COLUMBUS — The first portion of the offseason slog back to real, live football at Ohio State is almost over.
The Buckeyes will be back on the practice field in a little more than a week, starting a 15-practice stretch that will run into April and the annual spring game that will mark another official milestone in the Ryan Day Era’s first year.
The new coach’s predecessor used to stress the importance of solidifying the depth chart as much as possible during the spring so training camp could be used more to prepare for an actual game, and odds are Day will bring the same mentality as he gets to work leading the program. That doesn’t mean Ohio State will head into the summer with a two-deep chiseled in stone, but the roster will certainly be taking a more defined shape after these key practices are in the bank.
Ohio State has plenty of returning talent and experience, and some jobs can already be safely assumed to be filled. But which important spots are up for grabs? Lettermen Row will be focusing on these positions when the pads go on at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
The approved waiver that cleared Justin Fields for instant eligibility made it official: Ohio State has a quarterback battle on its hands with the top two options now both ready to go. Matthew Baldwin needed most of last season to get healthy after suffering a knee injury at the end of his high-school career, but he’s been full go and impressing with his strong arm now for a few months. Given the reputation Fields built as the most decorated recruit the Buckeyes have ever had on their roster, it’s fair to consider him the odds-on favorite to replace Dwayne Haskins and take over offense. But Baldwin is capable of making it a legitimate competition, and these workouts will be critical at the most important position on the field.
Multiple jobs on the offensive line are available heading into spring with only one full-time starter returning. Having Thayer Munford at left tackle is a solid foundation to begin with, and Wyatt Davis is almost certainly going to be at guard again after his two postseason starts there. But that leaves some uncertainty at three other spots, and what happens with two of them could be determined by what shakes out in what should be a three-man rumble at right tackle between Joshua Alabi, Branden Bowen and Nicholas Petit-Frere. If the former five-star recruit in Petit-Frere emerges, either Alabi or Bowen could be options to kick inside to guard, which would then just leave the center spot to be settled as Josh Myers attempts to take over in the middle. This conversation, though, might drag into August no matter what as the Buckeyes pursue additional options on the graduate-transfer market.
Truthfully, Ohio State is probably going to open up all three spots for competition as it wipes the slate clean with a unit that has been the most underwhelming in the program over the last two seasons. With Al Washington arriving to get the linebackers back on track, he’ll want to make his own decisions about the personnel even with Malik Harrison, Pete Werner and Tuf Borland returning. It’s Borland’s job in particular that will probably generate the closest scrutiny, particularly with Teradja Mitchell poised to explode and Baron Browning still trying to find the right role. If Borland is healthy and back to form, he could certainly reclaim his spot — but it’s going to be a real fight in that defensive quarterback spot.
The decision by Damon Arnette to put off the NFL Draft for another season is a more significant boost for the Buckeyes than it tends to get credit for, and the senior could form a terrific tandem with Jeffrey Okudah as the junior appears ready for his star turn. At a minimum, Ohio State will be looking to see who can be the third guy in the mix as Shaun Wade looks for an expanded role and Tyreke Johnson and Sevyn Banks look to make a leap after their transition years in the program. Of course, if for some reason Arnette isn’t able to hold those younger guys off, a new coaching staff isn’t simply going to defer to him because he’s a veteran, so that adds another layer of intrigue during March and April in the secondary.
The starter is obvious, and J.K. Dobbins is almost certainly going to be getting a heavy dose of carries in what is likely to be his final year at Ohio State. But the Buckeyes need a second running back to help carry the load and complement Dobbins, and that race is relatively wide open. Master Teague brings a physical presence and has a year under his belt at Ohio State. Demario McCall is a do-it-all athlete who might finally be ready to tap into his enormous potential. And early enrollee Marcus Crowley is a wildcard as a recruit who might not have received enough acclaim for what he could bring to the Buckeyes. With Dobbins not really needing to prove himself at all during these practices, Ohio State can pay close attention to the guys vying to lend a hand to the ground attack.