Ohio State Buckeyes: 7 things to accomplish this spring

While COVID-19 continues to hover over the Ohio State football team, the Buckeyes remain scheduled to start spring football practice Friday.

Then coach Ryan Day is hoping to shift the focus to another “C” word: Competition.

“We’re definitely going to look at a different spring model on how we go about it,” Day said in February. “I’m going to try to do as many game-like situations as possible for sure.”

ExploreOhio State still scheduled to begin spring practice Friday despite COVID-19 pause

Here’s a look at some of what the Buckeyes will be trying to accomplish when they return to the practice field for the first time since losing the National Championship Game to Alabama:

1. Fix the defense.

While the offense was good enough to get the Buckeyes to the title game last season, the Crimson Tide made the defense look like a unit that would never allow Ohio State to win it.

Some of that was the greatness of that particular Alabama scoring squad, but no one within the halls of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center would argue the stop unit was good enough last season.

“I think we’ve got to continue to take a long look at how we put our guys in certain situations, but I think we have enough personnel,” Day said. “We were down some guys going into that game. I like our scheme, but I also think there were times where we could have done a better job schematically.”

ExploreDepth chart decisions to watch this spring

2. Retool the back seven of the Silver Bullets.

The efforts to rebuild the defense figure to include alterations to players and plays alike.

Evaluating the former figures to have a big impact on the latter, and that is something that should be easier to do this year than last if there is a full spring practice and regular preseason after both were heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

The starting linebackers will be all new after the top four exhausted their eligibility, but they won’t necessarily be new to coach Al Washington as the top three candidates to move into the starting lineup are all rising seniors.

The secondary returns most of the major contributors of last season, but a wave of young players figure to try to push their way to the top of the depth chart after the group struggled as a whole in 2020.

“I think that with a whole offseason, a spring season, we’re gonna get the right personnel in place,” Day said. “We’re gonna make some adjustments schematically and then we’re gonna do an unbelievable job coaching. And so that’s going to be the focus as we head into the spring.”

3. Sort out potentially deep rotations at receiver and defensive end.

Not everything has to be new this spring.

Coach Brian Hartline returns all his starters and key reserves, so his challenge will be to pick the top six to give snaps — unless he decides to expand his usual rotation.

At defensive end, coach Al Johnson lost senior Jonathon Cooper but has at least eight four- or five-star recruits to choose from when it comes to divvying up snaps. That includes four who have already played extensively — Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith, Tyler Friday and Javontae Jean-Baptiste — as well as a handful of youngsters looking to earn playing time, including five-star freshman Jack Sawyer.

While other units are rebuilt, these ones will look to get better.

4. Find a new quarterback.

This figures to get the most headlines from now until the season-opener at Minnesota on Sept. 2.

Day and quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis will preside over a unique battle that includes three freshmen — C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller III and Kyle McCord — who have never thrown a pass at the college level.

“Being the starting quarterback at Ohio State is unlike any other position there is,” Day said. “I think they get that, I think they understand it. I think (Stroud and Miller) were able to see this year what Justin (Fields) did on that stage. The stakes are very, very high here, and I think they learned that, but in terms of the football part, they’re still figuring it out, still learning.”

ExploreWhat makes this a unique quarterback battle for Ohio State

5. Pick a running back (or two).

Injuries and attrition left coach Tony Alford with nearly no scholarship backs last spring.

This time around, he will have a challenge choosing who gets the most snaps to try to prove they should be The Man this fall.

That starts with veteran Master Teague III, who started for most of last season, and Miyan Williams, who showed an intriguing mix of power and shiftiness in limited opportunities as a true freshman last season.

Third-year backs Steele Chambers and Marcus Crowley will also look to show what they can do, but all of the veterans will have to hold off talented incoming freshmen TreVeyon Henderson and Evan Pryor.

ExploreRunning back competition could get wild this spring

6. Create game-like experiences.

Repeatedly since last fall Day has talked about the importance of getting competitive juices flowing after COVID cancelations limited the Buckeyes to just eight games last season.

That most impacts the quarterbacks given their lack of experience, but every position has a talented youngster who could use more chances to thrive in competitive situations.

“We’re going to have to find ways this spring between C.J., Jack and Kyle to give them as many game-like situations to figure out exactly what we’ve got,” Day said. “Because we can’t go into that first game without knowing, or at least having an idea (how they will react).

“I guess we’ll never know until we’re in a game, but we’ve got to try to simulate the games the best we can in practice, which may be a unique way of doing the spring. We’re going to look at all of those things to try to figure that out because we need to be further along because that’s going to be a huge part of what happens in the fall.”

ExploreProjected starters on offense

7. Figure out how to best utilize new blood in the program.

At Ohio State, everyone is in danger of being recruited over in any given year.

Freshmen have been pushing their way into the lineup since the 1990s when then-coach John Cooper famously said, “If a dog’s gonna bite, he’ll bite as a pup.”

ExploreA closer look at previous Ohio State freshman starting quarterbacks

The circumstances created by the pandemic made evaluating newcomers more difficult last year, though, and that could have a ripple effect on 2021 as more than a dozen early enrollees are joining the members of the 2020 class still looking to show what they can do for the most part in a normal year.

That makes for a large group of players hungry to prove themselves for the first time.

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