1. Braxton’s back, all right. But who will be his backup?
The mood of Ohio State fans across the country changed Jan. 9 when rising senior quarterback Braxton Miller announced his decision to return to school after days of speculation. Although it remains unclear how close he was to actually leaving, his return still leaves some questions unanswered. Despite being the starting quarterback for each of the last three seasons, Miller has yet to get through a whole season without injury. If this trend continues — Miller is likely not going take a snap during spring practice — a young inexperienced quarterback will have to take the helm for OSU. Kenny Guiton is gone, and the only quarterback who has thrown a pass in college other than Miller is rising redshirt-sophomore Cardale Jones. Jones might have some competition for the No. 2 spot though with incoming freshman Stephen Collier and rising redshirt-freshman J.T. Barrett. An insight into the battle will likely be given when the team announces the starters for the Spring Game, although it likely won’t be until the start of the season that coach Urban Meyer makes his decision.
2. Carlos Hyde is gone, but he’s not the only Buckeye who can run the ball
Although Miller is set to play another season for OSU, there is no such thing for running back Carlos Hyde. One of OSU’s all-time most prolific running backs — sixth in career rushing yards in program history (3,198), seventh best single season total (1,521) and tied for third in most yards in a single game (246 against Illinois Nov. 16) — Hyde will be difficult to replace. The Buckeyes do return numerous backs from last season, perhaps none more poised to take over for Hyde than rising sophomore Ezekiel Elliott. Although rising senior Rod Smith and rising sophomore Warren Ball came into 2013 with more hype, it was Elliott who impressed the most during the season. Finishing the year fifth on the team in yards and second on the team in average yards per carry, Elliott likely has the inside track to the first team carries in 2014. But don’t count out the electric rising sophomore Dontre Wilson, who is likely to get more touches with a full offseason of workouts and time to bulk up under his belt.
3. A new brand of bulk to protect Braxton Miller
It cannot be overstated how important the Buckeye offensive line has been to OSU’s success. The experience of Jack Mewhort, Corey Linsley, Marcus Hall and Andrew Norwell was vital for OSU in Meyer’s first two seasons at the helm. But now all four of those players have finished their careers in Columbus, and the Buckeyes are looking to young players to fill, and create, the gaps. Rising junior Taylor Decker is the only returning starter from last season, although it is likely that rising redshirt-sophomore Pat Elflein, who in place of a suspended Marcus Hall, did enough to earn himself a spot in the starting lineup. That still leaves three open spots on the line with Decker moving to left tackle. Rising junior Jacoby Boren played a significant amount of the season opener when Linsley had to sit because of an injured foot. Rising senior Darryl Baldwin, rising junior Tommy Brown and rising sophomore Kyle Dodson were listed as backups last season and the 2014 class has five incoming freshmen who will all be battling it out for the remaining starting positions.
4. Without Ryan Shazier, what will the linebackers do?
Meyer said Feb. 5 on National Signing Day the linebacker position is undergoing “an overhaul right now,” and is surely one to be under a microscope for the entirety of spring practice. Everyone knows who is gone — first-team All-American and Big Ten performer Ryan Shazier and his league-leading 143 tackles — but who is set to return? Rising senior Curtis Grant and rising junior Joshua Perry are the main two players who will have some experience from last season, but their experience is likely to be tested with the addition of four true freshmen. Led by the crown jewel of Meyer’s recruiting class Raekwon McMillan — who enrolled in January — the young blood will push for playing time. McMillan is the lone linebacker who enrolled early, but Meyer has said he has no plans to redshirt either McMillan or the other three — Kyle Berger, Dante Booker and Sam Hubbard — players who are looking to fill Shazier’s shoes. Surely to be a storyline throughout the season, spring ball will go a long way to determining who is next in line at the position.
5. New faces, new philosophies on defensive side of the ball
It’s no secret the OSU defense was not what fans were accustomed to seeing, particularly at defending the pass — a ghastly 112th in the country while giving up 268 yards per game. Meyer certainly addressed the defensive issues on the recruiting trail, bringing in 11 defensive players. But he also did the same on the coaching staff, adding Larry Johnson as the defensive line coach in place of the departed Mike Vrabel and Chris Ash to coach the secondary after Everett Withers took a head coaching job at James Madison. Johnson and Ash have excellent track records at Penn State and Arkansas/Wisconsin, respectively, and it will be interesting to see how quickly their presence will be evident. Both are big-time recruiters, which Meyer loves, but both also bring to the table the intensity that was missing late last season in the losses to Michigan State and Clemson in the Big Ten Championship game and Orange Bowl.