COLUMBUS — Nobody needs to explain how narrow the margin for error in a national-title chase is to Ohio State.
After two more months of hearing about the score of the Fiesta Bowl, thinking about the tough breaks that went against them, trying to understand the officiating and then still realizing how agonizingly close they were in the fourth quarter, the Buckeyes have surely been counting down the days until they could get back on the practice field.
Every chance to get better counts. And with a bunch of key figures who know what it takes to get to the College Football Playoff back in the fold, this motivated group of Buckeyes won’t be lacking for motivation to squeeze just a little bit extra out of the next 15 workouts as the preparations for their next run at a championship pick up steam.
“I’ve moved on from the anger part of it,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “Obviously when you’re a competitor like that, it’s hard to lose in a game of that magnitude. And you feel like you played really, really well. But when you watch the film, we came up short in certain areas. We didn’t do well early on in the red zone. We gave up the four-play drive inside the 7-yard line late in the game. And we didn’t finish the drive with the last play of the game. And so you look at those moments. There were a lot of great moments.
“But when you’re playing in big games and the margin for error is tiny, that’s what happens. So, yeah, I don’t know if we’ve moved on yet. I don’t think that’s probably the word. But it’s still kind of sitting there. We’re thinking about it a lot. And it’s going to keep motivating us moving forward. But at some point you do have to take the next step.”
Ohio State has taken several of them already during the winter conditioning program, which wrapped up over the weekend and clears the deck for football activities again starting on Monday in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. But the next month or so will be critical in establishing a foundation for the three-time defending Big Ten champions, and Lettermen Row is looking ahead at what’s to come with Five Questions for the Buckeyes.
Which Buckeyes are dealing with injuries?
Perhaps it feels like longer, but it’s only been a little more than two months since Ohio State finished up its season in the Fiesta Bowl. So, for any Buckeyes that were dealing with nagging injuries and may have needed surgery, odds are there will be a few guys missing in action when camp opens. Ohio State has continued to keep a tight lid on details of medical procedures, but there are a few projected starters who previously acknowledged the possibility of needing time to recover — so, safety Josh Proctor, defensive end Jonathon Cooper, linebacker Baron Browning and running back Marcus Crowley will all have eyes on them early to see if they have a chance of competing this spring. The Buckeyes will have an open practice on Monday followed by a Day press conference, and that should provide a little insight on how the roster is holding up physically.
What can Justin Fields do for Ohio State encore?
At this time a year ago, Justin Fields was getting set for his practice debut with the Buckeyes — and his head was clearly swimming. The athleticism was there right from the start, but Fields was noticeably struggling to get down all the details of the offense and didn’t even come close to showing off the pinpoint accuracy that would eventually make him a Heisman Trophy finalist. Clearly a lot has changed over the last 12 months, and based on the way he zipped through the learning curve, it’s scary to think about what the junior could become now that he has a full season of starts under his belt, another offseason to develop physically and a firm command of the playbook. The next opportunities to get better are here, and he’s building from a much higher platform now.
Can Kerry Coombs reload Ohio State secondary?
Dominating the NFL Combine in the secondary is always bittersweet for the Buckeyes, who again had three starting defensive backs impressing in Indianapolis last week. Obviously it’s a tribute to the program that the professional assembly line is humming along, and that helps attract more elite recruits to come join the Buckeyes. But it’s also a reminder of the challenge ahead of Kerry Coombs in his return to Ohio State, as he once again has to reload the position after nearly losing the entire secondary. Having Shaun Wade back is huge for the Buckeyes, there’s no question about that. The next few weeks, though, will be critical for identifying a couple cornerbacks capable of starting alongside him — and Cameron Brown and Sevyn Banks should be at the head of the line. If Proctor misses any time after dealing with a shoulder injury last season, that will add intrigue at safety where guys like Marcus Hooker or Bryson Shaw could find themselves with extra reps and a major opportunity.
How will Buckeyes replace J.K. Dobbins in backfield?
After the most prolific rushing season in school history, it’s entirely possible that replacing J.K. Dobbins isn’t going to be a one-man job for the Buckeyes. If there are any injury concerns or uncertainty about the pecking order, Ohio State might not even have a definitive plan in place heading into the summer, instead leaving the options open for competition in training camp. But figuring out what to do in the backfield looms as one of the most pressing concerns for the offense, particularly since it was apparent all year how important Dobbins was to the overall success of the attack. Master Teague showed plenty of flashes of All-Big Ten potential as a sophomore, but some struggles against top-shelf competition turned his campaign into something of a mixed bag. He’s the odds-on favorite heading into spring, but Teague is going to need to take another step forward if he’s going to become the primary rusher and keep the Buckeyes from needing to explore a committee approach.
Who will emerge as new Ohio State captains?
The Buckeyes already have a head start with Jonathon Cooper and Tuf Borland back as captains on defense, and as C.J. Saunders waits to hear about a medical redshirt, he’s providing his leadership on offense. And on top of that, Ohio State already has a heaping handful of guys who have wasted no time proving they can set the tone on and off the field — which could make for a heated vote in August to officially be named a captain. Fields is a lock to earn a spot, and his interior linemen Josh Myers and Wyatt Davis are absolutely two of the most respected players and people on the team. Throw in Pete Werner and Shaun Wade on defense and the pool of captains is already getting crowded. Make room, though, for a locked-in Chris Olave, who is intent on making up for his high-profile mistake in the Fiesta Bowl and on a mission to lead the Buckeyes back to the College Football Playoff.