DEFENSIVE LINE: Will there be a surprise breakout player?
Most agree that going into the 2009 season Ohio State might have its most experienced depth and talent on the team at the defensive line position. The Buckeyes figure that by the time September comes around, they will have Cameron Heyward, Todd Denlinger, Robert Rose, Dexter Larimore, Nathan Williams, Thaddeus Gibson and Lawrence Wilson – players who combined for 164 tackles last season – ready to go.
Figuring out playing time for those guys is a fun problem to have for the Buckeye coaching staff, which has shown a willingness to play up to eight guys on the front and mix and match its defensive line personnel depending on the game situation.
With that in mind, all seven of those players can expect plenty of playing time in 2009 no matter their spring performances, though a standout campaign from the likes of Rose, Larimore or Williams – players who seem to have untapped reserves of potential –would help increase those totals a little bit.
But is there a chance, especially with Wilson's status a question mark as he continues to rehab from injury, that a younger player or two could surprise and push himself into the playing time debate?
One player who will miss that opportunity is Keith Wells, who Jim Tressel mentioned as a player whose status in spring is limited or precluded by offseason surgery.
Other players looking to make a name for themselves are sophomore Solomon Thomas and redshirt freshmen Garrett Goebel and Willie Mobley. All were highly thought of exiting high school but have yet to make an impact at the college level. With another talented group of linemen set to enroll in June, a good spring would help those players either enter the conversation for 2009 playing time or stay ahead of the game in the future.
Bonus question: Will we continue to some tackles and end flip positions on passing downs?
LINEBACKER: What will happen with Etienne Sabino?
Tressel sounded a bit measured when asked this week about his team's current starting lineup at linebacker, mentioning that if the season began today, the Buckeyes would likely be in nickel with Jermale Hines, Ross Homan and Austin Spitler in the game.
But before the last member of that group, Tressel paused and said, "If a game was tomorrow."
Now, Spitler has been a solid contributor on special teams and in goal-line and reserve situations over the past few seasons, and no less than James Laurinaitis has anointed him as a possible star at the middle linebacker spot. But all accounts have Sabino as a freakish presence who has all the makings of a star, so one could interpret the head coach's remarks as a pause to consider the impact the Miami native could have as he gains more experience.
In addition, the team will need to find a third linebacker in base situations against pro-style and run-heavy teams like USC (the former) and Wisconsin (the latter), and linebackers coach Luke Fickell said in February that Sabino could move out of the middle to find playing time as a sophomore.
Either way, he could continue to rise up the ranks with a good spring and show that his talent is just too much to keep off the field in 2009.
DEFENSIVE BACK: Will any safety depth emerge?
Much of the consternation at DB, and rightly so, as spring practice begins is about the cornerback spot, where the Buckeyes will be looking for one starter and another major contributor after the losses of four-year player Malcolm Jenkins and three-year veteran Donald Washington following the 2008 campaign.
But other secondary battles could have a major impact on the team in 2009 and will definitely be important with 2010 on the horizon, and those are the races for the backup spots at safety.
Of course, Anderson Russell and Kurt Coleman, multiyear starters, return and should play every meaningful moment barring injury for the Buckeyes. Who will be in line for a starting spot should one go down – and for those in 2010, after both leave – could start to be determined in the spring now that reserves Jamario O'Neal and Nick Patterson graduated after the past season.
At least five players – Aaron Gant, Nate Oliver, Rocco Pentello, Zach Domicone and Orhian Johnson – return at safety having spent a year in the program. But only Gant, who made seven tackles last season, has stepped onto the field as a safety, doing so in late-game situations and at times of injury for the past two seasons. However, even that experience has been limited.
Jamie Wood, a true freshman from Pickerington (Ohio) Central, has entered school early and seems to have the presence and talent to throw his hat into the ring for playing time as well. Whatever happens, the coaching staff will feel better if one or two can stand out.
Bonus question: With his talent and experience, is Chimdi Chekwa ready to be a No. 1 cornerback?
SPECIAL TEAMS: Is Ben Buchanan ready for a major role?
The Westerville (Ohio) Central kicking prodigy entered Ohio State to major hoopla – at least for a specialist – last season and started his career both kicking and punting during fall practice.
Now, he'll get his first chance to earn a starting role, competing with Jon Thoma for the punting job. Buchanan averaged more than 40 yards per punt in his high school career and seems to have the talent to take over for A.J. Trapasso. The spring will go a long way in determining if Buchanan or Thoma, a walk-on who hasn't impressed in live game situations, will be the punter come game one.
And will Buchanan continue to work on kicking should his presence be needed as a punter? The staff might soon have to make a choice.
Bonus question: Will moving the kick scrimmage ahead in the fall help improve the kickoff return unit, which has struggled the past two seasons?