The 2015 Ohio State football team came into the year with very few questions, riding a wave of consistency and experience. The same cannot be said for coach Urban Meyer’s 2016 squad heading into its annual spring game on Saturday.
Most of the headlines surrounding the program this offseason centered around the nine players leaving early for the NFL draft, including defensive stalwart Joey Bosa and offensive playmakers Ezekiel Elliott and Michael Thomas. Returning just six starters — three on offense, three on defense — from last year’s team that went 12-1, there are a lot of new faces at the top of the depth chart for the Buckeyes.
Although most of these competitions won’t likely be settled until the final days of fall camp, here are a few position battles to watch for in the Scarlet and Gray scrimmage.
Behind what might be considered the most intimidating front line in school history, “The Slobs” have a remodeled look in 2016. Redshirt senior Pat Elflein and redshirt junior Billy Price return up front for OSU. They’ll be looking to lead a group of unheralded, or perhaps even unheard of, Buckeyes who will try to fill sizable holes. Elflein is moving over to center from his previous stake at right guard, while Price is set to slide over from left guard to right.
Junior Jamarco Jones is thought to be the replacement at left tackle for possible first-round pick Taylor Decker, who manned the position for the past three years. At 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds, the former U.S. Army All-American has not yet had a chance in the spotlight despite being ranked as the No. 4 offensive tackle by 247Sports in his class.
For the last two spots on the line, true sophomore Isaiah Prince, true freshman Michael Jordan, redshirt sophomore Demetrius Knox and redshirt junior Evan Lisle are all aiming to start on first-year offensive line coach Greg Studrawa’s front line.
Prince was the first member of the 2015 recruiting class to lose his black stripe, granting him rights to practice with the team. Prince, Jordan, Knox and Lisle all were consensus top 100 players in their respective recruiting classes.
Although it’s not a real game, the live action that the young offensive linemen will see should be valuable for Meyer to assess what the best five-man unit will be in the regular season.
Only one member of Luke Fickell’s starting linebacker corps returns for the 2016 season. With two-year starters Darron Lee and Joshua Perry both gone, junior Raekwon McMillan — already named a team captain — mans the middle for the Buckeyes this season, while young, unproven talent is competing for the two outside linebacker positions.
Two former Ohio Mr. Football candidates — Dante Booker, who won it in 2014, and Justin Hilliard, a finalist the year after — were highly touted recruits who haven’t had a chance yet to shine. Expect the two to consistently earn playing time all year, as Meyer has shown he likes to rotate a lot of bodies into the mix at linebacker. Booker, who had 22 tackles last season as a two-deep linebacker, is an early favorite over Hilliard to earn a starting job.
The other linebacker who is expected to receive plenty of first-team reps is redshirt junior Chris Worley. Along with Booker in 2015, Worley played on the second group and recorded 17 tackles last season.
Last season, Thomas was without a doubt the most talented pass catcher on the field. Now with Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller leaving empty spots, Meyer’s offense is desperately looking for someone from the inexperienced group of receivers to emerge.
Returning from a broken leg last season against Indiana is redshirt senior wide receiver Corey Smith. However, as he only collected 25 receptions and 317 receiving yards in a year and a half with OSU, it’s worrisome for Meyer to count on Smith for big numbers this season.
Also recovering from a season-ending leg injury, this one suffered in fall camp, Noah Brown has a much-anticipated 2016 campaign ahead considering all reports out of the 2015 camp were positive from Meyer and his team. At 6-foot-2, the 222-pound wideout has great size and control in the air. The redshirt sophomore is known as a physical receiver, which has been a staple in Meyer’s spread offense. If healthy enough to go, Brown will be a heavy favorite for a starting receiver position.
Dontre Wilson is another member of the unit who could be looked to for big production in 2016. Yeah, remember this guy? Playing a lot his freshman campaign in 2013, the 5-foot-10 speedster from Texas enters his senior season with his career thus far been marred by injuries. Only at 180 pounds when he arrived on campus and now listed at 195 pounds, Wilson has one season to live up to the hype OSU fans had for him when he first entered the OSU facilities.
Finally, if you’re going to watch one skill position player in Saturday’s game, look out for Austin Mack. The early-enrollee freshman has very impressive athleticism and knowledge of the position for a player who is just 18 years old. Mack is a U.S. Army All-American who showcased his skills impressively against future OSU talent in July at OSU’s Friday Night Lights high school showcase event. Don’t be surprised if Mack emerges as the standout in this year’s spring game.