Five Position Battles to Watch During Ohio State’s 2024 Spring Practices

By Dan Hope on February 26, 2024 at 10:10 am
C.J. Hicks and Sonny Styles

Because Ohio State has 14 returning starters from last season and added several transfers in January who are expected to be immediate starters, there aren’t a lot of starting spots that are truly up for grabs this spring.

Defensively, 10 starting spots appear to already be accounted for. Jack Sawyer, JT Tuimoloau, Tyleik Williams and Ty Hamilton are all expected to start on the defensive line, Cody Simon is set to be Ohio State’s starting middle linebacker, Denzel Burke, Davison Igbinosun and Jordan Hancock return as the Buckeyes’ starting cornerbacks and Alabama transfer Caleb Downs will join Lathan Ransom in the starting lineup at safety.

Offensively, the lineup is a bit more unsettled, though there are frontrunners at most spots. Kansas State transfer Will Howard is expected to be Ohio State’s new starting quarterback, Emeka Egbuka is a lock to start at wide receiver and Josh Simmons, Donovan Jackson and Seth McLaughlin are all expected to start on the offensive line. TreVeyon Henderson and Quinshon Judkins will both play extensively at running back regardless of who starts, and it would be a big surprise if Carnell Tate doesn’t start at wide receiver with all the praise he received from Ohio State’s coaches as a freshman.

That said, there will still be numerous interesting position battles to watch during Ohio State’s 15 spring practices, which begin in just eight days as the Buckeyes will hold their first practice of 2024 next Tuesday, March 5. The following five position battles will bear watching in particular as the Buckeyes work toward setting their depth chart for the 2024 season.

Right Guard/Right Tackle

No position battle carries more importance this spring than that which will take place on the right side of the offensive line. The biggest question mark on Ohio State’s roster as it is currently constructed is whether the Buckeyes have the players they need at right guard and right tackle, so how the potential starters at those positions perform this spring will determine how urgently the Buckeyes need to pursue offensive line help in the post-spring transfer window.

While Josh Fryar is a returning starter at right tackle, he had too many lapses in pass protection last season for the Buckeyes to hand him the starting job for 2024 simply. He could still end up winning the battle for the job, but he’s expected to face competition from Luke Montgomery and Tegra Tshabola this spring.

All three of those players could also be candidates to fill the vacant starting job at right guard following the departure of Matt Jones. Enokk Vimahi could also factor into that competition – though he’ll need to be much better this spring than he was in the Cotton Bowl if he’s going to be a viable starting candidate – as could last year’s starting center Carson Hinzman, who has been displaced from that job with the addition of McLaughlin.

“Josh has a little bit of a swing capability there. So he's going to be on the right side right now. And we're going to take a look to see what the right combination will be on the right side now that we lost Matt,” Ryan Day said earlier this month when asked about the possibility of Fryar moving to guard. “He's going to play tackle, he's going to play a little bit of guard, and we'll kind of see how that shakes out as the spring goes on.”

Will Linebacker

While it’s certainly possible that someone else could force their way into the starting lineup with an excellent spring, the only position on defense that truly appears to be up for grabs this spring is the Will linebacker spot.

Ohio State could potentially fill that spot by moving Sonny Styles to linebacker after he started all but one game last season at either nickel safety or strong safety. Styles has more than enough size to play linebacker at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, and such a move could prove to be the best fit for his game as he did much of his best work last season while lined up in the box.

Fellow five-star junior C.J. Hicks is also a candidate to start at Will linebacker after playing that position in backup duty last season, while Gabe Powers and Arvell Reese will get a shot to compete for the job this spring as well.

There’s no sure thing at this position, given that Simon is the only player on the current roster who’s started a collegiate game at linebacker, but new linebackers coach James Laurinaitis is confident in the options he has at his disposal.

“I'm really excited about it,” Laurinaitis said last week. “It's a big spring for our guys. With Cody and C.J. and Gabe Powers and Arvell Reese, there's a lot of guys that are gonna be fighting for playing time.”

Third Wide Receiver

The battle to join Egbuka and Tate in Ohio State’s starting lineup at wide receiver this season could come down to a pair of five-stars from South Florida.

Brandon Inniss, Ohio State’s highest-rated recruit in the 2023 class, is a strong candidate to earn a spot in the lineup as a sophomore. But Jeremiah Smith, the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2024 recruiting class, is simply too talented not to get an immediate shot to compete for a starting job as an early enrollee.

Ultimately, it’s likely that both will see plenty of playing time this season. Smith might be the better fit to play outside if the Buckeyes keep Egbuka in the slot, but the Buckeyes could look to move Egbuka around more this season, opening up opportunities for Inniss to play inside.

Where Egbuka lines up primarily could depend on who else proves they belong in the starting lineup at wide receiver, and there will certainly be a lot of eyes on Smith and Inniss this spring as breakout candidates at the position alongside Tate. Redshirt junior Jayden Ballard could also factor into the competition, though his lack of playing time in his first three years at Ohio State suggests the younger receivers will be the ones to watch this offseason.

Brandon Inniss
Brandon Inniss is a candidate to start at wide receiver this season, but he’ll have to beat out Jeremiah Smith.

Tight End

Ohio State brought in former Ohio tight end Will Kacmarek via the transfer portal as a candidate to be the Buckeyes’ starter this season. Coming from the MAC, though, he’ll have more to prove this offseason than the likes of Downs, Howard, Judkins and McLaughlin.

As the most polished blocker and experienced tight end on the roster, Kacmarek is the likely frontrunner to start, but Gee Scott Jr. will get a shot to compete for the starting job as well after serving as Ohio State’s No. 2 tight end last year. Jelani Thurman should also be in line to compete for significant playing time in his second year as he has the highest ceiling of any tight end on the roster.

Much like in the wide receiver battle, it’s likely that at least two of those tight ends will see regular playing time as Ohio State often utilizes multi-tight end formations. If Thurman shows he’s ready for a bigger role in 2024, chances are good that all three of them will see snaps with the first-team offense.

Still, one tight end will likely play more than the other two in Ohio State’s base offense, and how each of them performs this spring could go a long way toward determining which TE is on the field most this fall.

Backup Quarterback

Day is going to make Howard earn the starting quarterback job before he names Howard the starting quarterback, but it would be a big surprise if Howard isn’t Ohio State’s starting quarterback this year. He’s the only quarterback on the roster with substantial experience at the collegiate level, and Ohio State wouldn’t have brought him in from the transfer portal if it didn’t view him as an upgrade over the quarterbacks it already had.

The real intrigue at the quarterback position will be the competition to back up Howard, as the Buckeyes have four legitimate candidates to earn the No. 2 spot on the depth chart in returning quarterbacks Devin Brown and Lincoln Kienholz and five-star freshmen Air Noland and Julian Sayin.

That competition will be important not only for Ohio State’s present but also its future, as whoever emerges as Ohio State’s top backup this season could enter 2025 as the frontrunner to be the Buckeyes’ next starting quarterback. The quarterbacks who don’t like where they stand on the depth chart coming out of spring could be more inclined to enter the transfer portal, so Day and Chip Kelly will also need to consider that factor as they determine how to split up reps this spring.

Brown and Kienholz enter the spring with the advantage of being the only quarterbacks with experience in Ohio State’s offense, but Sayin and Noland have the talent to climb the depth chart quickly.

The Buckeyes will likely keep the backup quarterback competition open into preseason camp in hopes of keeping as many quarterbacks on the roster as possible, but they also need to make sure they enter the season with multiple quarterbacks who are ready to play. If one or two quarterbacks pull ahead of the others this spring, it could be prudent to give them more reps to ensure they’re ready to play and give them more reason to stick around.

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