Spring football can seem like one of the less-intense parts of the year for a college football player. Far from the bright lights and screaming crowds of the fall, those 15 spring practices are nonetheless one of the most important months in many players’ careers.
It’s the time when the young backups finally get a chance to replace the departed stars and run with the first-team.
It’s also the first chance the early-enrolling freshmen get to start building their case for playing time.
But there is a third category of player on the roster this spring: veterans who are still working to earn their way to regular playing time.
Yesterday, we looked at six Ohio State football players heading into what could be a make-or-break spring on offense. Today, it’s time for the defense.
These mostly aren’t guys who were top backups last year, and in line for the starting job this season. These are players who’ve been working for several years to get onto the two-deep or into the regular rotation, and who seemingly have a clearer path to get there this fall.
DT Jerron Cage, RS Junior
Cage came to Ohio State in 2017, picking the Buckeyes over an offer from Notre Dame. Ranked as one of the top-250 recruits in the nation that season, Cage seemed destined to make a relatively quick impact.
However, a crowded depth chart has largely kept him off the field during his first three seasons. He redshirted in 2017, played in three games in 2018, and nine games in 2019. The highlight of his season was a fumble recovery against Miami.
With Jashon Cornell off to the NFL, there are snaps available at the 3-tech defensive tackle spot. Cage will have to battle senior Haskell Garrett and redshirt sophomore Taron Vincent for a spot in the rotation.
LB Justin Hilliard, RS Senior
Hilliard was a 5-star prospect, ranked as the No. 35 player overall and 3rd-best outside linebacker in the class of 2015. Yes, 2015.
He was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA and should be back and in the linebacker rotation again this fall. Where exactly he’ll play there is a little more of a question.
Hilliard seemingly fits well at the SAM position, which is occupied by Pete Werner on most snaps, but has the flexibility to move around.
He has had one of the most injury-riddled careers of any Buckeye in recent memory, but has stuck with it. Last spring, he seemed to be in line to make a run at a starting job before rupturing his Achilles during a practice.
Hilliard worked hard and got back on the field for the third game of the year against Indiana and appeared in every game after that. His role on the team seemed to be growing as the year progressed, and Hilliard may finally be in a position to capitalize on his immense talent in 2020.
He just has to stay healthy.
DT Antwuan Jackson, RS Senior
Like QB Gunnar Hoak, who appeared on the list for offense, Jackson is another player who thought about coming to OSU out of high school, didn’t, and then transferred to be a Buckeye later.
He enrolled at Auburn in 2016, took a redshirt season, and then spent 2017 at Blinn Junior College.
Jackson signed with the Buckeyes, but only appeared in four games in 2018, recording one tackle.
He played in 12 games for the Bucks in 2019, recording 13 tackles, including 3.5 for loss.
This fall, OSU has to replace both Da’Von Hamilton and Robert Landers at the nose tackle position, leaving the door wide open for Jackson to earn a regular spot.
Talented junior Tommy Togiai figures to earn the starting position, but Jackson should be at the front of the line to get into the rotation behind him.
CB Tyreke Johnson, RS Sophomore
A 5-star prospect in the class of 2018, Johnson was ranked as the No. 5 player in Florida and the 21st-best in the entire nation. He lost his black stripe before the end of fall camp that year, seemingly putting him in prime position to earn playing time, but he redshirted that fall instead.
He entered 2019 with an opportunity to start working his way into a backup role, but mostly watched as Cameron Brown, Sevyn Banks, and Amir Riep saw extensive action ahead of him. Johnson played in six games, recording three tackles.
This spring, the corner position is pretty much wide open. Outside of Shaun Wade, the entire defensive backfield from 2019 is off to the NFL.
The man who recruited him to OSU, Kerry Coombs, is now back. That should be good news for Johnson, who has a chance to make a big impact this fall.
CB Marcus Williamson, Senior
Williamson was a top-200 player coming out of IMG Academy in Florida. He saw the field immediately at OSU, playing in 10 games, getting 10 or more snaps in five of them.
He seemed well on his way to becoming the latest in OSU’s long line of first-round corners.
But an injury cut his 2018 season short, and he only appeared on defense in seven games in 2019. He had seven tackles and recovered one fumble. But when Shaun Wade sat out the Michigan game with an injury, it was Amir Riep who replaced him, not Williamson.
All of a sudden, that promising true freshman is entering his senior year.
With Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette gone, and Wade likely moving to one of the outside corner spots, Williamson has a chance to win a spot in the rotation in the slot.
SAF Jahsen Wint, RS Senior
Wint is a little different from most of the players on this list, because he’s spent a number of weeks on the two-deep.
He was listed as the backup to Brendon White at the Bullet position in 2019, and appeared in every game except for Indiana. But about half of those were only on special teams, and most others were only in short stints late in blowouts.
He put up 19 tackles in 2018, and 13 more in 2019. This fall will be his last chance to become something of a regular on defense.
Wint’s path to the field is a little more complicated than most of the guys on this list. Yes, White transferred to Rutgers, leaving the top spot at Bullet open on the depth chart. But as the Buckeyes showed in 2019, if they’re more comfortable with SAM linebacker Pete Werner, the Bullet may not see the field much, if at all.
Add in the arrival of talented true freshman Kourt Williams, and the return of Werner and possibly Hilliard at SAM, and Wint has challenges to his playing time coming from a bunch of different directions.