It is time to turn the page for the Ohio State football team. Its undefeated 2012 season is history. Irreplaceable leaders such as John Simon and Zach Boren must be ... well, replaced.
But also gone is the postseason ban that prevented Ohio State from winning the Big Ten title or playing for the national championship. With most of the offense and defensive secondary back, Ohio State has been anointed as a legitimate contender for the national title. Today Ohio State begins spring practice, which will culminate with the spring game in Cincinnati. Ohio Stadium is unavailable because of maintenance work.
As the Buckeyes start preparation for the 2013 season, they must begin to answer several pressing questions. Beat writers Tim May and Bill Rabinowitz will take turns addressing six of them.
Who could be a breakout performer on offense?
May: Certainly it won’t be Braxton Miller, he of the Sports Illustrated cover, who last year set the season school record for total offense. Nor will it be running back Carlos Hyde, who came within a whisper of a 1,000-yard season. But it could be fifth-year senior Jordan Hall. He was expected to be the hybrid slotback in the spread before a cut foot in the summer delayed his debut, and then a knee injury cut his season short after 2½ games. With blue-chip recruits Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson headed this way in the summer, Hall — elected a co-captain last season — needs to reassert why coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman had such grand plans for him this time a year ago. Without such a consistent slotback presence in 2012, the new offense only scratched the surface of its on-paper capabilities.
Who replaces Reid Fragel at right tackle?
Rabinowitz: With four starters back, the offensive line should be a major strength after its surprisingly impressive performance last year. Fragel, the final piece of last year’s puzzle after a successful conversion from tight end, leaves a large void. But the Buckeyes are confident they can fill it. Taylor Decker gave a stiff challenge to Fragel as a true freshman last year. Decker has the size, strength and smarts to step in and be effective. But don’t overlook Chase Farris. He was one of the few Buckeyes backup offensive linemen who impressed Meyer with his steady improvement in practice.
What is the biggest task facing the defense?
May: It is establishing the rotation on the line, which lost all four starters: John Simon, Johnathan Hankins (left early for the NFL Draft), Garrett Goebel and Nathan Williams. The first line going into [today] probably will be Noah Spence at the Leo end, Tommy Schutt and Adolphus Washington at the tackles, and Michael Bennett at the strong-side end. Bennett, a junior, is the old man of the group; the others are sophomores. He has been hindered by nagging injuries the past couple of years and still seems hampered a bit. Like the other three, he was a blue-chip recruit just a couple of years ago and could emerge as a leader on a defense that lost seven starters. Linebacker Jamal Marcus actually might gain a strong look at defensive end, and Joel Hale — along with Steve Miller, J.T. Moore and Se’Von Pittman — will contend for time.
Who will play alongside Ryan Shazier at linebacker?
Rabinowitz: As 2012 progressed, Shazier added discipline to his extraordinary dynamic playmaking ability. The junior-to-be outside linebacker figures to contend for Big Ten defensive player of the year honors. But around him are huge question marks. The biggest is at middle linebacker. The Buckeyes desperately wanted Curtis Grant to seize control of the position last year, but he didn’t. Grant has the physical skills befitting a former five-star recruit and is purported to be a hard worker, but it simply hasn’t clicked for him. Now is the time for Grant to make it happen. The other top contender probably is Camren Williams, who battled injuries as a freshman.
How will the team address its concerns at punter?
May: When OSU ran out of room in its 2013 class and thus tried to delay the signing of longtime commitment Johnny Townsend of Orlando, Fla., the punter opted to sign the next day with Florida. The chances were very good he was going to walk right in and become the starting punter for the Buckeyes, who lost Ben Buchanan. But they have a couple of capable legs, not the lesser of which belongs to kicker Drew Basil. As he showed during pregame warm-ups last season, he can do both jobs, though that might not be his preference, or the coaches’. Reserve wide receiver Frank Epitropoulos was a standout punter at Upper Arlington, but he has been bothered by injuries for the past year. If the coaches add punting to Basil’s chores, he might be relieved of kickoff duty by Kyle Clinton, who has proved he can boom it.
Are the receivers ready to take the next step?
Rabinowitz: From 2011 to ’12, the Buckeyes’ wide receivers went from embarrassingly unproductive to decent. But adequate play isn’t sufficient if Ohio State is to become as explosive as it should be in Meyer’s spread. Devin Smith has game-breaking speed but needs to have more-consistent hands and be more adept at gaining separation from defensive backs. Corey Brown found his niche as a short-yardage receiver.
Evan Spencer had some good moments and is capable of more. With freshmen reinforcements coming in the summer, the holdover receivers will want to make an impression now.