Football returned to Ohio Stadium on Saturday when the Buckeyes played the annual spring game in front of over 80,000 scarlet and gray-clad fans. Team Scarlet, led by redshirt senior quarterback J.T. Barrett, took to Team Gray 38-31.
Here are five takeaways from the 2017 LiFE Sports Spring Game.
Backup quarterback battle far from over
Neither redshirt sophomore quarterback Joe Burrow nor redshirt freshman quarterback Dwayne Haskins gave an inch in the contentious fight to be named OSU backup quarterback.
“I know it is very close,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said. “But I’m not prepared to say who is 2, who is 3, et cetera, yet.”
Burrow, the starter for Team Gray, completed 14-of-22 passes for 262 yards. All three of his touchdown passes came within five minutes of each other. His 44-yard connection with redshirt junior wide receiver Johnnie Dixon in the corner of the end zone on the first play of the second quarter, might have been the prettiest throw-and-catch by a quarterback-receiver duo of the afternoon.
Haskins — who personified the casual nature of spring games by playing for both teams — passed 37 times, completing 26 of those passes for 293 yards. He twice dropped dimes for touchdowns, which were a couple of the highlights of the afternoon. First, he hit Dixon on a fade route. Then, he hit redshirt junior wideout Terry McLaurin running at full speed in the back of the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown.
Given the nature of how well each quarterback played and how important winning the backup spot might be to potentially being named start next season, the potential for jealousy or bad feelings exists. But Burrow emphasizes the strength of the quarterbacks’ bond.
“Everything we focus on at Ohio State is power of the unit, power of wide receivers, quarterbacks, offensive line, defensive line, all on an individual level. We focus on having a great relationship within the unit,” Burrow said.
Haskins agreed, saying he doesn’t feel like the quarterbacks room is overcrowded.
“I even told the guys like ‘I love each and every one of you.’ It’s a competition, but I’m not competing with people,’” Haskins said.
Having lost H-back Curtis Samuel and receivers Noah Brown and Dontre Wilson to the NFL, redshirt senior quarterback J.T. Barrett must be counted on to lead the Buckeye offense as much as ever before in his time in Columbus. But having two backup options battle into the fall to prepare for a worst-case scenario has to make make Meyer breathe easier.
Matthew Burrell taking over as right guard
When OSU released the spring game rosters on Friday, we were offered a hint that redshirt sophomore Matthew Burrell would start at right guard.
Engaged in a battle for the starting spot with redshirt junior Demetrius Knox and redshirt junior Malcolm Pridgeon, Burrell was only one of the three linemen playing for Team Gray with redshirt senior center Billy Price and the rest of the starting offensive linemen.
Burrell’s escalation from backup to leading candidate to start has been quick, yet decisive.
Against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, when freshman left guard Michael Jordan went down with an ankle injury, Knox, not Burrell, was the backup to replace him.
A little over a month ago, redshirt senior center Billy Price noted Burrell might be indulging in the potentially negative aspects of college.
“I told him, ‘You’ve got to close your circle and tighten your circle down because people want to hurt you, people want to take you down. People want to see you mess up and put you on the news,’” Price said.
But after the spring game, it was clear that something had changed. Price noted no one has grown more than Burrell.
“Matt is a younger brother to me,” Price said. “Being able to see him grow before my eyes is something that I really was really, really proud of.”
Nothing is set in stone as Burrell must make further strides to keep the starting spot as Knox and Pridgeon. Barrett’s single interception was caused when redshirt junior defensive end Sam Hubbard pushed Burrell into the quarterback. But optimism is high regarding Burrell.
“I think he played pretty well today, we’ll see on film,” Price said. “You start seeing strides and you start seeing confidence built within a kid and that’s something that — again, for those of you who are parents, to see your child develop and to see your kid grow before your eyes is something I’ve been told is very incredible.”
Deep ball: Progressing
The lack of tackling on the opening drive overshadowed Team Scarlet’s methodical drive down the field. Only a single incompletion and a stuffed rush up the middle from redshirt sophomore running back Mike Weber at the 1-yard line sullied Barrett’s team’s 65-yard touchdown drive.
On the fourth play of the game, Barrett hit Campbell for a 17-yard completion, longer than all but two passes in the Buckeyes’ previous two games.
Though Barrett’s only touchdown pass came from the 1-yard line, he sees progress in connecting with receivers down the field.
“It went very well. Before, we were just shooting them. We weren’t necessarily making them at first,” Barrett said. “But then, with coach (Zach) Smith and coach (Ryan) Day, just really finding landmarks for those throws, to the field and to the boundaries.”
OSU quarterbacks threw six touchdown passes 18 yards or longer. Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson noted the deep ball was a point of emphasis, but was less charitable in his praise.
“We’ve gotten in the ballpark where we’ve got catchable balls,” Wilson said.
He says he understands that further progress will come during the summer when the Buckeyes take off the pads and focus more on the passing game than the running game which has been the focus of the spring.
Vying for the touches available after former OSU H-back Curtis Samuel, receiver Dontre Wilson and wideout Noah Brown moved to the NFL, 16 players caught passes for 10 or more yards.
But remember, former OSU receiver Torrance Gibson caught six passes for 50 yards and two touchdowns at last season’s spring game and now he’s playing quarterback at Cincinnati for former OSU defensive coordinator, and current Bearcats coach, Luke Fickell. So, temper your expectations on Dixon and the rest of the spring game standouts.
Questions in the defensive backfield
OSU’s offense combined to complete 50-of-74 passes for 654 yards and seven touchdowns with 10-minute quarters and a running clock in the second half.
Looking at those numbers from the perspective of the offense, co-offensive coordinators Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day should be ecstatic. But defensive coordinator Greg Schiano might be less than pleased.
A bevy of receivers from each team was running open seemingly every time one of the four quarterbacks dropped back to pass.
Five-star freshmen cornerbacks Shaun Wade and Jeffrey Okudah along with redshirt sophomore cornerback Kendall Sheffield, a junior college transfer, will be counted on to make plays.
“It was good to see the young corners kind of rebound — talking about Wade, Okudah, (Marcus) Williamson and Kendall Sheffield,” Meyer said. “They kind of started a little slow, but — I have to go back and watch the video — but I thought they finished the game pretty good.”
Meyer noted, after the game, that the team has to work on certain areas.
“Couple areas we’ve got to shore up, and I don’t think we’re nine strong, but I think we’re seven strong right now. And that’s pretty good in April to be that,” Meyer said.
He declined to name the two units that need to improve, though it’s fair to assume the defensive backs, specifically the relatively inexperienced cornerbacks, must improve before OSU heads to Bloomington, Indiana on Aug. 31 for the Buckeyes’ season opener.
No injuries, no problem
It’s impossible for a team to lose in the spring game on the scoreboard. But it is possible to lose a player to the spring game.
The Buckeyes avoided this, suffering no major injuries Saturday afternoon. But they helped facilitate it in an unexpected way. The coaching staff decided to prevent players from tackling for the first five series.
After the game, Meyer said OSU did this once before, in 2014, when the team was full of veterans.
“It’s either you don’t play some guys or you kind of restrict the tackling and keep guys up. And I wanted them to experience the crowd and play and finish a good spring,” Meyer said.
Prior to kickoff, players from each team gathered at the 50-yard line for the annual “circle drill” at midfield. Ramping up the intensity for that, then tampering it down for “thud tempo” — what Meyer called the two-hand touch period. To some players, it was a bit odd.
“I’m ready to go play ball. Strap it up, let’s go to town,” Price said.