Two seasons removed from winning the national championship, the Ohio State Buckeyes enter spring football practice with a completely reshuffled and revamped roster. Players such as Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Taylor Decker and Joshua Perry have all departed the program, preparing themselves for potentially lucrative NFL careers.
Entering the 2016 season, more than half of head coach Urban Meyer’s roster is made up of players with zero playing experience in a college game. Only six starters return, with three on each side of the ball.
Last season the Buckeyes had a tremendous season, finishing 12-1, including a decisive 44-28 victory over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Even with such an impressive record, college football fans across the nation believed Ohio State underwhelmed throughout most of the 2015 season, with a sputtering and often inconsistent offense receiving most of the criticism.
With inexperience at essentially every area on the field, here are five critical positions that will bear watching as spring practice commences in Columbus.
5 Storylines to Watch in Ohio State’s Spring Practice
1. Who will emerge at wide receiver?
Michael Thomas, Braxton Miller and Jalin Marshall are gone, leaving Noah Brown and Corey Smith as the projected starting wide receivers. Here is the concern — both Brown and Smith are coming off injuries that derailed both players' 2015 seasons. Behind Brown and Smith are several players with the aforementioned "zero playing experience” label. One guy to keep an eye and ear out for is converted quarterback Torrance Gibson, one of the jewels of the 2015 recruiting class.
2. Can the interior defensive line develop this spring?
Adolphus Washington, Tommy Schutt and Joel Hale are gone. Michael Hill, Donovan Munger and Tracy Sprinkle return with some experience, but redshirt freshmen such as Robert Landers, Joseph Alabi and Davon Hamilton will need to step up this spring to help develop depth up front.
3. Who will fill out the offensive line?
Three vacancies emerged with the departures of Taylor Decker, Jacoby Boren and Chase Farris. Redshirt senior Pat Elflein is moving from right guard to center, leaving both the left and right offensive tackle spots open heading into spring practice. The likely candidates to win these jobs are sophomore Isaiah Prince and junior Jamarco Jones. Who will fill Elflein's spot at right guard? Candidates include Evan Lisle, Demetrius Knox and Matthew Burrell.
4. Backup quarterback is always a concern
Cardale Jones, a Buckeye fan favorite during the 2014 national championship run, declared for the 2016 NFL Draft. J.T. Barrett is the unquestioned starter, but he has a history of injuries, dating back to his high school career. Redshirt freshman Joe Burrow will look to lock up the backup spot this spring.
5. The safety spots are completely wide open
Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell both declared for the 2016 NFL Draft. Malik Hooker, Cam Burrows and Erick Smith are names being projected for these spots. The concerns related to Burrows and Smith are comparable to the wide receiver position, as both are coming off significant injuries that ended their 2015 campaigns early.
Pre-Spring Ohio State Outlook in the Big Ten
While the "zero playing experience" factor looms large over this group, one thing to remember - these players were heavily recruited by top programs across the country, and are quite talented. Meyer is eager to see how these players respond, with so many positions open. Throw in two new coaches on the staff in Greg Schiano (defensive coordinator) and Greg Studrawa (offensive line), and this spring will be one of learning how all the new components are coming together in Columbus.
How does Ohio State stack up, in comparison to the rest of the B1G? Quite simply, other coaches would be thrilled to have such raw talent on hand and at their disposal. Even with the substantial departures, Ohio State should be the favorite to win the East Division, even with rivals such as Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State in the mix. The biggest game on Ohio State's early-season schedule is at Oklahoma on Sept. 17. With conference play beginning in October, Ohio State may have gained some appreciable experience on its roster as the Buckeyes try to claim another B1G championship in 2016.
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a diehard Ohio State fan. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.