You never want to make too much of a spring game, but since when did we ever not do what we’re not supposed to?
While you might not want to make too much of what you see, that doesn’t mean you can’t go into this thing watching for some pretty specific things. In this week’s Five for Friday, I’m going to give you five such things to watch for, and if you would like to make a super big deal about them afterward, I will not stop you.
1. The quarterbacks.
We have been promised an improved passing game, so let’s see it. J.T. Barrett struggled at times last year, so I’ll be watching for improvements down the field and with accuracy in general. More than that, however, I’ll be watching the other three quarterbacks just because we don’t get to see them all that often.
A year ago, Joe Burrow was the story of the game, which some might view as a curse as much as a badge of honor. What does he look like one year older? How much more comfortable is he now, and how much better has he gotten now that he is in a true competition for the backup job?
This will be our first opportunity to see redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins in a “live” setting. I already know how good he looks in drills, but what happens when the pass rush is bearing down and the windows are just a little bit tighter? How does he control the offense? Is it evenunder control.
I’m looking forward to watching freshman Tate Martell almost as much as I am watching Haskins. I don’t expect Martell to be all that productive, but I do expect to see a couple of flashes of what he is capable of doing. When it comes to Martell on Saturday, you’ll have to project and extrapolate a little bit because he’s not going to get the best of protection.
2. How will the offensive line hold up against the pass rush?
I know you’re worried about Isaiah Prince at right tackle, but that’s not the only concern the Buckeyes have on the offensive line. The competition at right guard won’t just be won by the best run blocker, because he’ll also need to pass block. We should get a pretty good look at what life will be like for them this season as they battle OSU’s defensive tackles like Dre’Mont Jones or Jashon Cornell or Malik Barrow, or the Rushmen on third down.
Getting back to Prince, if he can hold up against Ohio State’s defensive ends in practice, the regular season should be cake. There will be plenty to watch as he rolls through talented Buckeye defensive ends for as long as he’s out there.
What Urban Meyer will be watching, however, are the guys who fill out the rest of the two-deep. He wants to see the backups progress and show the ability to be relied upon. Is Malcolm Pridgeon ready to contribute? Kevin Feder? Gavin Cupp?
It will be interesting to watch redshirt freshmen Cupp and Jack Wohlabaugh, as well as true freshman Josh Myers. Are these guys on the verge of making a push?
3. Let’s see what the outside receivers can do.
Urban Meyer said Terry McLaurin has been one of the three best receivers for the Buckeyes this spring, so let’s see if those words are believed on Saturday. Of course, even if McLaurin does what Meyer says he can, people may just look back to his performance in 2016 when he had four catches for 111 yards and a touchdown and dismiss this performance as well.
Another receiver having a strong spring is Johnnie Dixon, who has battled injuries for most of his time as a Buckeye. Can he give the Ohio State offense the deep threat it’s been looking for since 2014? Expect him to have a couple of nice plays in this one as he is looking as good as he has in a very long time.
Sophomores Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack will also bear watching. Victor has all of the potential a receiver could ever want, the Buckeyes just need him to put it together consistently. He might have some nice moments in this game, but it will be every other play that the staff will examine afterward, looking for the go-hard that sometimes is lacking.
Mack, meanwhile, was one of the talks of spring a year ago and has flown under the radar this year. Maybe on Saturday he shows that it’s time to become a much bigger blip. Also keep an eye on freshman Brendon White. Zach Smith said that White is already making plays and he’s doing it without much polish.
4. So let’s see what these early enrollees look like.
Linebacker Baron Browning is out following shoulder surgery, but running back J.K. Dobbins, quarterback Tate Martell, receiver Brendon White, offensive lineman Josh Myers, safety Isaiah Pryor, and cornerbacks Jeff Okudah, Marcus Williamson, Shaun Wade, and Kendall Sheffield should all be participating in the action on Saturday. That’s a lot of noobs to pay attention to.
Urban Meyer and Kerry Coombs believe this is the best group of early enrollees they’ve ever had, so let’s see why. Dobbins is electric with the football, but the spring game has never been a showcase for running backs. Can he get involved in other areas? Martell may not even see much action, but can he make some noise in the limited snaps that he does get?
The cornerbacks should play extensively, though Sheffield was held out last Saturday, so he is a question mark at this point. Because of the teams being spread out over two units, there may never be a series in this game that doesn’t feature at least one freshman cornerback, so there is going to be plenty to watch on that end. All three of the freshmen are vying for a spot in the rotation, so they will be going as hard as they possibly know. Watch to see who responds on this stage.
Let’s also see how much range Pryor shows at safety. He was one of the fastest Buckeye defensive backs listed in terms of MPH recently, which helps with range, but are the instincts there as well?
5. How do the safeties handle the downfield passing?
Replacing Malik Hooker is not going to be easy, and the smart money would tell you that it’s not even possible. With that in mind, let’s watch to see how well the six safeties handle the deep passing in this game.
From what we have seen in spring ball, the safeties have struggled a bit in one-on-one coverage of the H-backs, which isn’t unexpected. Sometimes it’s okay to give credit to the offense for successes like those. Where you shouldn’t give credit, however, is on passes completed over a defense’s head.
We saw the global range that Hooker had last year — and we even saw it in the spring game. Last week it looked like the safeties were repping and rotating at both spots, so let’s watch to see how well Damon Webb plays not just his familiar free safety spot, but also strong safety and see how he does in center field.
Jordan Fuller and Erick Smith are in the middle of a close competition right now, and the ultimate winner of the job might be the guy who best defends the deep ball. With the Buckeyes breaking in so many new cornerbacks, it would be nice if they could rely on the safeties to pick up the occasional slack.
Also, can Isaiah Pryor or Jahsen Wint or Wayne Davis make a push into that group of three with a solid conclusion to spring camp?