College Football
Ohio State spring football storylines: How close are Buckeyes to a title?
College Football

Ohio State spring football storylines: How close are Buckeyes to a title?

Updated Feb. 27, 2023 2:13 p.m. ET

If last year’s offseason was framed around the shock and horror of being bludgeoned by Michigan for the first time in a decade, players and coaches at Ohio State might spend the next few months drawing inspiration from how close they came to winning a national title in 2022.

Their double-digit lead over eventual champion Georgia melted away in the College Football Playoff semifinals — a matchup some believed was a de facto championship game — and with it their chance to face a TCU team over which the Buckeyes would have been strong favorites.

"Every year you look back on situations and a play here, play there, and you could be national champs," head coach Ryan Day said in early February. "Certainly that does — it’s not going to go away. But at the same time, you can’t let it dominate your mind. You’ve got to move forward. Life is going on. But yeah, when you get that close like that it hurts and stings. Time does heal all wounds, but it’s going to take a while."

With that for a backdrop, here are some storylines to watch as Ohio State begins spring practice:


Choosing the right quarterback

In addition to making a final decision about the offensive playcaller in 2023, Day must also select the right successor to quarterback C.J. Stroud, whose two-year run as Ohio State’s starter resulted in a pair of trips to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist. Stroud set 16 school passing records and three Big Ten records during that time while throwing for 8,123 yards and 85 touchdowns in 25 games.

The battle to replace him pits rising junior Kyle McCord against rising sophomore Devin Brown, both of whom were among the top six quarterbacks in the country for their respective recruiting classes. The former was Stroud’s primary backup the past two seasons — a fact some believe earmarks McCord as the presumptive favorite — and made the only start of his career in 2021, against Akron, when he completed 13 of 18 passes for 319 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in a 59-7 win. The latter, who is considered more mobile, played 15 snaps as a true freshman but never attempted a pass.

In early February, Day told reporters the quarterbacks will split reps during spring practices designed to resemble game-like situations. He and quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis plan to assess the skill, confidence and leadership values offered by both players in addition to how well they move the offense on the field. Day would prefer to name a starter by the end of spring but is unopposed to extending the competition into fall camp if neither quarterback seizes control of the position.

The other scholarship quarterbacks on Ohio State’s roster in 2023 will be true freshman Lincoln Kienholz, a four-star prospect from South Dakota, and graduate transfer Tristan Gebbia from Oregon State.

"At the end of the day, it’s going to be the guy that our team believes in and the coaching staff believes in that can lead our team to a championship," Day said. "That’s not always clear, you know? It sometimes can be a little gray. But you do the best you can."

Pressure on Knowles to deliver 

When Ohio State fans reflect on the 2022 season, some of the images they might remember are quite unsavory: cornerback Cameron Brown and defensive end Jack Sawyer fanning on their attempted tackles of Michigan wideout Cornelius Johnson during a 69-yard catch-and-run touchdown; safety Cameron Martinez getting twisted inside-out by Johnson for a 75-yard touchdown on the very next possession; safety Lathan Ransom slipping on a 76-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Arian Smith in the Peach Bowl.

Untimely, field-tilting breakdowns proved to be the undoing of an Ohio State defense that made significant strides under first-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. The Buckeyes finished 14th in the country in total defense (321.5 yards per game) and 24th in scoring defense (21 points per game) but cratered in the two biggest games of the season. They surrendered eight plays of at least 45 yards against the Wolverines and Bulldogs, six of which resulted in touchdowns.

  • 45-yard TD pass from quarterback J.J. McCarthy to tight end Colston Loveland (Michigan)
  • 47-yard pass from quarterback Stetson Bennett to Smith (Georgia)
  • 52-yard run by tailback Kenny McIntosh (Georgia)
  • 69-yard TD pass from McCarthy to Johnson (Michigan)
  • 75-yard TD pass from McCarthy to Johnson (Michigan)
  • 75-yard TD run by tailback Donovan Edwards (Michigan)
  • 76-yard TD from Bennett to Smith (Georgia)
  • 85-yard TD run by Edwards (Michigan)

Over the course of 13 games, Knowles’ defense allowed 18 plays of 40-plus yards (five rushing, 13 passing) to finish tied for 115th nationally and 13th in the Big Ten ahead of only Purdue in that category. The Buckeyes gave up the same number of 40-yard gains in the previous two seasons combined under former defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, who wasn’t retained by head coach Ryan Day following the 2021 campaign.

Knowles’ unit also ranked no better than 120th nationally in 50-yard plays allowed (four rushing, seven passing); 60-yard plays allowed (three rushing, three passing) and 70-yard plays allowed (three rushing, two passing). Finding a remedy for the laundry list of defensive breakdowns is the chief priority for a group that returns both starting linebackers and five defensive backs who logged at least 175 snaps last season.

"We can’t give up big plays like that," Day said during a news conference in early February. "That hurt is in the last two games. There’s no secret there. Too many big plays. And if we’re going to win those games, we can’t give up big plays like that. Now, is that the only problem? No. But I think Jim knows that, and that’s something we’ve got to get fixed in the offseason." 

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Retooling the offensive line

Whichever quarterback emerges as Ohio State’s starter will be protected by three new starters along the offensive line. The Buckeyes lost starting tackles Paris Johnson Jr. (left) and Dawand Jones (right), which Day and his staff expected given their lofty draft stock, as well as center Luke Wypler, whose decision to turn pro after two seasons atop the depth chart surprised the coaches.

Here’s a more detailed look at those three players:

— Johnson played 827 snaps at left tackle and finished with a combined run blocking and pass blocking grade of 83.1 from Pro Football Focus, a mark that ranked sixth nationally and second in the Big Ten among offensive tackles with comparable snap counts. He allowed two sacks (Michigan, Georgia), 14 quarterback pressures and was flagged for one penalty. He is expected to be a first-round pick in the NFL Draft.

— Jones played 763 snaps at right tackle and finished with a combined run blocking and pass blocking grade of 82.1 from PFF, a mark that ranked seventh nationally and third in the Big Ten among tackles with comparable snap counts. He allowed zero sacks, five quarterback pressures and was flagged for eight penalties. He projects as a second-round pick in the NFL Draft.

— Wypler played 827 snaps at center and finished with a combined run blocking and pass blocking grade of 82.4 from PFF, a mark that ranked tied for third nationally and first in the Big Ten among players with comparable snap counts. He allowed one sack (Georgia), eight quarterback pressures and was flagged for three penalties. He projects as a potential second- or third-round pick.

Selecting the right replacements is a task unlikely to be completed over the course of 15 spring practices, and the opening day starters might not be determined until a few weeks into fall camp. The early plan is to keep returning starters Matt Jones (right guard) and Donovan Jackson (left guard) at their respective positions and experiment with different combinations around them.

Some of the candidates at offensive tackle include Josh Fryar (329 career snaps), Zen Michalski (81 career snaps) and Tegra Tshabola (51 career snaps). The primary contenders at center are Jakob James (89 career snaps) and Louisiana-Monroe transfer Victor Cutler (1,365 career snaps split between left tackle, right tackle and center).

"It’s fun," offensive line coach Justin Frye said. "Finding out what a guy does really well and then where can that help us. Or finding out, oh, here’s a wart he may have, how do we clean that up or how do we fix that, or who do we put him next to, to ease stress or concerns or questions or whatever that may be. This ain’t pro football now. You’re developing guys here."

 Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

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