While most of America has spent the past few months consumed with the NCAA tournament and the never-ending Russell Westbrook vs. James Harden MVP debate, college football’s best teams have quietly spent their time plugging away on practice fields across the country. We’re talking spring football, and some of the best teams will play their spring games this weekend.
One of the most intriguing will be in Columbus, where the Ohio State Buckeyes will return to the field for the first time since an embarrassing 31-0 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff.
Five things to watch for when the scarlet takes on gray at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday:
How does the pass offense look under new coordinator Kevin Wilson?
While the Buckeyes' 11-1 regular season record fooled some people, close observers knew all along that the passing game just wasn’t “right” in 2016. The Buckeyes ranked 81st nationally in passing yardage (just 214 yards per game), while quarterback J.T. Barrett saw his completion percentage dip for a second straight season. New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and new quarterbacks coach Ryan Day were brought in to liven up the Buckeyes’ passing attack.
Specifically, it will be interesting to see how comfortable Wilson is in his new digs. It’s no secret that he left his last job at Indiana under controversial circumstances, but Wilson’s track record on the field speaks for itself. He was the man behind those high-powered Sam Bradford-led Oklahoma offenses and continued to have success in Bloomington, where the Hoosiers ranked in the Top 30 nationally in passing the past two seasons.
So far, Wilson has received rave reviews in Columbus. It will be fascinating to see how he uses all the weapons at his disposal.
USA TODAY SportsTommy Gilligan
Who will emerge as the “go-to” receiver?
While some of the blame for the passing game's struggles can be placed on Barrett’s shoulders, the receiving corps didn’t come together like most expected in 2016. After losing Michael Thomas and Braxton Miller to the pros, no one really stepped up in their places; Curtis Samuel was the closest thing this team had to a go-to receiver, but he spent most of his time lining up out of the backfield.
With Samuel gone, it will be interesting to see if anyone else can become a factor in the passing game. After a quiet freshman season, Binjimen Victor has stepped up this spring according to FOX’s Bruce Feldman (who was on campus for practice earlier this week), while others like K.J. Hill and Johnnie Dixon have reportedly shown flashes as well. Parris Campbell also could be a breakout star as he steps into the H-back spot that Samuel once occupied.
Who will emerge as the school’s next great defensive back?
Ohio State was supposed to take a major step back in the defensive backfield last season after losing Eli Apple and Vonn Bell to the pros. Instead, the Buckeyes finished with 21 interceptions, including an FBS-best seven interceptions returned for touchdowns. Now that Gareon Conley, Marshon Lattimore and Malik Hooker are off to the NFL (as likely first-round picks), who will be the Buckeyes' next great defensive back?
The smart money seems to be on junior college transfer Kendall Sheffield. The redshirt sophomore was once a can’t-miss recruit at Alabama who ended up at junior college before coming to Columbus this winter. Freshmen Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade both certainly look the part (each is listed at over 6 feet), although Meyer has said they have major work to do going forward.
What will we see from true freshman quarterback Tate Martell?
Considering that he committed to Washington at age 14 and was a starter at one of the nation’s biggest high school football factories for three years, it’s understandable if you feel like Martell has been around forever. But after (finally!) graduating from Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, Martell is on Ohio State’s campus and ready to complete his first spring.
So what can we expect from Martell on Saturday? It’s hard to say. He obviously isn’t supplanting Barrett as the team’s starting quarterback, but after going 45-0 as a starter in high school (with an unfathomable 113 TD passes) he will certainly be looking to make his case to be the team’s primary backup. Martell is competing with redshirt sophomore Joe Burrow and redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins for that spot.
How will the Buckeyes get all their defensive ends snaps?
It’s an embarrassment of riches in Columbus, where Meyer has five defensive ends capable of starting just about anywhere in the country. Meyer has said he hopes to get all five on the field at the same time, and it will be fascinating to see if he can pull it off.
By now, you probably know the big names. Tyquan Lewis (pictured above) surprised many by deciding to return to school last season after being named Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, and Nick Bosa had a strong freshman season (five sacks, seven tackles for loss). Sam Hubbard added eight TFL’s.
Then there’s Dre’Mont Jones, a redshirt freshman, whom the coaching staff couldn’t stop raving about when Bruce Feldman was in town earlier this week. It’s just one more reason for optimism in Columbus, and one more reason to watch the Buckeyes’ spring game on Saturday.