Position Battles, Questions Highlight Spring

Judging by the weather in Columbus in recent weeks, spring has already sprung, which means it's time for the Ohio State football team to hit the practice field. Coming off a disappointing 6-7 season and under new management, the Buckeyes will be worth watching for a variety of reasons this spring.

When the Ohio State football broke up after winter quarter for spring break, new head coach Urban Meyer left them with a very clear assessment of what they would be in for when they got back for spring practice.

"I made it clear to them that sometimes people say, 'Well, I'm going to really work hard and go earn a spot in training camp.' Spots are done. By the time we hit training camp, it's game mode. We're trying to go beat Miami (Ohio). I mean, sure, some things happen in the depth chart, but two-deep will be set right after spring practice.

"We have a lot emphasis, a lot of pressure on these coaches, that I need to know your two-deep. So we put a lot of pressure on these players. This is development time. Once you get to August, we're all about trying to find a way to win a game."

In other words, the time is now for those 65 scholarship players who will hit the fields at the Harmon Family Football Practice Park this afternoon around 4 p.m. for the start of one of the most hotly anticipated spring practice sessions in recent years.

By now, it is becoming clear what Meyer wants out of his players. Winter workouts were about sculpting bodies, for sure, but in the eyes of the coaching staff the most important part was developing a culture of winning and a culture in which players go hard at all times.

That will continue into the spring, as many of the drills will be about determining winners and losers. Monday, the staff designated some players as having reached the program's "Champions Club," which rewards those who were accountable in all phases of their actions during the winter. That grooming will continue in spring, as those who do their jobs on the field will be rewarded and those who do not will face the consequences.

With that in mind, BSB takes a look at what needs to happen at each position as drills begin.

Braxton Miller is penciled in as the starter after the five-star prospect showed potential after taking over as the starter a season ago. His progress running the spread offense designed by Meyer and quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator Tom Herman will be critical, though it is worth mentioning the offense seems perfectly designed to take advantage of his talents. A backup also must emerge. Meyer praised the offseason work ethic of junior Kenny Guiton while early-enrollee freshman Cardale Jones is worth watching; he's a big kid who can move with a cannon for an arm.

Running back
The battle to replace graduated Dan Herron should be very interesting. All of the backs on the team bring a unique skill-set, as senior Jordan Hall has experience and is quick and versatile; Roderick Smith and Carlos Hyde are big and fast; and freshman Brionte Dunn was one of Meyer's most lauded players of the offseason and has momentum. Someone from this position was expected to step up a year ago but the results were mixed; now the veterans have another chance with Dunn serving as the wild card.

Fullback/Tight end
We'll group these positions, as they will be similar under Meyer and will be coached by veteran hand Tim Hinton. Meyer has often got good use out of tight ends, and his offseason praise for Jake Stoneburner, Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman – calling tight end the position he's most excited about – should be exciting news for fans. All three can catch passes as well and could be important cogs in the offense. At fullback, Zach Boren should continue to be dependable as he's already become one of Meyer's favorite players; how his role will change is worth watching.

Wide receiver
This is one of the positions where someone needs to step up after the OSU passing game struggled last year and no one caught even 15 passes. Coming off a solid freshman campaign in which he showed big-play ability, Devin Smith is one player Meyer said to watch, while Corey Brown continues to dazzle with his speed. Chris Fields, Evan Spencer and T.Y. Williams will have a chance to make a move while Verlon Reed recuperates from knee surgery, but it's time for someone to step up from that group.

Offensive line
This will be perhaps the most interesting spot to watch. Can Brian Bobek handle the center spot or will someone like Corey Linsley have to move from guard? Where will returning starters Andrew Norwell and Jack Mewhort – both of whom can play either tackle or guard – fit? Is converted tight end Reid Fragel ready to play tackle? Who else is ready to step up? Speculating here is worthless because there are simply so many ways things can play out at this position, but it's time for someone to make a move.

Defensive line
Ohio State returns all four starters from the 2011 season in John Simon, Johnathan Hankins, Garrett Goebel and Adam Bellamy, but that doesn't mean there won't be competition. Michael Bennett and Joel Hale showed potential as freshmen last year and will want to stake a claim to spots, while there's another bevy of youngsters like J.T. Moore and Steve Miller who want to make more of an on-field impact. If all goes as expected, this will be the deepest position at OSU in 2012 – especially when a highly rated group of recruits arrives this fall and Nathan Williams returns from knee surgery.

Thanks to injury and inexperience this position struggled a year ago, but there's reason for hope. Ryan Shazier figures to step into a starting spot and his development will bear watching; he showed big-play ability last year but needs to become more consistent in his tackling. Etienne Sabino has shed weight and said he feels great; the senior showed flashes last year but has never quite made the leap, so it's worth watching to see if now is the time. And then there's Curtis Grant – is the five-star prospect ready to go after struggling to grasp the mental side of things a season ago? His emergence – or that of youngster Joshua Perry – would be huge for the team.

Defensive back
Ohio State seems solid at the starting spots at cornerback as Bradley Roby showed star potential last year as a freshman and Travis Howard should be a dependable if not flashy senior. Doran Grant also has potential, and he needs to show he's ready because depth is an issue. At safety, C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant both went through growing pains last year, which was to be expected as they were sophomores. This was about the time Kurt Coleman turned it on during his career; can those two do the same? Orhian Johnson also has the chance to show his excellent play at the end of last year was no fluke after a rocky start to his starting career.

Special teams
Meyer is known as the type of coach who is hands on with his special teams, but Ohio State's kicking game has been inconsistent to say the last in past seasons. There are plenty of guys with skill on the team, but finding a return man who can go all the way has been an issue in past seasons. That will surely be a focus of camp. The kicking positions seem set, though, as senior punter Ben Buchanan and junior kicker Drew Basil will be tasked with working on their crafts after very good seasons a year ago. Can each make the jump to be among the premier players at their positions in the country?

Other major questions
**Can the offense be installed by the time camp is over? Ohio State has used spread principles in past seasons but there will be some culture shock as the Buckeyes commit to spread the field full-time. Meyer said the coaching staff is "pretty pushy" so the majority, if not all, of the offense should be installed. Then there's the matter of the tempo; this staff wants to hurry things up, but there will be a mental and physical adjustment.

**How will the defensive staff work together? Luke Fickell stays on and figures to keep Ohio State's defense fairly similar to the way it was in recent seasons, but it will bear watching to see if any new strategies pop up as he works with former North Carolina defensive coordinator Everett Withers. Meyer has already confirmed OSU will continue to have a rush end like the "Leo" of recent seasons, but how will the "Star" position develop? That's just one question that could come up.

**Who is ready? This is probably the most important question, is certainly the broadest and also the hardest to answer. There has been a tremendous amount of pressure put on the players since Meyer and his staff arrived, and that will continue into fall camp. Some players have stepped up but there are so many question marks at so many positions that more are needed on board. Now that the hard offseason work is over and the sport becomes fun again with the players hitting the field, it's showtime.

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