It may be hard to take anything away from a spring game, but the same can't be said about spring practice as a whole. With that in mind, Ben Axelrod provides his thoughts on the last month of action for the Ohio State football team and what it means heading into the 2014 season.
Spring games are pointless, but spring practices are not. With the team split into two and the top 10 (maybe 20?) percent of players not playing, it's hard to take much away from a glorified team scrimmage. On the other hand, the 14 practices leading up to the annual exhibition can tell you a lot about the direction of college football team. So with that in mind, here are some observations from Ohio State
's 2014 spring practice season, just as soon as I get back from the presentation of the Bam Childress Spring Game MVP Award.
"We have to get better and all, but now I feel like we're on our way to being back to the Silver Bullets that everybody watching thinks of." - Buckeyes safety Tyvis Powell
After the disaster that was the end of Ohio State's 2013 campaign, it's obvious that the majority of attention directed toward the Buckeyes this spring was placed on the defense. OSU surrendered an average of 539 yards per game in its final three contests of the season, losing its final two. Enter Chris Ash, the Buckeyes new co-defensive coordinator and the man charged with fixing OSU's passing defense. Ash is known for his quarters coverage system, which places an emphasis on the cornerbacks playing press coverage. Thus, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the Buckeyes spent each defensive snap this spring playing press coverage. That can leave the cornerbacks on an island with little-to-no help, but should also open OSU's options when it comes to blitzing. The Buckeyes still have a long way to go when it comes to fixing what went wrong with the ‘Silver Bullets' but it's clear to all who witnessed an Ohio State practice that improvement was made this spring.
Urban Meyer on his defense's improvement: "I hope the reaction was that they looked quicker, they look faster, they trigger on the ball much better than they have in the past. If that's your perception, that's mine as well."
Sticking with the defense, I thought that the stars of the spring came from the backend of the Buckeyes' defense and that should bode well for them. Redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple have become legitimate contenders to start opposite Doran Grant, who appears poised to make a jump himself as a senior. Powell managed to lockdown a starting spot at safety and Vonn Bell seems like the obvious option to start opposite him despite missing spring practice with an injury. Either way you look at it, the abundance of talent in the OSU secondary is apparent, which in and of itself could go a long way toward fixing the Buckeyes' issues.
As for the defensive player you all want to know about -- Raekwon McMillan -- I dismissed the notion early on that he could start as a true freshman. After all, how many highly touted prospects have come in here in recent years with the same reputation only to contribute minimally or even redshirt? But seeing McMillan play with Ohio State's other starting linebackers in the spring game told me everything I need to know. Meyer and his staff are going to give the four-star prospect every chance he can to get on the field. I think Curtis Grant will still enter the season as the starter -- he had a nice spring himself -- but by season's end, I'd expect No. 5 to be one of the hottest selling jerseys in Columbus for reasons other than Braxton Miller.
On the defensive line for the Buckeyes, watch out. You'd be hard pressed to find a better first four than Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington, four players who all have at least All-Big Ten potential. I always thought that Washington was better suited playing inside than at strong side defensive end and it's scary to think Bosa is still just a sophomore. Depth is somewhat of a concern, especially with Spence missing the first two games of the year with a suspension, but OSU's defensive line is one unit that's not going to be devoid of talent in 2014.
On the offensive side of the ball, everybody wants to talk about the quarterbacks, but the player who caught my attention was Dontre Wilson. Each practice the media got to witness, the Buckeyes made a concerted effort to get the ball into his hands in a variety of ways. He's no longer just a novelty or a decoy, he's a focal point of the OSU offense. I actually thought we'd see this a year ago after Wilson wowed in fall camp, but with his weight up to 185 pounds, the DeSoto, Texas seems better suited to take the pounding of a college football season. Even once Miller returns to the OSU lineup, look for Wilson to maintain his status as a star in the Buckeyes offense.
Speaking of Miller, his absence allowed us to get comprehensive looks of both Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett for the first time in their respective careers. Neither had particularly impressive springs and while Meyer has raved of Jones' improved play, he hardly did it on a consistent enough level for the Buckeyes to be confident if Miller misses extended time this spring. I still maintain that Barrett has more longterm potential than Jones, but both will have to prove more than they did this spring in summer workouts and fall camp.
Wide receivers-wise, I still have some concerns, but it's also important to note than none of the OSU wideouts played with a No. 1 quarterback this spring. Devin Smith will likely return to his starting spot, probably alongside Michael Thomas, who to me is the most physically gifted wide receiver on the Buckeyes roster. Corey Smith has been raved about but didn't exactly wow in the spring and Johnnie Dixon has shown just flashes as a true freshman. I'm not sure Meyer still has the type of talent at the position that he's been looking for just yet, but a lot of the wide receivers' growth will have to coincide with Miller's.
One pass-catching option who really caught my eye this spring was Marcus Baugh, a tight end who looks like the type of tight end that Meyer utilized during his time in Gainesville. Even if Baugh can stay out of trouble, it may be hard for him to find snaps with Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett on the field, but if Baugh can prove that he deserves playing time, the Buckeyes will find a way to get him on the field.
Carlos Hyde is gone, but the Buckeyes' backfield is as deep as I can remember it ever being. Ezekiel Elliott, Curtis Samuel, Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball each bring something different to the table and so will Rod Smith if he can get his academics figured out. I think Elliott will ultimately wind up the No. 1 back for the Buckeyes in the fall, but Samuel -- an early enrollee -- seems to be a player who has captured the OSU staff's attention more than anyone, regardless of age. If ever there was a running back by committee for the Buckeyes, this may be it.
On the offensive line, Taylor Decker has impressed me at left tackle, but I've seen little beyond that. And if the spring game did teach us anything, it's that depth is certainly lacking in this department. Decker and Patrick Elflein are the only certain starters in the Buckeyes' front five and intriguing position battles occupy the other five spots. Joel Hale (left guard), Billy Price (center) and Evan Lisle (right tackle) all entered the spring on OSU's second team and could be starting by the season opener. Whether that's a good or bad thing for the Buckeyes remains to be seen, but this seems to be the one unit that Meyer was most disappointed with leaving spring ball -- despite knowing that he had four starters to replace. Ed Warinner is a hell of an offensive line coach, but this fall could present him with his toughest test yet.
Overall, it's hard to judge the Buckeyes as a whole this spring without Miller -- his development is still a question mark -- but there was enough to be encouraged by in these past 15 practices, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. This summer will go a long way toward OSU's development than this past spring did and there are still a plethora of talented incoming freshmen on their way. The defense may not have been righted just yet, but it's heading in the right direction, which is more than could have been said in Columbus a mere four months ago.