Spring Break Columbus, Ohio!
Although it may be hard to believe with the snow and the temperature falling all around us, it is spring break at The Ohio State University. It is also one week into spring practices. This season may be the most transformative in the Urban Meyer era as he looks to replace key assistant coaches on both sides of the ball as well as several marquee players who are heading to the NFL. These changes and the competition in spring practices will have a major impact on the future of the Ohio State Buckeyes and how they bounce back after last year’s playoff loss.
For the first time since 2001, Luke Fickell will not be on the sidelines for the Buckeyes this season. Fickell was a fixture in Columbus having played nose tackle for the Buckeyes in the mid 90s, coached under Jim Tressel in the early 2000s, and served as Co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach during the Urban Meyer era. He has now departed to become the Head Coach at Cincinnati. Fortunately for the Buckeyes the Ohio State defensive coaching staff has worked as a cooperative during this time and the other members of the staff including Defensive Coordinator Greg Schiano are more than capable in Fickell’s absence. They will have their work cut out for them this season as the Buckeyes look to replace three quarters of their defensive backfield and their team leader in tackling.
The Buckeyes need to replace not one but two starting corners in Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley. Both will likely be drafted in the top half of the first round in April’s NFL Draft. What many people don’t realize is that Ohio State rotated their corners last season and although Lattimore and Conley were the starters, Denzel Ward played just as much as they did. In fact Ward, who will be a junior this fall, finished the season tied with Lattimore for the team lead in pass-breakups. One negative on Ward is that unlike Lattimore and Conely he did not produce any interceptions in 2016. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Ward will play a major part in the future of the Buckeyes’ secondary.
Several newcomers are looking to get involved as well. The one who seems to be getting the most praise in the first week of spring practice is five-star early enrollee Jeffrey Okudah who doesn’t even have a GPA yet, but may be one of the fastest players on the team. Fellow highly touted recruits Shaun Wade and Marcus Williamson also enrolled early, hoping to make a big impression in spring ball. They will be joined in the secondary by sophomore Kendall Sheffield who transferred from Blinn College.
Perhaps the biggest hole to fill in the Buckeye secondary will be at free safety, a position vacated by a likely top-five draft pick in Malik Hooker. While the loss of Hooker is an immense one, the Buckeyes have more depth and experience at the safety position than they do at cornerback. Senior Damon Webb will likely retain his position at strong safety while sophomore Jordan Fuller competes with senior Erick Smith for Hooker’s role as free safety.
Ohio State also loses their leading tackler Raekwon McMillan to the NFL this season. In all likelihood Dante Booker will be the Buckeyes’ starting middle linebacker during the 2017 campaign. The senior has played a significant role for the Buckeyes in each of the previous three seasons playing the strong-side and inside linebacker positions. Redshirt freshman Tuf Borland and newcomer Baron Browning could give him a run for his money, but expect Booker to be the starter for Ohio State this season.
Ohio State has shaken things up a little bit on offense with the hiring of Offensive Coordinator/Tight Ends Coach Kevin Wilson and Co-Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach Ryan Day. While it is well known that Day was an NFL assistant under Chip Kelly with both the Eagles and the 49ers, many people don’t realize that prior to that he was highly successful as the Offensive Coordinator at Boston College. Before becoming the Head Coach at Indiana, Wilson was Offensive Coordinator at Oklahoma and has a wealth of experience working with the offensive line.
The Buckeyes return four starters on the offensive line, a group that will look to develop with added experience. The only major loss to the NFL in this group is center Pat Elflein whose place will be taken by shifting Billy Price over from guard. This leaves an open spot at guard where junior Demetrius Knox will compete with sophomore Matthew Burrell and Nassau Community College transfer Malcolm Pridgeon.
With speedster Noah Brown heading to the NFL look for 6’4” 185 sophomore Binjimen Victor to take over his role. Sophomore Demario McCall will compete with converted defensive back Eric Glover-Williams for the H-back position vacated by Curtis Samuel.
Spring practice allows players and coaches to focus on player development rather than having to concentrate on a game plan. This is particularly important when there are new voices on the coaching staff looking to make adjustments to the existing system. Ohio State has a wealth of talent all over the field and as spring ball goes on competition will heat up in all position groups.