioned above, the Ohio State defense came out on top on 11 out of 12 plays during a situational red zone drill early in practice. Two of those stops can be credited directly to Powers, who broke up one pass in the middle of the field and another closer to the sideline as McCord and Brown struggled to find open receivers.

Both plays came in quick succession during the same practice period, but Powers showed a glimpse of his potential nonetheless as he continues working toward a bigger role on defense ahead of his second season with the Buckeyes. Powers also made a pair of short-yardage run stops against Trayanum, with one coming near the goal line and another coming on a fourth-down rush.

WR Kaleb Brown

Like Ballard, Kaleb Brown benefitted from notable absences at wideout on Saturday. Along with Egbuka and Fleming, Xavier Johnson, Kyion Grayes and Caleb Burton all didn’t participate in Ohio State’s scrimmage, which opened the door for Brown to make a number of plays while running with the first- and second-team offenses.

Kaleb Brown opened practice as Ohio State’s top punt returner and then proceeded to put his playmaking ability on display at wide receiver as he hauled in passes from both McCord and Devin Brown. His first big play came on a red zone touchdown over the middle of the field on a toss from Devin Brown during the sixth practice period, and the Chicago native was targeted on multiple other occasions during that drill alone.

During 11-on-11 reps in the second half of the scrimmage, Devin Brown connected with Kaleb Brown deep downfield on an explosive gain that set the Buckeye offense up at the goal line before a Trayanum touchdown on the next play.

Beyond Brown, several other underclassman receivers made plays throughout the day. Freshman trio Noah Rogers, Carnell Tate and Bryson Rodgers all made at least one impressive play of their own before all was said and done, but Kaleb Brown may have been the most frequently targeted pass catcher among Brian Hartline’s young up-and-comers.

DE Kenyatta Jackson

Receiving first-, second- and third-team snaps at defensive end on Saturday, top-60 2022 prospect Kenyatta Jackson flashed off the edge during Ohio State’s scrimmage. The 6-foot-5 pass rusher was credited with back-to-back sacks at one point during 11-on-11 work and might have had another one had he not been held by Gee Scott Jr. on a play that drew a flag from the officials on hand. 

While Jackson didn’t have a whole lot of opportunities as a true freshman, Day said the tutelage of teammates like Paris Johnson Jr. appears to be paying off as the four-star recruit seems to be turning a corner early in the offseason.

“We're looking for that production. I thought he put in a great year last year, put in a lot of work. He would go a lot against Paris, especially in practice,” Day said. “And they would sit down over on the bench for hours just talking. And I know what Paris was doing. He was taking him under his wing to talk about different things with offensive, defensive line play, talking technique. And so now I think you're starting to see that come of age. He had a really good offseason, he put a lot of weight on, now we're trying to see that production. It looked like he was in the backfield a lot.”

DE Jack Sawyer

Day praised the consistent effort of the defensive line throughout the scrimmage, and particularly credited first-team tackles Tyleik Williams and Mike Hall for their work on the day. But as far as Ohio State’s two projected starters at defensive end, Jack Sawyer made his presence felt on multiple occasions.

With Devin Brown manning the first-team offense during one third down set amid 11-on-11 drills, Sawyer and JT Tuimoloau combined on a sack to stall the series for the second-year Buckeye QB. Sawyer got to Brown again in the second half of the scrimmage to force a three-and-out for the first-team offense.

Free from the responsibilities of the hybrid Jack position this offseason, Sawyer is producing as a full-time edge rusher in practice ahead of his junior campaign.

“I thought those guys grinded,” Day said. “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 build that callus up.”

C Carson Hinzman

The Buckeye D-line gave Ohio State’s retooled offensive front plenty of problems on Saturday, and Day said Justin Frye’s group hasn’t quite found its best five players just yet. But nothing we saw from the Buckeyes’ two top centers refuted the notion that second-year OL Carson Hinzman is the clubhouse leader at the position.

While Lousiana-Monroe transfer Victor Cutler had some shaky snaps with the second-team offense, Hinzman anchored the first-team unit and Day said he didn’t notice the Wisconsin native a whole lot – which is a plus for a center.

“There's been good progress there. I think you can see it,” Day said. “When you don't notice a center, that's a good thing. Again, still early on, not even halfway through spring practice. But he's been a bright spot so far.”

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