If the temperature eclipsing 70 degrees in Columbus wasn’t enough of a sign that spring is on the doorstep, Ohio State made it clear with the first of its spring practices on Tuesday.
After working through drills during the morning, OSU coach Urban Meyer addressed the media at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
Here are three key takeaways from the coach’s media session.
Not quite ready
With the rather quick turnaround from the culmination of the previous season to the beginning of spring workouts and practices, it stands to reason that several players who dealt with injuries during the season or offseason might not be ready for action right away.
For the Buckeyes, that number of players is in the double digits.
Meyer said 11 players who figure to be significant contributors in 2016 are not yet ready to practice full speed or at all. That number includes OSU’s top three receivers on the depth chart: redshirt sophomore Noah Brown, redshirt senior Corey Smith and junior Curtis Samuel. Meyer said Brown and Smith will not be able to play at all in the spring.
The coach said another receiver, redshirt freshman K.J. Hill, can do everything but catch as he deals with a wrist injury.
Also absent at the onset of spring practice are two of OSU’s top safeties, juniors Erick Smith and Cam Burrows. Meyer said Burrows will go “a little bit later” in the spring while Erick Smith will not take part in live action but is doing run-throughs. Both safeties were lost for the season midway through 2015.
Some of the other banged-up players Meyer mentioned include junior cornerback Damon Webb, who has a “slight muscle strain” but is expected to return after spring break, and redshirt junior defensive end Tyquan Lewis, who is “done” for the spring with a shoulder injury.
He also said freshman offensive lineman Tyler Gerald and redshirt freshman linebacker Nick Conner are out for the spring, while redshirt freshman linebacker Justin Hilliard is currently unable to tackle with a bicep injury. Another true freshman, defensive end Malik Barrow, is also out for the spring with a knee injury.
Of the 16 starters who departed Columbus shortly after the Fiesta Bowl in January, it is difficult to argue that any is a more potent loss than Ezekiel Elliott.
The running back carried the ball for more than 1,800 yards in 2015 and added 23 touchdowns. His blocking ability and passion for the game were also sources of pride that Meyer brought up time and time again throughout last season.
Alas, Elliott is awaiting his NFL draft selection in late April, and OSU must move on with finding his replacement.
While Meyer said he expects four players to see a significant number of carries in practice and throughout the season, he singled out two as the candidates for the starting job: redshirt senior Bri’onte Dunn and redshirt freshman Mike Weber, with the coach giving the former a slight edge based on seniority.
“Bri’onte’s a senior, so I’d like to see him take the first swing. I think the guy behind him is pretty good too, Mike Weber,” Meyer said. “I guess you’d hope that it’d be Bri’onte Dunn taking the first snap of the first game of the season, but I know the kid behind him is pretty good, too.”
Dunn carried the ball 15 times for 95 yards and a touchdown in 2015, primarily at the ends of blowouts. Weber did not step on the field due to a torn meniscus before the season, though Meyer often talked of him debuting throughout the year.
A pair of H-backs, Samuel and senior Dontre Wilson, are expected to also get reps at running back, Meyer said, though he plans to use both more in a receiver role.
“I’d see four guys carrying the ball for us right now in the fall,” Meyer said.
Area to monitor
During spring and summer practice a year ago, Meyer mentioned the offensive and defensive lines as the areas he had the most concern about.
Now, he is still keeping a very close eye on one of those units.
After losing three of the four starters on the defensive line, including All-American Joey Bosa, coupled with Lewis being out for the spring, Meyer said there could be a lot of movement along the defensive-line depth chart between now and September.
Two of the players who Meyer is counting on to step up are yet to even stand on the sideline of a college football game as anything other than a prospective recruit: Nick Bosa and Jonathon Cooper.
“D-line is the one where there has to be a year of development. … I think we’re counting on one guy who’s not here yet, Bosa, he’s going to be in the rotation. Cooper, he’s probably going to be in the rotation,” Meyer said.
Nick Bosa, the younger brother of Joey, and Cooper were each considered five-star defensive end prospects, with Cooper already arriving on campus as an early enrollee. Bosa is still recovering from an ACL tear he sustained in November.
With those two, along with Lewis and redshirt sophomore Sam Hubbard occupying the ends of the line, Meyer said a pair of players who are “going to have to play for us” have been shifted to the interior: redshirt freshmen Jashon Cornell and Dre’Mont Jones.
After Tuesday’s drills, there are 13 more spring practices, which are all building toward OSU’s annual spring game. The scrimmage is set to be played at Ohio Stadium on April 16.