10 Things We Learned from Tuesday’s Hard-Hitting Practice
By Brandon Castel
This is an interesting week for Ohio State sports, as I’m writing my thoughts on Tuesday’s spring football practice from my hotel room in Los Angeles.
The basketball Buckeyes have captured everyone’s attention with their fourth Sweet 16 appearance in a row, but I couldn’t help thinking about what I saw inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center earlier this week.
Here’s a look at 10 Things We Learned from Tuesday’s hard-hitting football practice.
1. Offensive line is going to be the strength of this team. We talked about this in our last 10 Things piece, but it was really reinforced during Tuesday’s practice, which had a lot of short-yardage and goal line scenarios. In the past, the defensive line would have dominated these drills. Part of that was having veteran guys like John Simon and Johnathan Hankins to create havoc, but now the Buckeyes have a veteran offensive front led by senior left tackle Jack Mewhort. It’s not just Mewhort, though. Corey Linsley and Andrew Norwell look like they have both gotten better, and Marcus Hall seems to be one of the improved players on the team this spring. I even liked what I saw some of the backups on Tuesday, guys like Jacoby Boren, Chase Farris, Antonio Underwood and Darryl Baldwin all had their moments. They aren’t there yet, by any means, but they are coming along much better than in years past.
2. Taylor Decker has a battle on his hands. Let me start by saying I think Taylor Decker is going to be one of the better offensive tackles to come through Ohio State in a while. Urban Meyer is using his best motivational tactics to push Decker towards greatness, but there is no question in mind that he has all the tools. With Mewhort being a senior, Decker is going to slide over to the left side and solidify a re-made offensive line next season at the critical left tackle position. But first he has to win the starting job this offseason. Decker has looked rather impressive most of the times I’ve seen him this spring. He’s struggled a few times with Noah Spence during 1-on-1 pass protection drills, but who hasn’t?
I thought Decker looked great in his battles with Adolphus Washington, but I’ve also been extremely impressed with Chase Farris. That’s going to be an interesting battle to watch, and while I expect Decker to win the job, Farris would give them a very nice piece to move around if they suffer any injuries up front. He has good size and excellent athleticism, which is why Ed Warinner tried to recruit him as an offensive lineman at Notre Dame. He also moves his feet well and has a good knee bend, which allows him to dip down and get more leverage against big defenders.
3. Noah Spence is getting better by the day. Excuse me if it seems like all I ever want to talk about is Noah Spence, Noah Spence, Noah Spence, but this kid really has something special. It’s not just his speed and athleticism, he’s smart too. He has been on campus less than a year, and yet I see him using moves out there it typically takes guys 3-4 years to learn. He is very astute at understanding what offensive tackles are going to try against him, and he is able to use that to get them off balance. Once he has them off balance, it’s over. His first step around them is lightning quick, and almost always forced the offensive tackle to grab him from behind. It’s only spring ball, but because he goes hard every play, I really have a hard time thinking Spence won’t make a big impact as a sophomore this fall.
4. Look out for Jamal Marcus, too, if he ever figures it out. It’s easy to see why Fickell and the staff decided to move the sophomore to defensive end this spring after a rather uneventful year at linebacker with the Buckeyes. Outside of Spence, this kid might have the quickest first step on the defensive front. He comes blasting off the line, but the problem for Marcus, and where he fails to compare with a guy like Noah Spence, is that he doesn’t know what to do after that. His first step is so quick, he should be able to go right by the guy trying to block him almost every time. But he doesn’t. Unlike Spence, he doesn’t understand yet what the tackle is trying to do with him. If his first move is outside, he lets the offensive tackle ride him right out of the play. If his first move is inside, he tends to slow down when he gets to the backfield, which allows the offensive tackle to reset his feet and regain control. With proper coaching from Mike Vrabel, and a great guy to learn from in Spence, Marcus should develop into a pretty nice weapon for the Buckeyes. It may not be this year, however.
Photo by Jim Davidson
5. Someone needs to pee in Michael Bennett’s cereal every Saturday morning this fall. I’ve been waiting to see Michael Bennett flash the way he did as a freshman two years ago, and it finally happened on Tuesday. All it took was a little anger. Bennett was upset about the defense giving up an easy touchdown in the red zone and he started yelling for his teammates to step up their game. He was lifting his hands and walking around getting in guys faces, which is something we have never seen from Bennett before. It’s a look that suits him. On the next play, Bennett flashed into the backfield and sacked Braxton Miller before anyone realized what happened. He’s such a laid back, mild-mannered kid, but if he could find a way to play with that kind of fury on a down-to-down basis, look out.
6. Linebacker continues to be an ongoing problem. It will be interesting to see what the linebacker situation looks like whenever Ryan Shazier returns to practice, but without him these guys are struggling to play at the level Luke Fickell is looking for. It’s not a matter of talent or desire, but Curtis Grant and David Perkins – the first team linebackers while Shazier is out – simply haven’t played enough football at Ohio State. Perkins seems to have more natural instincts, in my opinion, than Grant, but he doesn’t even know how to get himself lined up yet. Fickell had to stop a drill two or three times to make sure Perkins was lined up in the right position. Grant looked a little better playing in space Tuesday than he had earlier in the spring, but I’m still not convinced he’s going to be the other linebacker out there with Shazier when they’re in the nickel defense. Who is that guy going to be? Right now I have no idea. I thought Camren Williams would be getting more play this spring, but he’s sticking with the twos.
7. This asthma issue is a real concern for Josh Perry. My best guess for who will be out there next to Shazier in the fall is Josh Perry, but they may be worried about relying to heavily on a guy who could be forced to leave the game at any moment. Perry had to leave practice early on Tuesday because of an asthma issue, and he spent the rest of the day watching from the sideline with his helmet in his hands. This is a real concern for the sophomore linebacker, because this is not the first time I’ve been there when he’s had to leave practice because of the asthma. We get to watch such a limited selection of practice, I have to believe this is an ongoing occurrence that has the coaches wondering whether they can count on Perry in the fall.
Photo by Jim Davidson
8. Tyvis Powell can play some football. One guy who did impress me on Tuesday was redshirt freshman Tyvis Powell. The kid from Bedford continues to hold down the top spot at the “Star” position in the nickel defense, and he brings more to the position than either of the guys who played there last year. Take nothing away from Orhian Johnson and Corey Brown, but those guys are more cover guys who would have been better suited for deep safety, in my opinion. The ‘Star’ position should bring more to the table. It needs to be a more physical guy, the way it has been in the past with Donte Whitner, Jermale Hines and Christian Bryant. Powell brings a little bit of that physicality. He isn’t a big hitter like Hines or Bryant, but he’s a sure tackler and a guy who can come up and play the run at 6-3, 205 pounds. We’ll see what happens when Vonn Bell gets here, but right now I like what Powell gives them.
9. Rod Smith would be an exciting luxury. Let me start by saying it’s a good thing the Buckeyes aren’t banking on Rod Smith this year as a guy who absolutely has to have a big year.
Rod Smith, Bri'onte Dunn, Warren Ball
Photo by Jim Davidson
He’s more than capable, but it’s a good thing for Ohio State that Smith is more of a luxury than a necessity right now. They already have a solid starting tailback they can depend on in Carlos Hyde, along with some capable backups in Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball who are starting to play with some confidence this spring. None of them have as high a ceiling as Smith, who has all the physical tools to be one of the great backs to ever put on a scarlet jersey. But I bet Meyer would feel pretty uneasy right now if he had to go into the season banking on Smith to be his starting tailback. For all his talent, there just seems to be something holding him back. The fumbling issues, yes, but it’s more than that. I can’t put a finger on what it is, but this kid should be one of those players who Meyer feels like he has to get the ball to on Saturday’s. Maybe he will be that guy in the fall, but it’s good to know he doesn’t have to be for this team to be successful.
10. Meyer isn’t going to wait around for some of these guys. There is a reason Urban Meyer doesn’t like redshirting in most cases. That means he has four more years with a guy who wasn’t good enough to make an impact as a freshman. Sometimes, that works out well. It could be a real benefit with someone like Kyle Dodson, who needs time to learn the position and gain a better understanding for the game of football. Some of the guys who came in before Dodson, however, are getting thrust into the spotlight this spring. Guys like Chris Carter, Tommy Brown, Cardale Jones and J.T. Moore are being forced into action this spring to see if they can bring anything to the table. Meyer isn’t going to wait around two or three more years for these guys. If they aren’t good enough to play, they will get passed by younger guys coming in who are.
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