The Ohio State Buckeyes are the most-talented team in the Big Ten, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t question marks.
No team is perfect. In fact, it’s overcoming their flaws that makes great teams unforgettable. Did the 2002 Buckeye offense have any business winning a national title? No. Did the 2014 OSU defense? Certainly not early on.
They overcame those deficiencies, however, and now those two teams have been adorned on more Ohio walls than Farrah Fawcett in her prime.
How do the 2017 Buckeyes do the same? By turning question marks into exclamation points.
They don’t have to have an answer for every question, but they do need a solution for most of them.
What kind of concerns are we talking about? I’ll give you one for each position group to mull over. Feel free to add your own.
Trust in the receivers. J.T. Barrett’s receivers want him to trust them to make a play, and Barrett really, really would like to. I still want to see him do it, however. He is not the kind of quarterback who wants to throw a pass up for grabs, but he does need to have faith in his receivers that they will meet the ball at the window he chooses.
Break the big ones. Mike Weber needs to hit some home runs. The Ohio State offense needs easy yards on the ground, and easy yards doesn’t mean six or seven yards every single carry. It means there are a couple of 30 or 40-yarders thrown in each week. Over the course of a season, that will ease the load on everyone, and it will also keep a defense a bit more worried about the explosion of the running game.
Remain consistent. Receivers coach Zach Smith said it this spring — there is no “next Curtis Samuel.” Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill, and possibly Demario McCall have plenty of talent, but what will settle everyone’s nerves is consistency. Barrett could rely on Samuel last year. The Buckeyes need him to be able to rely on the H-backs this year as well.
Make plays with the ball. Any wide receiver can catch the ball, but what do they do with it once they have it? I want to see the Buckeye receivers getting yards after the catch. Turn a 12-yard dig into a 50-yard catch-and-run. If these receivers can do that, then they should also be good enough to figure out the deep ball.
Find depth behind Marcus Baugh. Losing A.J. Alexander to injury has cost the Buckeyes experience, but there is still talent here. Redshirt freshmen Luke Farrell and Jake Hausmann have plenty of potential, but until we see it operate on the football field, there is still some mystery. Marcus Baugh can’t do it all, so somebody will need to step up and be the No. 2, and not just by default.
Protect the edges. Right tackle Isaiah Prince needs to be better than he was a year ago, which should absolutely be the case. He now has 13 starts to his name and enough film to correct his mistakes. Still, until we see him perform against formidable opponents with consistency, there will be concerns. If Prince can live up to the expectations of the talented starter he is, J.T. Barrett could have a remarkable season.
Getting home. We always hear about how opposing offenses switch to a quick passing attack when Ohio State shows up to play them. We also hear about how that is not an excuse for not getting to the quarterback. The Buckeyes are going to be rotating four NFL defensive ends this season, so there should be no reason they can’t get home against the UNLVs or Indianas or Michigans of the world.
Holding their ground. The Buckeyes were No. 4 in the Big Ten in rush defense last year, allowing 123.9 yards rushing per game. They return everybody, but there are still concerns. Tracy Sprinkle is returning from injury and expecting the most playing time of his career. Robert Landers, meanwhile, is an undersized nose tackle who had 7.0 tackles for loss in the first five games last year, and just 0.5 in the final eight. Can the interior of this defensive line build a wall in the limited time they’re actually on the field.
Get into the backfield. In 2014, Darron Lee had 16.5 tackles for loss. Curtis Grant and Raekwon McMillan combined for 11.5, and Joshua Perry had 8.5 of his own. Those numbers dipped a bit in 2015, as did the number of games the Buckeyes played. Last season, the starting linebackers combined for 20 tackles for loss, which was the lowest total since 2011. Heck, in 2013, Ryan Shazier had 23.5 all by himself. I want to see the linebackers get into the backfield again. This will be arguably the most athletic trio in school history, so they’ll be versatile enough to do whatever is needed. Being agents of chaos once again wouldn’t be bad. For that to happen, though, we’ll probably have to wait until the secondary is a little more settled in.
Depth. Based on Kerry Coombs’ history at Ohio State, we should just assume he is going to find a second starter to pair with Denzel Ward. The question then becomes how many can he find. The staff seems pretty confident in Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield right out of the gate this fall, but I want to see that confidence reflected by those two players as well. Arnette looked every bit like a starter and team leader this spring, but Sheffield had some spotty moments. While Coombs is building up his latest trio, let’s also watch to see if one of the freshmen worms their way into the mix. There’s basically an assembly line of NFL cornerbacks going on in Columbus right now, so let’s see the new models too.
Gotta cover. Ohio State football is not going to be able to replace Malik Hooker’s contributions. There’s no point in even thinking in these terms. Instead, the Buckeyes simply need someone to play strong safety who can cover and tackle. I don’t need to see somebody cover 40 yards on the way to an interception that is then returned 80 yards. I just want to see somebody who can cover 40 yards and cause an incompletion.
Consistent kicking. What is more nerve-wracking for a coach — a freshman kicker or a senior kicker who has never been consistent enough to keep the job? With a freshman, they don’t know any better, so there’s some hope there. With the vet, they sometimes know too much. And with kickers of any kind, you don’t want too many thoughts getting in the way of the act of simply kicking the ball. I want to see this position be consistent, regardless of who is doing the kicking.
Touch. Cameron Johnston could have averaged 60 yards per punt last season, but it wouldn’t have served the Ohio State defense very well. The ability to pin an offense inside the 20 is much more important than showing off a booming leg. I want to see redshirt freshman punter Drue Chrisman show the kind of touch that will keep an opponent backed up. So does the OSU defense.
Punt returns that are no longer madness. Ohio State needs to 1) catch a punt without putting it on the ground; and 2) return said punt in some type of threatening manner. The Buckeyes’ averaged 5.2 yards per punt return last year. By contrast, Texas A&M averaged five times that number and returned four punts for touchdowns. Ohio State doesn’t need to produce like that, but they shouldn’t produce as poorly as they have been.
Piranhas can’t let returners out of the tank. Only 11 teams allowed more kickoff returns of 40 or more yards than Ohio State (4) did last year. This came after allowing none in 2015 and 2014. The Buckeyes need to get back to being the Piranhas of old and eliminate the breakouts that occurred way too often a year ago.