Spring practice might not be the most high-profile time of year for college football teams, but for many players it can define their career.
Once the team gets more than a week or two into fall camp, the focus starts shifting toward the season.
Once the season starts, the focus is almost entirely on the next week’s game.
But spring ball is different. The previous season’s seniors and NFL Draft departees are gone, leaving not just open slots on the depth chart, but opportunity in their wake.
All the snaps taken last fall by guys like J.K. Dobbins, Chase Young, and Jeff Okudah are now up for grabs. That opens up chances for talented younger players like Master Teague, Zach Harrison, and Cameron Brown who played a part-time role in 2019 to rise up and claim a bigger spot on the 2020 Buckeyes.
It’s also a chance for some players who have been around for a few years, but not yet made their mark to start doing so.
Ohio State is annually among the top programs in the nation for attracting talented high school stars. That’s great for the Buckeyes on the whole – fantastic high school players often turn into fantastic college players.
But for guys who are still fighting for a spot on the two-deep after a couple seasons in the program, those freshmen represent another group of talented competition trying to beat them out for a spot on the field.
A player’s third or fourth spring in the program can be the difference between finally winning a spot in the rotation, like Baron Browning and Amir Riep did in 2019, and getting totally buried on the depth chart.
Here’s a look at six players on offense facing very important springs entering their third year or later, with the opportunity to take the next step toward earning regular playing time.
WR Ellijah Gardiner, RS Junior
Gardiner was a late addition to the 2017 Buckeye recruiting class, flipping from Missouri on the day before National Signing Day. His 6-foot-4 frame made him an intriguing prospect, but he came in needing to add bulk before he could be a regular contributor.
Gardiner redshirted in 2017, then played 10 games in 2018. Most of that action came on special teams, and he did not catch a pass.
He snagged his first career reception for 10 yards against Miami in 2019, but suffered an injury shortly thereafter and did not appear again during the season.
It’s still not clear whether Gardiner will be healthy enough to participate in spring practice, and with four extremely talented true freshman already on campus, and second-year players like Jameson Williams and Garrett Wilson poised to take a bigger role, Gardiner may not ever have a better chance to earn a spot in Brian Hartline’s rotation than right now.
WR Jaelen Gill, RS Sophomore
Gill came to Ohio State as one of the most-hyped players in the 2018 recruiting class. He was the No. 30 player overall, just one spot away from earning a 5-star ranking.
Two years into his career, he’s still awaiting his first regular action. He redshirted in 2018, seeing action in two games, including one catch for 11 yards.
Gill played in six games in 2019, catching six passes for 51 yards and a touchdown. He had receptions in the first three games of the season, but a fumble against Indiana may have cost him playing time. He scored his first career touchdown against Rutgers late in the year.
This spring, K.J. Hill is gone, and the starting spot at H is wide open. With an uber-talented group of true freshmen receivers already on campus this spring, the path to the starting job will never be more open for Gill than it is right now.
WR Jaylen Harris, Senior
That’s a picture of Harris and Gardiner together at the top of this article, and the two of them are in very similar spots entering the spring.
Harris, like Gardiner, is a big-bodied receiver who seemed destined for a career full of jump-ball touchdowns over smaller corners. But like Gardiner, it hasn’t really happened yet for Harris.
He played in three games as a true freshman in 2017, catching two passes for 27 yards. He had another two catches for 22 yards as a sophomore in 2018. Harris saw action on offense in nine games last fall, but only had a 5-yard reception against Cincinnati to show for it.
This spring, outside receivers Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor are both off to the NFL. The younger guys mentioned above haven’t yet established themselves. This spring is Harris’ chance to earn a regular spot in the rotation.
QB Gunnar Hoak, RS Senior
Of all the players on this list, Hoak has had one of the more winding paths to get to this point.
The son of a former Buckeye and a graduate of Dublin Coffman High School, Hoak grew up dreaming of playing for Ohio State. He camped at OSU in high school, but never earned an offer.
He spent three years as a backup at Kentucky, before coming home to OSU as a grad transfer in 2019.
Hoak was the third-string quarterback last fall, but with Chris Chugunov now out of eligibility, the backup spot behind Justin Fields is his for the taking.
With a year of experience in the system, Hoak figures to open spring practice as a clear-cut No. 2 on the depth chart, but he’ll need a good spring and fall camp to hold off talented true freshman C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller to serve as the primary backup for Justin Fields this fall.
RB Demario McCall, Senior
McCall has established himself as a starter on special teams, and shown explosive big-play ability on limited snaps on offense.
He seemed like a front-runner for the No. 2 running back spot behind Dobbins early last season, but got passed by Master Teague. Outside of an extended stretch against Maryland, McCall only saw the field for a few plays each game.
McCall’s talent is obvious. He rushed 49 times for 270 yards as a true freshman in 2016, but a combination of injuries and tough competition from other backs has kept him from reaching those numbers again.
With Dobbins gone from the running back room and K.J. Hill no longer taking most of the snaps at H receiver, it seems like McCall should be able to find a spot somewhere on offense this spring.
He just has to stay healthy and make the most of his opportunities.
OT Max Wray, RS Sophomore
Wray was ranked as the No. 9 tackle in the 2017 class, and the 121st player overall in the nation.
He went through spring ball in 2018 and redshirted. Then he saw action on special teams in three games in 2019, but still hasn’t appeared on offense.
There are snaps available at tackle this year, with both Branden Bowen and Josh Alabi out of eligibility. Thayer Munford returns at one of the starting spots and Nick Petit-Frere is the front-runner on the right side of the line, but the backup spots figure to come down to a battle between players like Dawand Jones, Wray, and Paris Johnson.
Jones is a year younger than him, and seemingly passed him on the depth chart in 2019. Johnson comes in with as much hype as any offensive line prospect the Buckeyes have signed in a generation.
OSU started four different players at tackle in 2019. Wray has an opportunity to earn a spot on the two-deep this spring, putting himself in position to be the “next man up” at one of those spots.
With six freshmen offensive linemen arriving this year and highly-touted prospect Ben Christman already committed for next season, the path to playing time up front will only get tougher in 2021. This is Wray’s chance.