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Football: Position battles to watch in Ohio State’s spring game

Ohio State then-redshirt sophomore linebacker Malik Harrison (39) tackles USC quarterback Sam Darnold in the second quarter of the 2017 Cotton Bowl against USC on Dec. 29 in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Ohio State won 24-7. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

The end of the 2017 Ohio State football season meant the end of 21 players’ collegiate careers. And the end of those players’ tenures as Buckeyes opened up several starting positions on next year’s team.

Some players naturally move from primary backup into a starting role, such as Isaiah Prince replacing Jamarco Jones at left tackle or Robert Landers replacing Tracy Sprinkle at defensive tackle. But at other positions, spring practice is used as a way to determine which 11 players will line up as starters on both sides of the ball.

Here is how some of the most hotly contested position battles stack up heading into Saturday’s Spring Game.

Quarterback: Dwayne Haskins, Joe Burrow or Tate Martell

Not since 2015 has Ohio State entered the spring unsure of which quarterback will line up behind center. The past two springs, J.T. Barrett entered the spring as the starter.

Ohio State then-redshirt freshman quarterback Dwayne Haskins (7) calls out a play in the Ohio State-Maryland game on Oct. 7. Ohio State won 62-14. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

This season, not only is there no locked-in starter, but head coach Urban Meyer has not disclosed a leader in the race between redshirt sophomore Dwayne Haskins, redshirt junior Joe Burrow and redshirt freshman Joe Burrow.

“All three are close,” Meyer said on Wednesday’s Big Ten coaches’ teleconference. “There’s at times you wish that you’d have one guy separate. But then, it’s certainly not because of poor performance. It’s because all three want the job. Some decisions are going to have to be made. But right now I can’t name a [starter]. I can’t even name a [third-string].”

There is not necessarily a bad option.

Haskins has experience replacing Barrett with the Buckeyes trailing Michigan and led them to a comeback victory. His arm also brings about fear in opponents defensive backfields. Martell has not played a single collegiate snap, but has the speed and elusiveness of a running back. Burrow has a similar game to Barrett with his dual-threat abilities.

The Spring Game will give everyone a glimpse at who might have the lead — and the stakes are high.

Haskins is expected to start with the first-team offense, but Meyer has not outright said that will happen. Martell hasn’t had any action since last year’s spring game. If Burrow is not named starter after spring practice ends Saturday, he might transfer.

The Buckeyes wait at the end of the tunnel prior to taking the field for the game against UNLV on Sept. 23.Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

Tight end: Luke Farrell, Rashod Berry or Jeremy Ruckert

Marcus Baugh manned the tight end position the past two seasons, but never developed into a major offensive weapon. Redshirt junior Rashod Berry was Baugh’s backup last season. But on the Big Ten teleconference, Meyer hinted redshirt sophomore Luke Farrell passed him and is close to locking up the job.

“Luke Farrell has kind of advanced in front of the other guys,” Meyer said. “But we’re still trying to finalize that.”

The situation has a chance to become murkier when incoming freshman Jeremy Ruckert enrolls in school this summer. He was the second-ranked tight end in the 2018 class by the 247Sports composite rankings and has the raw ability to make an immediate impact.

Tight ends have historically played integral roles in co-offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson’s offenses. But last season, the first during Wilson’s stint as an Ohio State assistant coach, tight ends combined for just 36 of the team’s 287 receptions. Berry had six catches and Farrell caught two.

A Haskins-led offense might lend itself to a more tight end-focused passing game, and that could be on display Saturday.

Then-redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Matthew Burrell combs through the crowd in the Shoe after Ohio State’s 39-38 victory over No. 2 Penn State on Oct. 28. Credit: Nick Clarkson | Social Media Editor

Center: Brady Taylor, Josh Myers or Matt Burrell

Ohio State has had back-to-back Rimington Trophy winners — Pat Elflein in 2016 and Billy Price in 2017. No one should expect a third award-winner next season.

While the winning center between redshirt senior Brady Taylor, redshirt freshman Josh Myers and redshirt junior Matt Burrell might end up as a solid player, none has much experience. Taylor has the edge, given he will be in his fifth year with the program.

Myers was a former five-star prospect and is a powerful run blocker. After a year in the program, he has begun to push for playing time. Burrell has been a career backup and has been embroiled in multiple position battles before, but he seems third in line for playing time at center.

With a strong performance in the Spring Game, Taylor could cement himself in the middle of the line. But Myers and Burrell seem to have a shot to overtake him.

Ohio State freshman linebacker Baron browning warms up prior to the Buckeyes’ season-opening 49-21 win over Indiana on Aug. 31 in Bloomington, Indiana. Credit: Colin Hass-Hill | Sports Editor

Linebacker: Keandre Jones, Baron Browning, Malik Harrison, Dante Booker or Justin Hilliard

Despite lacking much clarity in personnel at the second level of the defense, Meyer said he is not too worried about the situation. The Buckeyes have a glut of talented, yet inexperienced linebackers.

Redshirt sophomore Tuf Borland is locked into a starting role when he returns from his spring practice-ending Achilles injury. But beyond him, the other two slots are open.

Redshirt sophomore Keandre Jones, junior Malik Harrison and sophomore Baron Browning have developed into the most likely candidates to start on the outside. Harrison played often last season during passing downs and picked up 36 tackles, more than defensive line starters such as Nick Bosa, Tyquan Lewis and Jalyn Holmes. Jones played more sparingly, but secured 15 tackles. Browning had 14 tackles, but was a five-star prospect who demanded immediate playing time.

Redshirt senior Dante Booker started the season-opening games the past two seasons, but suffered major injuries and is out this spring due to shoulder surgery. Redshirt junior Justin Hilliard also has dealt with a fair share of injuries during his career. But now healthy, the former five-star prospect is in the mix for a starting spot.

Ohio State does not have a full slate of healthy linebackers, but the Spring Game presents the group with an opportunity to earn a starting spot.

Ohio State then-freshman safety Isaiah Pryor (14) takes down UNLV quarterback Armani Rogers in the third quarter of the Ohio State- UNLV game on Sep. 23. Ohio State won 54- 21. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

Safety: Isaiah Pryor, Jahsen Wint, Brendon White, Josh Proctor and Marcus Hooker

Last season, junior Jordan Fuller stepped in as a first-year starter at safety and played well. He has only continued to improve, Meyer said.

“Jordan Fuller is pretty secured on one,” he said. “He played well last year and he’s been one of our best players in the spring.”

The Buckeyes hope to have a similarly smooth transition from one of their young defensive backs into a starting role in the fall. Sophomore Isaiah Pryor entered the spring seemingly in the lead for a starting position, but has yet to lock up the job.

Redshirt sophomore Jahsen Wint and sophomore Brendon White have been in competition with Pryor, but both seem behind Pryor. Though incoming freshmen Josh Proctor and Marcus Hooker have yet to arrive on campus, Pryor has an opportunity to entrench himself as the starter on Saturday with the first-team defense.

 

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