There aren’t many college football programs that can set their attendance goal to 100,000 for their annual spring game. That’s the case for Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes, as they continue to develop what has now become an Ohio Stadium tradition of filling the seats in April.
This year, it’s for a different reason.
For the first time in Meyer’s career, he’ll have fewer than eight returning starters taking the field in the fall.
For the first time in his Ohio State tenure, tomorrow’s spring game will be used to gauge which talented players have the best shot of starting in 2016.
Here are five reasons to watch Ohio State’s spring game on Saturday afternoon.
5. Competitive “Football” in Spring
For many years, I have passed on watching any form of a spring game live, because it isn’t valuable enough for me to take time away from a Saturday.
This year, that isn’t the case.
Ohio State has already built a college football Saturday by selling more than 69,000 tickets to non-students.
For many years, I have considered the spring as the first study session before the big test of fall camp, which ultimately lands you the full-time job. While Saturday won’t be real football, we will see players in a glorified practice, attempting to prove themselves in front of their position coaches, coordinators and head coach.
All in all, 35 players who lettered a year ago return for the Buckeyes, but only six of them were starters last year.
Offensive linemen Billy Price and Pat Elflein will try to anchor an offensive line that has replaced three or more starters twice in the last three offseasons.
J.T. Barrett is 15-2 in his Ohio State career, but enters Saturday’s game as the solidified heart of this offense’s identity for the first time.
On defense, linebacker Raekwon McMillan, defensive end Tyquan Lewis, and defensive back Gareon Conley (all returning players) have already proven they can make plays at the highest level.
Everywhere else, it’s pretty much open competition. If there is a favorite at a position, now is the time for others to make an impression.
4. The Quarterbacks of the Future
What is so unique about spring games across the country is that we get a look at the future of a program.
Even though 2016 is J.T. Barrett’s ship to right, Ohio State has a couple of very good quarterbacks that will be featured during the spring game.
For the first time in the Urban Meyer era heading into spring, his team has a list of quarterbacks that were recruited exclusively by his staff.
So, will we see a maturation of the offense through the quarterbacks he has recruited?
Redshirt freshman Joe Burrow threw for nearly 11,500 yards during his prep career at Athens High School in The Plains, Ohio. He completed over 70% of his passes as an upperclassman. As a senior, he threw 63 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions.
Yet, Meyer told the media last week that if they needed him to play, the Buckeyes would have to lean on a run-heavy offense.
At 6-4, Burrow is a pocket passer with athletic ability. Despite being very talented, the Cardale Jones experience of 2015 has many questioning how Burrow’s skill set fits in the future of this offense.
It also leads many to believe that the passing game will see drastic changes, starting in 2016. Burrow will try to build himself up as the future starter, and Barrett will aim to improve in every way possible as he stares down the NFL Draft at some point in the next two years.
Stephen Collier, who played well in last year’s spring game, is also a very talented dual-threat guy who could have a major role as the lead backup.
So far, Collier’s biggest responsibility inside the program has been playing Marcus Mariota in practices, leading up to Ohio State’s big win over the Heisman Trophy winner in the 2015 CFP National Championship Game.
Right now, the 6-4 sophomore has been listed by quarterbacks coach Tim Beck as the third-string guy.
Even with top 2016 recruit Dwayne Haskins not making his way to campus until fall camp, don’t be surprised if Collier propels himself with a fine showing in the spring game.
The arm, playmaking ability, and vision downfield are already there. The coaching staff will see if he can improve the intangibles, such as pocket presence, in a “game-like” environment on Saturday.
3. The Season is Won or Lost in the Trenches
In the world of problem solving, there are the genius minds that discover the answers to the world’s biggest problems. Others conduct tests to find the cures to the earth’s worst diseases.
A step below that are coaches across the country. The Ohio State coaching staff is looking for the right answers to replace the likes of Joey Bosa, Taylor Decker, Chase Farris, Tommy Schutt and Adolphus Washington.
The game is won with the battle up front. It’s one thing to replace starters, but when they are high-end stars, you need to use every single moment to dissect who will be the best fit to meet accordingly high expectations as replacements.
On Saturday, the focus will be at right guard and tackle on offense, and on the depth spots for the defensive line.
We know that Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis will bookend the line, but who can step in to replace them in certain situations? Who will step up at the two defensive tackle positions? Is there enough talent to run the eight-deep system position coach Larry Johnson prefers?
Veteran Jamarco Jones appears to be the favorite to land one of the three spots. Isaiah Prince, Kevin Feder, Branden Bowen, and Michael Jordan will all have a chance to impress.
If watching line play is your thing, you’ll want to keep an eye on the competition Saturday.
2. Who will replace Braxton Miller, Jalin Marshall, and Michael Thomas?
Adding insult to injury is… injury.
Noah Brown and Corey Smith both return this season, but won’t play on Saturday as they recover from the broken legs they are both rehabbing. Curtis Samuel, who could play at three different positions, will also miss Saturday’s game.
All in all, these injuries could actually be a good thing for Ohio State’s future at the position. As much as it would benefit getting these vets some playing time in the spring after injury, now Saturday will be an open competition among a lot of young guys.
The three players to watch at the position will be Austin Mack, Parris Campbell, and Torrance Gibson. All three are superior athletes that have a real shot at starting in 2016.
Mack is arguably the most game-ready freshman in the country at wide receiver. He became the fastest player in program history to lose his black stripe earlier this month. Nobody has ever lost the stripe before fall camp. He could very well be Ohio State’s starting slot receiver at the beginning of the year.
Gibson is an unbelievable athlete who is trying to make the transition to receiver from quarterback. He has all the tools to be a contributor right away, and came close to seeing playing time as a true freshman.
Campbell gained a favorable amount of playing time at the beginning of the 2015 season, but missed plenty of time during the season due to injury. He improved drastically as a blocker throughout the year and should be a favorite to start at the end of the fall.
1. With Ezekiel Elliott moving on, will the Buckeyes go running back by committee, or will someone stand out through the spring and fall?
Let’s be honest: The only running plays we will see on Saturday will be of the vanilla variety.
The running game won’t get fancy, but with Ezekiel Elliott moving to the NFL, fans will get a true first look at some of the talented running backs battling for carries.
The incumbent returner is senior Brionte Dunn, who lived up to expectations as a backup last season. After a rocky start to his Ohio State career, coaches bought into his effort on special teams and at tailback in 2015. They have given him the first crack at being the starter.
The problem is that Dunn is a Clydesdale, standing in front of a couple of young thoroughbreds ready to run.
The main stud is redshirt freshman Mike Weber, who has impressed after a strong showing in practices last season. Many have compared his skill set to Elliott, and it’s why he is considered the favorite to start in 2016. Dunn could still have a major role with the offense as the elder statesman. Despite being a senior, he has a lot to prove heading into the fall.
Another name to watch will be true freshman Antonio Williams, who has also been lighting up practices throughout the spring.