Thinking Out Loud: Spring Changes in the Air
By Brandon Castel
It may still feel like the dead of winter across the state of Ohio, but spring football is in the air.
Urban Meyer will embark on his third spring football season this week, as the Buckeyes hit the practice field Tuesday for the first of 15 spring sessions that will lead up to the Ohio State Spring Game on April 12.
After a one-year pilgrimage to Cincinnati, this year’s spring game is back in Columbus, and Meyer should have one of the most highly-rated teams in the country heading into the 125th season of OSU football.
With practice set to begin on Tuesday, there were a number of announcements on Monday, including the official departure of 5-star linebacker Mike Mitchell, who will not practice with the team this pring and is reportedly transferring to be closer to his ailing father back in Texas.
With that, here are some of my thoughts on other topics of note heading into spring practice.
Braxton Sitting Out Spring Ball
One of the non-surprises on Monday, but something worth talking about, was the official announcement Braxton Miller will be limited this spring. Miller had minor shoulder surgery for an injury he suffered during the Orange Bowl, and it would be surprising to see him do any real throwing this spring.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Miller is heading into his fourth year as the team’s starting quarterback, and while he still has a lot to work on when it comes to his passing ability, it’s probably not something he’s going to fix this spring. He will continue to take the mental reps, but the real litmus test for Miller is how he works during the summer when he’s the one leading the younger guys to get out there and throw. Maybe this time off will be good for him to sit back and learn by watching. He needs to develop a better overall understanding of how dangerous he can be in this offense if he’s making the right decisions.
Spring Quarterback Battle Could be Important
The biggest positive for the Buckeyes about Miller being limited this spring is it gives Meyer and his staff a chance to get their first real look at backups Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett. It also gives them a chance to get some reps for true freshman Stephen Collier, but this is more about Jones and Barrett than anything else. With Kenny Guiton gone, the Buckeyes need to find a dependable No. 2 quarterback this offseason because you never know when that guy might be called upon to step in and finish a drive, or in some cases, even a game. Guiton was incredibly effective in those relief scenarios, but it’s not as easy as he made it look.
Being ready to play at a high level in the fourth quarter after standing on the sideline for the first three is a tougher mental exercise than it is physical, which is why I personally like Barrett to win the backup job at some point this offseason. Another thing to consider, however, is the fact that whoever wins that job is probably being groomed to take over for Miller as the starting quarterback next season. Jones is a physical specimen with some similarities to Terrelle Pryor. He certainly isn’t as dynamic as Pryor, but he does have some serious wheels for a guy who is 6-5 and 250 pounds. He has also shown some wiggle in the open field, but the OSU offense would be incredible one-dimensional under Jones, who is not known for being a great passer or distributor.
J. T. Barrett
Photo by Dan Harker
Barrett has been praised for his intelligence, leadership and toughness, three essential pillars of what Urban Meyer looks for in the leader of his football team. He ran for over 1,500 yards and passed for over 1,600 as a junior at Rider High School in Wichita Falls, Tex., but he suffered a nasty knee injury as a senior that kept him out of spring ball a year ago.
New Receivers Get Their Shot
This will be an interesting spring at the wide receiver position. This is a group that has really underachieved during Meyer’s tenure in Columbus, and the one guy who showed any real consistency over the past two years, Philly Brown, is gone. Brown had 63 of the team’s 238 total catches last season, and while that may not seem like a lot, it was a lot more than anyone else on the team. Devin Smith was second at 44 and no one else on the roster had more than 26 catches a year ago. Chris Fields had 16, Carlos Hyde had 16, and Jordan Hall had 12. All three of them are gone as well.
That leaves Smith and Evan Spencer (22) as the only returning receivers with more than one catch last year, and Spencer is expected to miss all of spring ball with the knee injury he suffered during Ohio State’s Orange Bowl loss to Clemson. Redshirt freshman James Clark is also expected to be limited this spring, which leaves a very interesting group of options for Meyer and Zach Smith.
This is a make-or-break year, obviously, for Devin Smith. He is a dynamic weapon who has never quite produced to the level his skills would suggest he is capable. I would expect him to practice a lot this spring because he really hasn’t earned the right to watch the way Bradley Roby did last spring. He should be the trendsetter for these young guys, which includes a transfer from Georgia Tech, Jeff Greene, and a junior college kid in Corey Smith. Greene might be the most intriguing weapon in the room, a 6-5 receiver who sat out last season after leading the Yellow Jackets with 18 receptions for 284 yards and two touchdowns back in 2012.
Greene and Smith will face direct competition from redshirt sophomore Michael Thomas, my pick for the guy who emerges from this group to become a playmaker for the Buckeyes in 2014. At 6-3, 200 pounds, Thomas has all the tools. He’s big, he’s fast, he runs great routes and has shown great hands and has a great relationship with Braxton Miller. He has never been consistent enough to earn a spot on the field, but this will be his third year in the program and the opportunity is finally there for him with Spencer being sidelined this spring.
A couple other guys who will be in the mix at receiver this spring are Jalin Marshall and Johnnie Dixon, both intriguing playmakers in their own right. Marshall is a converted quarterback who could line up at a number of places on offense, and Dixon is a speedster out of Florida who enrolled early at Ohio State this winter. My guess is Marshall has a better chance of being heavily in the mix this spring, but keep an eye on Dixon.
Position Moves Add Depth to O-line
One move that doesn’t surprise me in the slightest this spring is the decision to slide Chase Farris back to offensive tackle. I was encouraged that they cared enough to move him back over to defense last season, but the bigger need right now is clearly on the offensive line. The Buckeyes also announced they are moving Joel Hale to offensive line this spring, which is a little but more interesting to me.
Photo by Jim Davidson
At 6-4, 310, Hale is one of the only true nose tackles on the roster. He has played in 29 games on the defensive line, but the Buckeyes need some toughness on their interior of the offensive line now that Corey Linsley, Andrew Norwell and Marcus Hall are gone. As a true senior, Hale immediately becomes a front-runner for one of the two guard spots, especially if Billy Price is taking any snaps at center this spring.
It’s interesting they felt good enough about their depth at nose tackle to move Hale to the other side of the ball. Either that says a lot about Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter, Michael Hill and Donovan Munger, or it suggests the Buckeyes plan to play with a more athletic group up front this season. That could mean sliding Michael Bennett over to play some nose with a guy like Adolphus Washington getting more snaps inside. Or maybe Carter has progressed enough they feel they can use him in obvious run situations. Either way, I like the move for everyone, especially Ed Warinner, who could use more guys like Hale and Price in his group.
Farris is also a guy who could compete for a starting spot on the line. It would be interesting to see how he would fair this spring, but he’s going to be held out of action as he recovers from surgery last year. Farris was in the running for a starting spot on the offensive line last spring, and he should be in the mix for the right tackle spot again now that Taylor Decker is going to slide over to the left side. Farris has more experience than guys like Evan Lisle, Darryl Baldwin, Kyle Dodson and Kyle Trout, but missing spring ball could make it an uphill battle for him to win a starting spot in the fall.
The Rich Get Richer
The Buckeyes lost Mike Vrabel, Everett Withers and assistant strength coach Rick Court this offseason, all to promotions. Vrabel became the line coach of the Houston Texans, Withers was hired as head coach at James Madison, and Court was lured away to become the head strength coach at Mississippi State under former Meyer assistant Dan Mullen.
So what did Meyer do? He went out and replaced them with Larry Johnson, Chris Ash and Phil Matusz. Johnson is a name most Ohio State fans were quite familiar with, even before he took the defensive line job in Columbus. He spent the previous 18 seasons as an assistant coach at Penn State, where he developed a tremendous reputation as an excellent teacher and, possibly, a better recruiter. He has a large profile in the Maryland, Virginia, Eastern Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. areas, and is one of the few names in all of college football who might be looked at as an upgrade from Vrabel. I said might.
Ash was the one-time defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, who left Madison to coach Bret Bielema’s defense at Arkansas last season. He took a co-defensive coordinator position at Ohio State in hopes of winning a national championship (and maybe avoiding another winless season in SEC). Ash will take over coaching Meyer’s entire secondary this season, while working with Luke Fickell to run the defense.
Matusz is the one new name on the list. He was hired to replace Court, and it must be nice for Meyer to be able to go out and get a guy like this after losing one of his own guys to a head strength coaching gig. Matusz is a Pennsylvania guy who spent the last two seasons as the head strength coach at Villanova. He was a nose tackle for the Wildcats, and he is a guy who really understands not only strength and conditioning, but also the game of football. He was a three-year starter at Villanova and a team captain for the 2009 National Championship team.