On Saturday, Ohio State’s football team will showcase what’s to come in the fall with the annual spring game. At 12:30 p.m. at Ohio Stadium, the Buckeyes take the field for the first time since the team’s disappointing finish to last season in the Fiesta Bowl.
“(Defensive coordinator) Greg Schiano is looking for certain things. (Offensive coordinator) Kevin Wilson is looking for certain things,” said OSU coach Urban Meyer. “What I’m looking for is energy, enthusiasm.”
Here are five storylines to watch heading into the spring game on Saturday.
Wilson casts away old offensive look
After Clemson shut out OSU 31-0 in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, Meyer hinted at changes on the offense.
“I’m going to take a hard look at some things when we get back,” Meyer said.
Within two weeks, OSU hired former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day as co-offensive coordinators to replace co-offensive coordinators Tim Beck and Ed Warinner, who took jobs as offensive coordinator at Texas and offensive line coach at Minnesota, respectively. Wilson is also the tight ends coach while Day is the acting quarterbacks coach.
On Saturday, the Buckeyes will unveil a Wilson-led offense, with a potentially increased pace of play.
“He likes to go fast. We know that, but we want to be under control when we’re going fast,” said redshirt junior wide receiver Terry McLaurin.
The question remains if OSU’s success with the deep ball can resurrect with Wilson at the helm.
Redshirt senior quarterback J.T. Barrett burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman, averaging nine yards per passing attempt. But last year, with two seasons of starting experience under his belt, he averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt.
Last season, former OSU wide receiver Noah Brown was expected to be a deep threat. However, after a four-touchdown showing against Oklahoma in the third game of the year, he pulled in just two touchdowns over the next 10 games.
With Wilson calling plays and Day coaching Barrett, Saturday’s game will be the first opportunity to show improvement in finding windows down the field.
Wide receivers unproven, again
Without a stud wide receiver leading the wideouts last year, OSU faltered in the passing game often. The team struggled last season, posting only 1,445 total receiving yards and hauling in just 16 touchdowns.
On top of limited production, OSU must now replace its three leading receivers from last season.
Taking over will be wideouts McLaurin, redshirt sophomore K.J. Hill, sophomore Binjimen Victor and redshirt junior H-back Parris Campbell, among others.
Wide receivers coach Zach Smith is excited to see how his group will look during the spring game and get a preview of what it will be like to play in a game-day atmosphere.
“Saturday’s the day where you see if they can go out on the field, no coaches on the field, with 100,000 people and go make the same play that they made in practice,” Smith said.
Next man up in the secondary
The Buckeyes will not only be losing impact players in their receiving corps, but their secondary as well, following the departure of safety Malik Hooker and cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley.
There is only one returning starting safety on the Buckeyes — senior Damon Webb — but cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said he will have to compete with some of the other guys like sophomore Jordan Fuller and senior Erick Smith, and they all might rotate playing time.
“When you have a talented team, the more guys you can play, keep fresh, keep healthy and get experience, the better you are going to be defensively,” Coombs said. “So, I would say there is no reason those three kids (Webb, Smith, Fuller) couldn’t do the same thing in the backend.”
As for the cornerback position, Coombs said there are six or even seven players who might rotate in the cycle. Younger guys such as freshmen Jeffrey Okudah, Shaun Wade and Marcus Williamson have impressed early despite their inexperience.
“The new guys (Okudah, Wade, Williamson) are really playing well, as is (sophomore) Rodjay Burns,” Coombs said. “So, this group of kids — from a pecking order standpoint, if we lined up today — I would expect that six of them would play, maybe seven, during the course of the game. They’re that talented and we’re going to keep fresh guys out there.”
Five D-linemen packages
The defensive line was a focal point for success in 2016, and the team might opt to capitalize on all the returning talent by utilizing a five-man front in the upcoming season.
Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year redshirt senior Tyquan Lewis, redshirt junior Sam Hubbard, senior Jalyn Holmes and sophomore Nick Bosa all return to the line for the Buckeyes in 2017, as will redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones.
“We have five premier — in my mind, five — four defensive ends and Dre’Mont Jones,” Meyer said. “You know, I would like to see all five on the field at one time.”
The team might also have Hubbard play a bit of linebacker in the upcoming season, and the fourth-year lineman said he’s ready to give that position a shot if he believes it will help the team.
“I think coach (Larry) Johnson and coach Schiano want to get the best guys out on the field, and if that means me standing up a little bit to get another Dre’Mont or four (defensive) ends on the field, or me out in space, it’s just what they decide,” Hubbard said. “So we’re just playing around with a bunch of different combinations right now.”
Right side offensive line
For the second year in a row, OSU’s returning right guard will shift even further inside to take over at center. On Saturday, Barrett will take snaps from redshirt senior center Billy Price, OSU’s third starting center in as many years.
Former OSU center Pat Elflein, a first-team All-American and the 2016 Rimington Award winner, debuted as the starting center at the 2016 OSU spring game after transitioning to the position from right guard.
“I think Billy’s going to do exactly what I did and win all the accolades post-season and do all that,” Elflein said at the NFL combine.
Sliding into Price’s former starting right guard spot will be one of a triumvirate of guards — junior Demetrius Knox, redshirt sophomore Matt Burrell or redshirt junior Malcolm Pridgeon.
Knox, who has been working with the starting unit, missed the Student Appreciation Day practice on April 8 due to academic issues.
In his place with the first team was Burrell, who has been praised by Meyer, Jones and Price.
Whoever lines up as starting right guard between entrenched starters Price and junior right tackle Isaiah Prince will have the first opportunity to establish himself and build chemistry with the duo in front of tens of thousands of fans.