Entering the 2016 season, Ohio State was somewhat of an enigma to college football fans. Having lost so many talented players to the 2016 NFL Draft, head coach Urban Meyer was fielding a team that was talent-laden, but was tremendously inexperienced.
Even though Ohio State didn’t win the Big Ten, let alone its division, the Buckeyes still wound up in the College Football Playoff as the third seed, and eager to show that they were truly worthy of their ranking. Those hopes, however, were throttled by the eventual national champion Clemson Tigers, 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl, leaving Ohio State's coaches, players, and fans wondering what 2017 would bring.
Meyer quickly recognized that some changes needed to be made on offense, resulting in an overhaul of his coaching staff. Ryan Day was hired to serve as co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach with former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson coming on board as offensive coordinator/tight ends coach. Meyer also had to replace Luke Fickell after he left to become the head coach at Cincinnati, with Bill Davis added as linebackers coach.
So besides the coaching changes, here are five other things to keep an eye on as spring practice commences in Columbus.
5 Storylines to Watch During Ohio State’s Spring Practice
1. Can Ohio State Develop a Downfield Passing Game?
Ohio State fans were critical of Buckeye quarterback J.T. Barrett throughout 2016, faulting him for not attacking opponents with deeper passes. Compounding the issues with the passing game are the realities that the top three receivers from last season (Curtis Samuel, Noah Brown and Dontre Wilson) are now preparing for the upcoming NFL Draft. Keep an eye on sophomore Binjimen Victor as a possible starter at one of the newly vacated spots.
2. Can Ohio State Solidify its Offensive Line?
Pat Elflein exhausted his eligibility at center, prompting a move by Billy Price from guard. Price is expected to handle the move with no problems, but now there’s a vacancy at right guard. Throw in the struggles that Isaiah Prince had at right tackle in 2016, and it is possible the Buckeyes could have as many as three new starters along the offensive line.
3. Who Will Replace Curtis Samuel at H-Back?
Samuel declared early for the 2017 NFL Draft, leaving a sizable void at the H-Back position. A combination of a running back and wide receiver, there are a few candidates on the roster who can probably fit the bill, but lack experience. The leading contender is sophomore Demario McCall, who impressed with limited playing time in 2016 as a true freshman.
4. Another Year of an Inexperienced Secondary
Last season, Ohio State had to replace three starters in the secondary, and this spring it’s the same situation. Gareon Conley, Marshon Lattimore and Malik Hooker are all gone and expected to be high draft picks in late April. Ohio State is bringing in another crop of talented defensive backs with their 2017 recruiting class, and several of these players will be competing in spring practice after enrolling early. A name to keep an eye out for is Jeffrey Okudah, who could compete at either cornerback or safety.
5. Special Teams Cannot be Overlooked
After losing punter Cameron Johnston and placekicker Tyler Durbin, Ohio State will be looking for new specialists this spring. Sean Nuernberger will get an opportunity to reclaim the placekicker spot after injuries derailed his 2016 season, while redshirt freshman Drue Chrisman should be the first option at punter. Parris Campbell emerged as a solid kickoff returner, while a new punt returner will need to be found to replace the aforementioned Samuel.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Ohio State in the Big Ten
Even with the embarrassing loss to Clemson, Urban Meyer has recruited exceptionally well, and has talented players at every position. The return of J.T. Barrett at quarterback will give Ohio State tremendous experience at the most important position on the field. Even with the offensive issues the Buckeyes experienced in 2016, Meyer and new coordinator Kevin Wilson will be able to diagnose the problems, and should have the team playing a more balanced style that Meyer has long advocated.
The schedule has its challenges, but does not appear to be as difficult as 2016’s slate. Ohio State opens Big Ten play on the road at Indiana on Aug. 31, and then comes home to play Oklahoma on Sept. 9. Two home non-conference games versus Army and UNLV should have the Buckeyes firing on all cylinders before B1G conference play truly commences at the end of September at Rutgers. Penn State may be the preseason favorite to repeat as East Division champs, but Ohio State will be heard from before the season is over.
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.