Athlon previews spring practice for the Buckeyes.
After a 24-0 record to Urban Meyer’s tenure at Ohio State, the Buckeyes closed 2013 on a two-game losing streak. Despite the sour end to last year, Ohio State is still in great shape. Meyer continues to reel in elite talent, and quarterback Braxton Miller turned down the NFL for one more season in Columbus.
With Miller back on campus, Ohio State’s offense will be one of the best in the nation. Running back Carlos Hyde will be missed, but Ezekiel Elliott and Dontre Wilson should be a potent one-two combination. The biggest question mark on offense is a line that returns just one starter. Meyer is still searching for the right combination on defense after finishing seventh in the Big Ten in yards allowed in 2013. Chris Ash was hired to coordinate the defense with Luke Fickell, while Larry Johnson Sr. comes to Ohio State from Penn State to coach the defensive line.
The Big Ten East Division is shaping up to be a battle between Ohio State and Michigan State for the top spot. Will the Buckeyes take the next step under Meyer and win the Big Ten title in 2014?
Ohio State Buckeyes 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 12-2 (8-0)
Spring Practice Opens: March 4
Spring Game: April 12
Four Things to Watch in Ohio State’s 2014 Spring Practice
1. The backup quarterbacks: When healthy, there’s no debate Braxton Miller is Ohio State’s No. 1 quarterback. But the senior will miss spring practice due to offseason shoulder surgery, leaving Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett, Stephen Collier and Luke Morgan as the options vying for the backup role. There’s not much experience in that foursome, as Morgan is an invited walk-on, Collier is a true freshman that enrolled in time to compete in spring practice, Barrett was the No. 137 prospect in the 247Sports Composite last year and Jones played in three games last season and attempted two passes. Jones and Barrett are working as the top two quarterbacks in spring practice, and it’s important both passers get comfortable with the first-team offense. Miller should be 100 percent in fall practice, but after he accumulated 171 rushing attempts last year, the Buckeyes need to have their backup prepared. This is a big spring for Barrett and Jones to prove they are capable of leading the offense should Miller miss any snaps in 2014.
2. Figuring out the supporting cast: The running back and receiving corps aren’t positions of weakness, but Meyer needs to sort out his options in both units. At running back, Ezekiel Elliott and Dontre Wilson are slated to replace Carlos Hyde. Elliott may not match Hyde’s 1,521 yards from last season, but he should receive the bulk of the attempts. Wilson is suited for an all-purpose role, and coordinator Tom Herman needs to get the ball to him more in 2014. The Buckeyes also have Rod Smith, Warren Ball and Bri’onte Dunn fighting for carries. Can Herman and Meyer develop a pecking order here? At receiver, the Buckeyes are still searching for the right mix. Corey Brown is gone after leading the team with 63 receptions last season, leaving Devin Smith and tight end Jeff Heuerman as the top options. Evan Spencer is also in the mix after catching 26 passes last year. There’s no shortage of talent here, including Jalin Marshall, Michael Thomas, talented incoming freshman Johnnie Dixon, Corey Smith, Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Greene and James Clark. Which players will emerge as starters or potential go-to options for Miller? With backup quarterbacks taking reps this spring, it may be tough to get a read on this group.
3. Rebuilding the offensive line: The Buckeyes had one of the best offensive lines in the nation last year. Fast forward to 2014 and this group is facing a rebuilding project. Taylor Decker is the only returning starter from last season and will likely flip from right tackle to the left side. Pat Elflein made one start in 2013 and is penciled in at one of the guard spots. The other three positions are up for grabs. Redshirt freshman Billy Price and Jacoby Boren appear set to battle to start at center, while Darryl Baldwin could be the answer at right tackle if he holds off talented redshirt freshman Evan Lisle. Helping Elflein at guard could be a couple of different names, potentially converted defensive lineman Joel Hale. Replacing four starters in the trenches is no easy task. How long will it take this unit to find the right mix?
4. Fixing the defense: No, the defense wasn’t completely awful last year. However, it wasn’t quite up to the standard most expect in Columbus. Despite having a first-team All-Big Ten cornerback in Bradley Roby, the Buckeyes ranked 83rd nationally in pass efficiency defense and allowed 20 passing scores (conference-only games). The back seven should receive most of the attention in the spring, as the line could be the best in the nation in 2014. Ryan Shazier’s early departure to the NFL added to the uncertainty at linebacker. Joshua Perry and Curtis Grant are back as returning starters, while redshirt freshman Darron Lee opened spring with the No. 1 unit. The name to watch at linebacker is true freshman Raekwon McMillan – the No. 22 recruit in the 247Sports Composite. In the secondary, the coaching staff is counting on Doran Grant to take his game to the next level after earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last year. Cam Burrows shifted from cornerback to safety and should be a major contributor there in 2014. Plenty of question marks litter the back seven. However, there’s no shortage of talent at the coaching staff’s disposal.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 10-12
Take a look at Ohio State’s schedule. See many losses there? The Buckeyes will miss production from Shazier and Roby on defense, but there’s enough talent to figure things out as the season progresses. As long as Miller stays healthy, Ohio State can simply outscore every team on its schedule – with one exception. The Nov. 8 road date at Michigan State is a revenge game for the Buckeyes and a matchup that should decide the East Division. If Ohio State wins at Michigan State and takes the Big Ten Championship, this team should be in college football’s playoff.