Big Ten: Ohio State Buckeyes

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- First he was the guy without a clearly defined position.

Then he was the guy trying to replace Darron Lee.

After thriving in that role for Ohio State, now he’s sliding over and being asked to become the next Raekwon McMillan.

At some point, maybe Chris Worley will finally get to stop answering questions about position changes and the shoes he’s trying to fill. But it won’t be this spring for Worley, who heads into his senior season and once again is essentially restarting what has become an annual process of making his own name with the Buckeyes.

So exactly who is Chris Worley? Whoever Ohio State needs him to be -- and himself.

“Nobody wants to be constantly sort of talked about by being compared with another guy,” Worley said. “Guys want to come in and make a name for themselves. But, you know, that’s not how the world works.

“My job is to go on the football field and perform at the highest level in college football. Whether that’s replacing Darron or replacing Raekwon, at the end of the day those two guys were considered at the top of college football at their positions. It’s up to me to live up to that name, and I have no problem with that at all.”

Chris WorleyMatthew Visinsky/Icon SportswireOhio State's Chris Worley will be moving to middle linebacker to fill the void left by Raekwon McMillan.

Worley has already done it once, filling in seamlessly for Lee after Lee was taken by the New York Jets in the first round of the NFL draft last year. And after racking up 70 tackles with an interception, a forced fumble and 4.5 tackles for loss as an outside linebacker, Worley now has a new standard to match with the Buckeyes moving him to the middle to replace another early entrant to the draft in McMillan.

Worley is still quick to point to a spirited competition with Lee in 2014 that stretched through training camp and into the first week of the season, before Lee pulled ahead and became one of the nation’s breakout defensive stars. And battling for so long with a future first-rounder only added to Worley’s overflowing confidence, even when he was coming off the bench. It offered him some evidence that he was already close to that level as a linebacker after starting his career at Ohio State as a hybrid who could have also played in the secondary.

The challenge this spring certainly isn’t identical, because he was playing alongside McMillan a year ago instead of serving as an understudy to him. But once again, Worley in some ways will be trying to escape the shadow of a predecessor.

“We lost what I think is a man’s man in Raekwon McMillan,” defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “Just a really fine football player and a smart football player. We needed to make sure that we could try to replace him with a guy who has that kind of presence about him.

“Chris Worley, he’s just a really, really smart football player. He’s a guy that I think understands the game at a very high level. ... I’m really impressed by him.”

That football knowledge will be particularly useful as Worley becomes the Ohio State defense's new quarterback. Schiano is trusting Worley to get everybody lined up, know each assignment in the playbook and provide leadership on the field. On top of that, Worley obviously still has to play at a high level in the heart of the defense.

Through three practices, the Buckeyes are expecting he’ll be able to do that without dramatically changing his body from its current 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame.

“When you think of Chris Worley, some say his weight may not be big enough to move over there,” new linebackers coach Billy Davis said. “I think with all the spread offenses you face, he has all the size to play in there at [middle linebacker], especially in the college game.

“He’s a great leader in there, he’s very vocal, everybody follows him, he knows what he’s doing, so he’s a great quarterback for us. ... Not everybody can do that. Chris is outstanding at that.”

There is still a long way to go in spring practice to know exactly how much Worley might thrive in that role. Even after the Buckeyes wrap up camp next month and head into the offseason, Worley is well aware that he’ll continue to be asked about the guy who played in the middle before him.

That, of course, will be nothing new for Worley. And it hasn’t slowed him down any in the past.

“When you play at a place like Ohio State, that’s going to happen,” Worley said. “You might hear guys say, ‘Well, I’m not trying to be Darron or J.T. [Barrett] or Cardale [Jones] or Braxton [Miller].’ But at the end of the day, you better try to be that. Those guys have ripped college football apart. Why wouldn’t you want to be that?

“You have to know the expectation and try to live up to it or surpass it, but you also can’t count another man’s blessings and miss your own. That was my whole take on last year, and it will be even this year. Of course I’m trying to play better than Darron, or play better than how Raekwon did last year, but I’ve been blessed with a certain skill set as well.”

Those skills have already proved invaluable for the Buckeyes.

At some point down the road, they’ve raised the bar for whoever has to try to be the next Chris Worley.

Spring practice has barely started in some cases, and in a couple of Big Ten spots, the pads haven’t been put on at all yet.

But it’s never too early to forecast what should be another fascinating, competitive conference race this season. This week, we’re breaking down the top contenders with the top-five factors that could make them champions by the time December rolls around.

Up first: The league’s representative in the College Football Playoff last year, the Ohio State Buckeyes.

J.T. BarrettJamie Squire/Getty ImagesJ.T. Barrett is more than capable of taking Ohio State back to the College Football Playoff.

1. The talent level: No coach in the Big Ten has recruited as well during as many years as Urban Meyer. And now entering his sixth season with the Buckeyes, his machine is fully operational, keeping the pipeline flowing with elite talent at every position. But what could make Ohio State even more dangerous this season is that Meyer won’t be trying to plug in so many first-time starters the way he did a year ago, with no shortage of experienced veterans returning from a team that exceeded many expectations by growing up quickly last season on the way to the College Football Playoff.

2. J.T. Barrett is back: Among all those battle-tested, proven winners returning to the starting lineup is the most productive quarterback in Ohio State history. Any records that Barrett hasn’t broken yet will likely fall soon, and those that he already has might be put out of reach for any future successors at the most important position on the field. The redshirt senior had issues at times last season with his accuracy and footwork, but he was relatively low on the list of offensive problems for a team that struggled to protect the passer, didn’t reach its potential at wide receiver and was overly conservative calling plays. Quite simply, the Buckeyes wouldn’t have been in the College Football Playoff without him -- and he’s more than capable of taking them back there again.

3. Kevin Wilson has arrived: The Buckeyes are quick to point out that their offense isn’t broken after putting up more than 39 points per game last year. But the humbling shutout loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl exposed some significant problems with the passing attack that could no longer wait to be addressed. That inconsistency had shown up previously, and while there’s plenty of blame to go around, Meyer’s major move to upgrade the attack was to bring in former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson after he resigned from his post there last year. Wilson worked wonders with the Hoosiers and had the league’s highest-scoring offense two seasons ago -- edging the Buckeyes despite a clear difference in personnel. Giving him a full complement of weapons could be deadly for opposing defenses.

4. The defensive front seven is loaded: For all the conversations about Ohio State’s offense this offseason, there’s a good chance it won’t take that many points to win games thanks to the stingy Silver Bullets on the other side of the ball. Despite the loss of middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, the Buckeyes will have returning starters at every other spot in the front seven -- including a ridiculous surplus on the line. With Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes all deciding to stick around for another season, plus Nick Bosa heading into his sophomore campaign, Ohio State’s biggest problem might be finding playing time for all of its ferocious pass-rushers. And the Buckeyes may have found a ready-made solution for replacing McMillan, sliding Chris Worley inside and then filling his spot by sliding in another former starter in Dante Booker as he returns from injury.

5. Urban Meyer: When it comes down to it, the Buckeyes figure to always be in contention every year as long as Meyer remains in Columbus. The team he inherited lost seven games in 2011 -- and he has lost only six times during the last five seasons combined. Meyer has shown he isn’t afraid to shake things up to get results, and changes are coming for the second time in his tenure thanks to Clemson revealing a flaw in his system. The last time was after the 2013 season when the Tigers picked apart a crumbling defense. Meyer responded by hiring Chris Ash to revamp the pass defense, and the Buckeyes won a national title the next year. This time, it’s the offense that must improve after the goose egg in the semifinal, and Meyer will be expecting a very successful season again this fall.

Spring practice is underway at most Big Ten schools. We're still waiting for Iowa, Michigan, Penn State and Rutgers to get started, while Illinois is already done. One of the best things about spring practice is identifying breakout players for the following season. Our crew of Big Ten writers offer their picks for breakouts this spring:

Jesse Temple: Wisconsin LB Garret Dooley

Wisconsin will be loaded again on defense in 2017, but the biggest question centers on how the Badgers can replace the production of outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel. Those two combined for 107 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. Dooley made a big leap as a redshirt sophomore last season. He went from making three tackles in 2015 to 40 tackles with 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He also earned his first two career starts replacing an injured Biegel at midseason.

Wisconsin has produced two All-Americans at outside linebacker the past two seasons with Joe Schobert and Watt. Dooley has a long way to go to reach that lofty status, but his predecessors have shown what is possible playing the position at Wisconsin.

Photo by Merle Laswell/Icon SportswireNebraska WR Stanley Morgan had 33 receptions for 453 yards and two TDs, including this score against Indiana.

Dan Murphy: Murphy: Nebraska WR Stanley Morgan Jr.

The Cornhuskers are going to need a new go-to target in the passing came now that Jordan Westerkamp is gone, and Morgan seems to be stepping up among a very young receiver corps in that role so far this spring. Coaches say the rising junior has hit the new stage of taking a more professional approach that many players reach when they're ready to blossom as newly minted upperclassmen.

Morgan's numbers in the weight room have increased and he has looked a step faster in running his routes so far in practice, they say. The New Orleans native had 33 catches and two touchdowns last year. Those numbers could jump significantly in 2017 with Morgan and De'Mornay Pierson-El leading a group of talented, but raw younger players in the passing game.

Austin Ward: Ohio State WR Binjimen Victor

The Buckeyes have been searching for a replacement for Devin Smith since he left after the national title two years ago, trying to find somebody capable of causing fits of panic for defensive backs worried about matching the speed of a consistent, dangerous deep threat. Midway through last year, Urban Meyer sounded like he was on the brink of unleashing one with 6-foot-4 size to go with athleticism to burn, but Victor apparently wasn’t quite ready yet as a true freshman.

He finished with just four catches for 64 yards and a touchdown, though one was the longest reception of the shutout loss to Clemson in a game where he also flashed explosive potential on a route that earned a pass interference penalty. For an offense looking to expand its passing game, Victor figures to be in the spotlight this spring.

Brian Bennett: Northwestern WR Flynn Nagel and Illinois DE James Crawford

I'll cheat a bit by going with one team that's well into spring ball (Northwestern) and another that has already wrapped up (Illinois finished its drills last week). But, hey, performances are better than predictions, right?

Nagel will be counted on to fill an enormous void left by Biletnikoff Award finalist Austin Carr. Nagel had 40 catches for 447 yards last year and is stepping into Carr's No. 1 receiver role this spring. The 5-foot-11 junior probably isn't going to replicate Carr's numbers, but if he can continue to build chemistry with Clayton Thorson, he'll be an important target out of the slot.

Crawford is a fifth-year senior -- not a designation you usually see in breakout-type lists. But he is making a key position change, from linebacker down to the rush-end spot. That's the same position that Carroll Phillips played last year en route to nine sacks and 20 tackles for loss last season. The Illini are replacing most of their defensive line, and Crawford showed good pass-rushing ability this spring.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Kevin Wilson wants to make a couple of things clear right away.

He wasn’t working miracles at Indiana, he wasn’t operating in a barren wasteland of talent and Ohio State doesn’t represent a magical oasis of personnel that can open up the playbook of his wildest dreams.

On paper, yes, there is a difference between the Hoosiers and Buckeyes that absolutely cannot be denied. And, sure, the loaded roster Urban Meyer has assembled has much more in common with the record-setting Oklahoma attack Wilson oversaw before he was hired to overhaul the Hoosiers.

But even if Wilson doesn’t want the credit as he rattles off the accomplishments of the NFL draft picks he produced at Indiana or notes that his rebuilding job actually created a more prolific scoring offense in 2015 than even Ohio State’s in the Big Ten, it’s hard to ignore the possibilities of just what he might be capable of now that he’s calling plays for a team that has four-star and five-star talent coming off the bench.

“We’ve got high talent here,” Wilson said after his first week of spring practice with Ohio State. “But the talent we had over there was really good, too, because we recruited and developed it. What we did in the weight room, what we did off the field, what we did in practice. I think the last two years, we set [a record] for most amount of all-conference players and most guys going to the pros. You can talk about talent, but it’s also about getting guys to play.

“Shoot, a year ago we were the best offense in the Big Ten at a place [some] said had no talent. Talent doesn’t win. It’s the ability to play together.”

Kevin WilsonJeffrey Brown/Icon SportswireKevin Wilson is getting to know Ohio State's players as he takes over as offensive coordinator.

Wilson has shown throughout his career that he has a knack for developing the kind of chemistry that can create offensive explosions, dating all the way back to his early stints at Miami (Ohio) and Northwestern. His innovative thinking, flexibility with his power-spread offense and ability to mix and match schemes based on his personnel helped build his reputation and put up bushels of points. And all of that also helped disguise the fact that at times he didn’t necessarily have a level playing field in terms of pure skill.

That certainly wasn’t a factor when Sam Bradford was airing the football out with the Sooners or Adrian Peterson was slicing through defenders on the ground. That same willingness to adapt, though, worked every bit as well with Nate Sudfeld putting up huge passing numbers with the Hoosiers just one season after Tevin Coleman rushed for more than 2,000 yards.

Now Wilson gets a crack at putting together a plan for a senior quarterback in J.T. Barrett, who has already accounted for 100 touchdowns in his career. He has a running back in Mike Weber who became just the third freshman in school history to top 1,000 rushing yards, and he’ll have four starting offensive linemen returning up front. And despite the loss of the team’s top three receivers from an inconsistent unit a year ago, the Buckeyes have no shortage of talent arriving from recent highly ranked recruiting classes.

And he also has the complete confidence of Meyer, who has long been an open admirer of Wilson’s work and appears energized by the chance to work with him.

“This year, there are things we have to work on and he’s the perfect guy -- he and [new quarterbacks coach] Ryan Day and our staff -- to get it fixed,” Meyer said. “The term we use around here is: We’re not changing; we’re enhancing what we do. If it was broken, we’d have to change it. If we wake up one day fifth or sixth in the Big Ten in offense or something, then you’re going to see one of these deals [starting over from scratch].

“I think the key word is mesh. If there is something that fits conceptually with what we’re trying to do, then we add it.”

How much addition is necessary remains to be seen since Wilson is only two practices into his tenure with the Buckeyes.

And for his part, Wilson hardly seems worried about updating Ohio State’s playbook or even putting together a finished product at this point. For now, he’s still just getting to know the players and figuring out how much talent he has to work with -- regardless of how it might compare to his previous stops.

“What you did in the past doesn’t mean it’s going to happen again,” Wilson said. “I’m kind of used to change. But I have core values in offensive football that parallel almost exactly, word-for-word verbatim to what Coach Meyer believes. The first adjustment is not an adjustment, because we’re on the same page as far as how you want to run the offense. Maybe the language is different, maybe the things you emphasize, as I continue to learn and grow that, in time maybe we enhance.

“But right now we’re running our stuff and running it with some great players.”

And Wilson’s stuff mixing with Ohio State’s players might just be the makings of a truly dangerous combination.

And in the final week they busted out the motorcycles.

The excitement of starting a new year of offseason workouts can quickly give way to the tedium of mat drills in the winter and basic playbook installations in spring. There are no upcoming opponents to study, no palpable buzz that crescendos toward a big game on campus like in the fall. Coaches need to get creative to keep spirits high.

For players, a break from the norm makes the hard work a bit more tolerable. For spectators, the entertainment value is as good as a football fan can expect when the season is still six months away. Here are some of our favorite offseason attempts to spice up a workout so far.

The Buckeyes' strength staff slipped into its leather chaps last week to wrap up winter workouts with the team’s annual Harley Davidson workout. Coaches rode motorcycle onto the practice field. Later the team strapped the logos of their rivals onto punching bags and let loose a little frustration.

The team took a much different tenor than earlier in the same week when players held their own slam dunk contest. They might not have been playing at a full 10 feet, but linebacker Malik Harrison brought more style in his contest-winning slams than the competitors in the NBA All-Star contest this year.

At Penn State, dodgeball was the game of choice as the Nittany Lions wrapped up winter workouts. Head coach James Franklin and his staff suited up in uniform to challenge their players to a match. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer even donned a pair of futuristic-looking Rec Specs a la Gordon from the movie "Dodgeball".

Wisconsin doesn’t take the field for spring practice until next week, but here’s hoping the Badgers return their series of big guys doing things normally reserved for little guys. The trend started with a punt-catching competition between the offense line and defensive line a year ago. The Badgers also had their linemen run through a wide receiver gauntlet last spring with equally entertaining results.

And lastly there’s Michigan. The Wolverines will break up the doldrums of their spring practices with a trip to the Eternal City in late April. Last year the Wolverines spent a week of practice at the IMG Academy in Florida, and players said they enjoyed the beach trips they got to take between workouts. This year in Rome their non-football activities are scheduled to include visiting the Vatican, a trip to a Syrian refugee camp and some Italian sightseeing destinations. There are no known plans for any motorcycles for Jim Harbaugh’s team, but perhaps a Vespa or two.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- This is the good part for Urban Meyer.

The fallout from a humbling shutout, the coaching transitions and all the questions about what's wrong with the Ohio State coach's offense -- he can probably do without those things just fine.

But plugging in old game film as a refresher of what the Buckeyes look like when they're operating on all cylinders? Bouncing around ideas with another power-spread guru and looking for fresh ideas to put in future game plans? Coming up with a few new concepts over two months with a revamped staff and then hitting the practice field to install them for the first time in spring practice?

"There are some fun things you get to do and some non-fun things you get to do," Meyer said after the opening workout on Tuesday morning. "In the coach's world, that's fun for us."

First Meyer had to get the non-fun stuff out of the way, and there's not much doubt that the College Football Playoff loss to Clemson clearly belongs in that category.

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer AP Photo/Jay LaPrete"There are some fun things you get to do and some non-fun things you get to do," Urban Meyer said of installing new game plans. "In the coach's world, that's fun for us."

There was also the search for a new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after Ed Warinner and Tim Beck parted ways with the program, opening the door for former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson to take over the attack along with former Chip Kelly protege Ryan Day. But there were warning signs ahead of the season-ending defeat that Ohio State's offense was destined for an offseason overhaul as the passing game struggled to find any consistency late in the year. Those struggles may have paved the way for Meyer to move on quickly from one of the worst losses of his career and dive into what he calls "enhancing" his system rather than changing it.

There were hours with the new assistants spent watching old Ohio State clips that highlighted his vision -- primarily from the three-game postseason run to the title in 2014, but also a regular-season win over Michigan State that year along with a few other prolific outings. Wilson obviously had his own ideas after building the Hoosiers into one of the Big Ten's most prolific scoring machines despite not boasting nearly the personnel he'll be working with at Ohio State. And Day, too, was already putting his stamp on working with the passers, which was on display Tuesday morning with an early emphasis on the deep ball and putting the proper touch on downfield throws.

And considering Ohio State is coming off a season where it averaged more than 39 points per game, brings back senior quarterback J.T. Barrett, and will have four starters returning on the offensive line, there's obviously still plenty of reasons for Meyer to smile aside from his chance to tweak a couple pages in the playbook.

"I wouldn't say a bunch, but there is some enhancement going on now," Meyer said. "We're not changing, we're enhancing what we do. If it was broken, we'd have to change it. If we wake up one day fifth or sixth in the Big Ten in offense or something, then you're going to see one of these deals (overhauling everything).

"We have to get back to being productive [with] 250 [rushing yards], 250 [passing yards], great tempo in between plays, aggressive play calling. ... I made them watch and I sat down and ran the clicker and said this is what I want it to look like. The one common denominator in all those games was we hit the deep ball. It's who we are. We're going to pound the football at you and we're going to go over the top. When that works, life is pretty good offensively."

Meyer, of course, has had far more good days than bad with the Buckeyes.

But it's one of the low points that has set him up for a spring filled of the kind of work he appears to enjoy so much, which could once again make Ohio State a dangerous threat offensively by the fall.

"This is our vision, this is our game, and it's a very balanced [offense]," Meyer said. "We're not changing who we are."

The enjoyable enhancement process, though, is already well underway.

The ahead-of-schedule conversation officially is over at Ohio State.

This is the year the Buckeyes have pinpointed to contend, and the work really picks up now as Urban Meyer welcomes a veteran team that came close last season to a camp that will set the tone for another push to the College Football Playoff.

The memories of the embarrassing semifinal loss to Clemson surely haven’t faded yet, and Ohio State surely will use them as motivation when it hits the practice field for the first of 15 workouts on Tuesday morning. That was a young team that had exceeded expectations in 2016 until the shutout loss in the Fiesta Bowl, and Meyer can take some solace in the rapid maturation as the Buckeyes turn their attention toward another shot at a championship.

But even with so much talent returning, getting into the four-team field to play for the crown is never easy. And the challenge starts now for Ohio State.

Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsThe passing attack, with J.T. Barrett at the helm, clearly is the Buckeyes' top priority this spring.

Spring schedule: The Buckeyes will open with two practices this week before putting the workouts on hold during spring break. Ohio State will then work uninterrupted with a handful of sessions each week leading up to the annual spring game at the Horseshoe, which is scheduled for April 15 at 12:30 p.m.

What’s new: Meyer has a revamped offensive staff in place to try to address the inconsistencies with the passing attack that culminated with the shutout loss in the College Football Playoff, with Kevin Wilson now in charge following his resignation at Indiana. Quarterback J.T. Barrett also has a new position coach, with Ryan Day welcomed on board in place of Tim Beck. Defensively, the loss of Luke Fickell to Cincinnati left a vacancy for linebackers coach, which Meyer filled by tapping veteran NFL coach Billy Davis for the role.

Three things we want to see

1. Time to air it out: The emphasis on a powerful, versatile ground game isn’t going away any time soon for Meyer and Ohio State. But the issues throwing the football at the end of last season made it clear that changes were necessary to help balance out the attack against elite competition, and Wilson was hired with aerial improvements at the top of his to-do list. Barrett has taken some criticism for his completion percentage over the last two seasons, but the senior still is a proven commodity with 100 touchdowns accounted for in his career and actually was quite low on the list of problems for the Buckeyes last season. The offensive line will need to protect better, the play-calling could stand to be more imaginative and, perhaps most important, the receiving corps needs to live up to the recruiting hype and start producing. The passing attack clearly is the Buckeyes’ top priority this spring, and there really isn’t a close second.

2. Reloading the secondary: For the second consecutive season, the Buckeyes have to replace three early entrants to the NFL draft. But once again, there appears to be confidence within the program that they'll be able to simply plug in the next wave and not miss a beat. There is experience returning with Denzel Ward at cornerback and Damon Webb at safety, but what really seems to have the Buckeyes excited is the historic class of defensive backs they signed that might be one of the all-time great hauls in the secondary. And with junior-college transfer and former Alabama signee Kendall Sheffield joining the program for spring practice, Ohio State has a head start on what could be another seamless transition of talent.

3. New boots: For all the veterans Meyer is welcoming back, he’s going to have to break in a new punter for the first time in four seasons after the graduation of Cameron Johnston. And he’ll also need a new starting kicker, though that could be a familiar face if Sean Nuernberger is able to bounce back and end an up-and-down career on a high note. If Meyer had his way, the ultra-aggressive coach wouldn’t ever need to worry about either position. But Johnston became an invaluable weapon for the Buckeyes during his career with his ability to dramatically switch field position. And when they were faced with some tighter matchups, a couple of missed field goals offered a reminder that having a reliable option who can deliver three points consistently can prove pretty useful. Finding two new starters on special teams could wind up being one of the keys to Ohio State’s spring.

Ohio State may not have the early makings of a class that is considered to be a challenger for No. 1 like it was last year, but the Buckeyes are adding key pieces in 2018 to an already talented roster. With three ESPN Junior 300 commits in the fold, including quarterback Emory Jones and running back Brian Snead, Urban Meyer and staff won big in-state Wednesday by reeling in versatile playmaker Jaelen Gill.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Kerry Coombs admits to being a little nervous. And if the Ohio State cornerbacks coach could be in the building on Monday to offer his support in person and maybe help his players shake off their own anxiety, he would do it in a heartbeat.

He’s still toying with the idea of swinging over to Indianapolis on Sunday just to see the former Buckeyes in person and offer a few words of motivation ahead of their on-field NFL combine workouts. But no matter what, Coombs will have to watch the performances of Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore on delay and rely on text updates, because his day is already reserved for developing the next first-round pick to come out of his meeting room.

“The reality is, at this point, it’s performance time and they don’t need another guy making them nervous and all that kind of stuff,” Coombs said. “What they need to do is just go be who they are. I’ll talk with them before they perform and compete, encourage them. But I’ll be in meetings and everything else with our own players getting them ready for practice Tuesday.

“I may go over on Sunday, but that’s more social. Just seeing them to say hello and pump them up a little bit, because I’m absolutely nervous and excited for them. It’s like game day all over again.”

Khris Hale/Icon SportswireOhio State defensive backs coach Kerry Coombs will again have an abundance of talent, with five ESPN 300 DBs and Kendall Sheffield, the nation's top junior college cornerback, set to join the Buckeyes in 2017.

Ohio State’s defensive backs have obviously thrived in those situations over the past few years. And the expectation is Lattimore and Conley will again deliver with every team in the league closely evaluating and weighing the value of spending a high draft pick on the latest models from the cornerback factory Coombs has overseen since joining the Buckeyes under Urban Meyer in 2012.

He’s already produced first-round picks in Bradley Roby and Eli Apple and developed Doran Grant into a fourth-rounder at the position he’s directly responsible for. And throwing in second-round safety Vonn Bell last year and likely first-rounder Malik Hooker this year, the Ohio State secondary as a whole has become something of an NFL pipeline with six early entrants to the draft over the past two seasons alone.

And while all that turnover would seem to increase the degree of difficulty of keeping the roster stocked with elite talent to continue a trend that could produce an eye-opening three first-round cornerbacks selected in just two years, the track record of success is actually helping instead.

“I don’t want to say it’s easy, because to be the best in the country at what you do, to be a first-round pick at what you do, that’s not easy,” Coombs said. “But for obvious reasons, it helps in the recruitment of great players. And if we do a good job recruiting the right kind of kid, I’ve got the best strength coach in the country [Mickey Marotti] working right down the hall from me and the best head coach in the country [Urban Meyer] down the other hall. The combination of those things, for me, makes getting the players ready easier.

“They understand and have watched guys who have achieved that. So they know it is possible, they believe in the system, they believe in the process and, frankly, they’re eager to work really, really hard to make it a reality. The standard is clear, we talk about in our room all the time, and that’s the expectation for every kid that comes to every meeting in the secondary.”

That NFL pitch obviously isn’t a tough sell, and the Buckeyes used it to tremendous success with a historic signing class that included five ESPN 300 defensive backs in addition to the nation’s top junior college cornerback in Kendall Sheffield.

Sheffield enrolled for the second session of the spring semester with the Buckeyes and will be able to participate in spring practice when it opens next week, giving him a solid chance to fill one of those two spots left behind by Lattimore and Conley. But the competition to play in the loaded Ohio State secondary is only getting more fierce, even with all the talent that will be on display in Indianapolis instead of Columbus, Ohio.

“The fact our kids are doing so well and that we win so many games and that they are graduating is huge,” Coombs said. “But at the end of the day, the conversation almost always circles back to, those guys are going to get drafted, you’re going to see them on television, they’re going to be widely regarded as the best in the country at what they do. That really is the standard.

“To be honest with you, I don’t want to recruit a guy that doesn’t want to be a first-round pick. If that’s the standard and that’s what they want to be, there’s a platform here for the elite person to achieve that. That’s what is really exciting about being in my office every day.”

And with the finished product on display elsewhere on Monday, that’s where Coombs will be as he gets to work with the next batch.

The developmental work at Position U is over, and now it's up to the scouts, coaches and general managers to sum up the work.

There's no easy way to hand out those unofficial titles for the best programs around the country or the top Big Ten school to crank out stars in specific spots on the field. How much does college production count? Is it just about churning out draft picks or how much weight should be given to production at the next level? Quality or quantity?

Sorting through those claims to the crown will have to wait another day. But based on annual invites to the NFL scouting combine which opens this week in Indianapolis, there are hints that some schools have a position that the talent scouts want to see every year -- which is at least the beginning of a claim to Position U.

This time around, here are three units with players on the market who are trying to build on a legacy.

Ohio State defensive backs: The Buckeyes have emerged as the league's current kings of the combine looking back over the last four seasons overall. And while rival Michigan actually has more overall attendees this year, once again Ohio State's loaded draft class in the secondary is in line to steal the show. Since Bradley Roby left early and became a first-round pick in 2014, the Buckeyes have sent eight cornerbacks and safeties to the combine to flash their speed, versatility and ball skills ahead of the draft. And now Malik Hooker, Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore are all pushing to either solidify a first-round grade or sneak into that position after earning their invitations to Indianapolis. There's not much doubt that Ohio State has stamped itself as DBU in the Big Ten recently, and this year could strengthen the claim that it has become that nationally as well.

Wisconsin offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk: The latest blocker off the assembly line in Madison might not be ready to do much physically after undergoing offseason hip surgery, but he'll still draw plenty of attention from teams looking to shore up the protection and run blocking up front. Ramczyk can still show off his football intelligence and answer questions about his rehabilitation, and even if he hadn't emerged as a star last season, simply having ties to a program that has become a staple at the combine would likely help his case. The Badgers have a rich history producing linemen, but even just looking at a smaller time frame they've been represented at the event every year since 2011 -- with eight blockers ultimately drafted from OLU. Ramczyk is about to add to that total no matter what he can do physically at the moment.

Indiana running back Devine Redding: The tradition is undoubtedly richer at Wisconsin when it comes to running backs, and even this season it is sending a pair of rushers to the combine to add to the legacy. So that crown is probably safe with the Badgers, but the Hoosiers are at least making a strong push for short-term consideration with Redding continuing a run that started with Tevin Coleman and was followed up by Jordan Howard last year. Again, that's a small sample size and part of Indiana's case relies on how well those rushers have performed at the next level. But Redding has a chance now to build on that by going up the road from Bloomington to work out and show that he has the same kind of ability that has translated so well from Indiana's aspiring RBU on to the pros recently.

Tom Hauck for Student Sports
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Sunday’s Under Armour All-America Camp series stop in Orlando brought out many of the nation’s top prospects in the classes of 2018 and 2019. One of those was the No. 15-ranked prospect overall Taron Vincent. The IMG Academy standout and son of NFL Executive Vice president of Football Operations Troy Vincent, said on Sunday his recruitment is essentially down to two schools. “Florida State and Ohio State are my top two,” said Vincent. “I’m still kind of considering Michigan, but really it’s down to Florida State or Ohio State.” Prior to Sunday’s camp, Vincent made an unofficial visit to Florida State. The visit to Tallahassee was a first for Vincent’s parents and siblings. “… Just being able to sit down with Coach [Jimbo] Fisher, and everybody as a whole family was real good,” Vincent said. “They just said they really want me, and that Coach Fisher wants to keep building my relationship with him.” While Vincent’s thoughts on the Seminoles are well documented, the visit was especially impactful for his parents. “They loved FSU,” said the 6-foot-2, 299-pound defensive tackle said. “They loved Coach Fisher and how he interacts with his players, and cares for his players.” Two former IMG Academy teammates, tight end Tre McKitty and defensive end Joshua Kaindoh are already on campus in Tallahassee, and Kaindoh has nothing but praise for the continued relationships with the Florida State coaching staff. “He told me how they recruited him, and how that hasn’t changed now that he is on campus,” Vincent said. “The relationship hasn’t changed now that he’s there.” Up next for the nation’s No. 2-ranked defensive tackle will be a visit to see his other finalist. “Over spring break, my mom and dad and I are going [to Columbus],” he said. “I have a great relationship with [defensive line coach Larry Johnson] and Coach [Urban] Meyer already, so its building on that.” Vincent knows what he’s looking for and isn’t planning on dragging out his recruitment. “What fits my personality is one, and the coaching environment,” he said. “Will a coaching staff be able to take care of me and everything like that. “Once I visit Ohio State with my mom and dad, I should be getting ready to make my decision.”

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

With spring practice gearing up throughout much of the Big Ten, it's time to bring back the mailbag. You can send in questions any time via Twitter or by emailing me at

Go time:

Brian Bennett: Good question, if a bit early. We should have a better sense of these teams once they get through spring ball. But allow me to make a couple of way-too-early calls, which are subject to change.

Most improved? I think you have to go with Michigan State. Even though the offseason has had its share of difficulties for the Spartans, it's simply too hard for me to imagine this program going 3-9 again. Mark Dantonio's team probably still won't be good enough to seriously contend in the East Division, but 7-to-8 wins is totally in reach.

As for digressing (good word choice by you), I'll go with Minnesota. The schedule is still manageable early on for new head coach P.J. Fleck. But given the personnel losses, the uncertainty at quarterback, the turmoil around the program and the transition to a new staff, I find it unreasonable to expect another nine-win campaign out of the Golden Gophers. This is more likely a team that will have to scrap for a bowl bid.

Brian Bennett: Well, the big ones are well known. Michigan vs. Florida in Arlington, Texas, on opening weekend. Oklahoma at Ohio State and Nebraska at Oregon in Week 2. Michigan State hosting Notre Dame on Sept. 23.

A couple of other lesser-heralded ones I like: Wisconsin at BYU in Week 3 -- not quite LSU at Lambeau, but it's an intriguing road trip nonetheless. Maryland at Texas and new coach Tom Herman in the opener. Penn State vs. Pitt, naturally. Purdue vs. Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Jeff Brohm's alma mater, Louisville, in Indianapolis in Week 1.

The nonconference schedule maybe doesn't look as glamorous in 2017 as it did in the summer of 2016, but there are still some very interesting games on tap.

Brian Bennett: Well, you're already eliminating Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State from the East and Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska from the West with your parameters. I think we can agree Rutgers, Purdue and Illinois aren't particularly close to winning a division, and Indiana and Maryland have the deck stacked against them in the East. So that leaves only Michigan, Northwestern and Minnesota. As I wrote earlier, I think the Golden Gophers are in for some rebuilding. So yeah, the Wolverines and Wildcats are your best bets to be the next teams to break through and get to Indianapolis.

John A. emails: Do you see Alex Hornibrook taking a step forward for a Wisconsin team that is just a QB away from a special season? And if he does take that step, how do you see their season panning out?

Brian Bennett: I do think you'll see Hornibrook take a step forward. He showed good poise and made plays as a redshirt freshman in some tough games a year ago, and that can only help his development. The big question is what is Hornibrook's ceiling. Can he be a star at quarterback, or is he destined to be a solid game manager? The Badgers have managed a lot of success with the latter type of signalcaller, so he doesn't have to be Russell Wilson 2.0.

I'm fairly bullish on Hornibrook's potential because of two things: his outstanding makeup, and the tutelage of Paul Chryst. I think you could see Hornibrook develop into a slightly better version of late-career Scott Tolzien, which was pretty darn good.

Brian Bennett: Well, all right.

Top three QBs: 1. Penn State's Trace McSorley. 2. Ohio State's J.T. Barrett. 3. Michigan's Wilton Speight (with Northwestern's Clayton Thorson right behind).

Best team offense: Penn State, though Ohio State with Kevin Wilson pulling the levers is fascinating and dangerous.

Best team defense: Ohio State, because of its experienced defensive line. But Michigan and Wisconsin should both be really good defensively, too.

Brian Bennett: Things certainly can't get much worse, but I don't know how much a recruiting class will help. You're talking about a bunch of extremely young players who'd be outmatched physically in the Big Ten.

There is bound to be improvement, though, and there's no real reason why the Scarlet Knights couldn't compete with teams like Illinois, Purdue, Maryland and Indiana. The bad news is that Washington, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are still on the schedule, plus a trip to Nebraska. Ouch.

With spring practices beginning across the Big Ten, we're taking a look at some of the strengths and weaknesses that could shape the division races in 2017. Earlier this week, we examined the biggest strengths of each team in the East Division. Today, it's time for the weaknesses.

Indiana: Short-yardage offense. The Hoosiers converted only 71.4 percent of their red zone opportunities into scores in 2016 and were 121st nationally in scoring touchdowns inside the opponents' 20. Third-and-short and fourth downs were also a problem. New head coach Tom Allen has made fixing this a priority this spring.

Maryland: Pass protection. The Terrapins were more like turnstiles when it came to keeping defenders off their quarterback in 2016. Maryland surrendered an unconscionable 49 sacks in 13 games, more than all but one team in the FBS. The program is making strides under D.J. Durkin but won't go very far until that number improves substantially.

Michigan: Running the ball against good opponents. The Wolverines' 2016 rushing stats look good on paper. But they piled up a lot of yards against inferior teams. When Michigan absolutely needed to run the ball against outstanding defenses last year, it often stalled. See the 2.5 yards per carry against Florida State, the 2.1 ypc vs. Ohio State and the 2.8 vs. Iowa -- not coincidentally, all losses. The offensive line needs to get stronger in order to stand up against the best defenses on the schedule.

Michigan State: The pass rush. The Spartans managed just 11 total sacks in 12 games a year ago, the fewest of any Power 5 team. And that was with Malik McDowell in the lineup for much of the year. Mark Dantonio turned to playing several freshmen and sophomores on the defensive line late in the season, which could speed their development for this fall. But if Michigan State can't put pressure on the quarterback, the rest of its defense will continue to be ineffective.

Ohio State: The downfield passing game. J.T. Barrett struggled to get the ball to his receivers in the vertical passing game last year, as the Buckeyes averaged just 6.8 yards per pass attempt (88th in the FBS). New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day were brought in to fix the passing issues, and Barrett will need to build chemistry this spring with a fleet of young wideouts.

Penn State: Third-down conversions. There's not much to complain about from the 2016 Nittany Lions' season, though third downs were strangely troubling for much of the year. Penn State converted just 32.6 percent of its third downs last year and was just 7-of-20 on third downs against Wisconsin and USC. With Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley back, there's no good reason for that to continue in 2017.

Rutgers: Quarterback play. We could go a number of different ways here after the Scarlet Knights' disastrous 2-10 campaign. No unit is blameless. But a lack of playmaking ability behind center was a chief culprit in why Rutgers averaged just 9.9 points per game against Power 5 opponents and was shut out four times. Job one for new offensive coordinator Jerry Kill is to find a quarterback who can move the offense.

With spring practices beginning across the Big Ten, we're taking a look at some of the key players and position groups that could shape the division races in 2017. Today, we'll examine the biggest strengths of each team in each division. Check back Thursday for a look at each team's biggest weakness.

Here's a look at the East:

Indiana: The back seven. Yes, the Hoosiers are best known for their offensive prowess, but their biggest strength might actually lie on the other side of the ball. Tegray Scales is back to lead the linebacker group after finishing with an FBS-best 23.5 tackles for loss last season. Marcelino Ball is also a force as a hybrid defensive back after recording 75 tackles as a true freshman. Throw in returning veterans and head coach Tom Allen's 4-2-5 scheme, and this might be the basis for Indiana's success in 2017.

Maryland: The running backs. The Terrapins quietly finished fourth in the Big Ten in rushing last season at nearly 200 yards per game. The potential is there for more in 2017. Ty Johnson ran for 1,004 yards on an insane 9.1 yards per carry as a sophomore. He'll be rejoined by Lorenzo Harrison, who averaged 7.2 yards per carry in nine games before earning a suspension. Maryland is bursting with big playmakers in the backfield.

Michigan's Wilton SpeightAP Photo/Tony DingWilton Speight played well in his first year as a starter for Michigan, which shouldn't count quarterback depth among its concerns.

Michigan: Quarterback depth. After losing a boatload of valuable seniors and sending 14 players to the NFL combine, the Wolverines have question marks going into the spring. Quarterback isn't really one of them. Wilton Speight played well in his first year as a starter, completing 61.6 percent of his passes and finishing with an 18-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He has a big edge to keep the job, but he also has talented youngsters Brandon Peters and incoming freshman Dylan McCaffrey behind him, along with veteran John O'Korn.

Michigan State: The linebacker group. Despite the loss of leader Riley Bullough, the Spartans should be able to count on this position group as an anchor in 2017. Jon Reschke and Chris Frey have lots of experience, and Andrew Dowell is on the rise. Yet another Bullough brother, Byron, will be pushing for playing time as well.

Ohio State: The pass-rush. Nick Bosa would start for just about any team in the Big Ten, and quite likely in America. But his playing time is in question for the Buckeyes, who bring back starting defensive ends Tyquan Lewis -- the league's defensive lineman of the year in 2016 -- and Sam Hubbard. That's a crazy amount of talent coming off the edge, and it doesn't even include senior Jalyn Holmes or blue-chip signee Chase Young.

Penn State: The offensive backfield. Running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley ranked 1-2 in our list of the top 25 returning Big Ten players last month. So it's kind of a nice advantage to have them in the same backfield, and it makes the Nittany Lions' run-pass option plays even more devastating. Miles Sanders is an excellent backup choice and change-of-pace guy behind Barkley, too.

Rutgers: The kick-return game. So the Scarlet Knights didn't have any discernible strengths during a miserable 2016 campaign, but at least Janarion Grant is back after suffering a season-ending injury early last fall. Assuming he's healthy, he should reclaim his reputation as one of the top return men in the country. He has eight career combined kick and punt return scores, tied for the most in FBS history.

We knew Michigan was loaded with senior talent last year. The NFL knew it, too.

The Wolverines lead all schools with 14 players invited to this year's NFL combine, the annual prodding and poking of draft hopefuls. The Michigan contingent includes Jabrill Peppers, who declared early, and 13 seniors from last year's Orange Bowl runners-up.

Ohio State was second in the Big Ten with eight invitees, six of whom were underclassmen. Purdue and Rutgers were the only Big Ten schools without a representative.

Here's the full list of all 51 Big Ten players invited to the event, which will be held Feb. 28 through March 6 in Indianapolis:


DT Chunky Clements

LB Hardy Nickerson

DE Carroll Phillips

DE Dawuane Smoot


OG Dan Feeney

RB Devine Redding


QB C.J. Beathard

DT Jaleel Johnson

DB Desmond King

TE George Kittle


DB William Likely


OG Ben Braden

TE Jake Butt

DE Taco Charlton

WR Jehu Chesson

DB Jeremy Clark

WR Amara Darboh

LB Ben Gedeon

DT Ryan Glasgow

S Delano Hill

CB Jourdan Lewis

S Jabrill Peppers

RB De'Veon Smith

CB Channing Stribling

DE Chris Wormley

Michigan State

LB Riley Bullough

DT Malik McDowell

S Montae Nicholson


QB Mitch Leidner

CB Jalen Myrick

S Damarius Travis


TE Cethan Carter

S Nate Gerry


DE Ifeadi Odenigbo

LB Anthony Walker Jr.

Ohio State

WR Noah Brown

CB Gareon Conley

C Pat Elflein

S Malik Hooker

P Cameron Johnston

CB Marshon Lattimore

LB Raekwon McMillan

WR Curtis Samuel

Penn State

WR Chris Godwin

DE Garrett Sickels


LB Vince Biegel

RB Corey Clement

RB Dare Ogunbowale

OT Ryan Ramczyk

CB Sojourn Shelton

LB T.J. Watt