Big Ten: Ohio State Buckeyes
The Big Ten may not break its lengthy drought of sending a quarterback into the first round of the NFL draft with this year’s crop, but that doesn’t mean there’s any lack of talent at the position. Most of the league’s top teams return starters under center this fall -- and most of those starters have some healthy competition to keep them honest during the summer workouts.
This week we’ll be highlighting the best groups on the offensive side of the ball at several positions as well as some other teams and players that are worth watching closely. We start the week with a review of the best quarterback depth charts in the conference heading into 2017.
Best of the best: Ohio State returns the most productive quarterback in program history to operate an offense that promises to let him unleash some deeper throws this year. J.T. Barrett has accounted for exactly 100 touchdowns heading into his senior season. New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, who previously had to stop Barrett when the Buckeyes played Indiana, said he thought the veteran leader made good strides on hitting longer throws in spring practice.
Barrett is a candidate to be the conference’s top player next season, but it’s Ohio State’s depth at quarterback that nudges them ahead of others to the top of this list. Backups Joe Burrow and Dwayne Haskins both have the skills to be starters. They threw three touchdown passes each in the spring game in Columbus, setting up what could be the most entertaining backup quarterback battle in college football this year.
Next in line: Penn State and Michigan both deserve mention here. Trace McSorley finished out his first year as a full-time starter with 12 touchdown passes in three games, including a conference title win and a trip to the Rose Bowl. He should have the weapons around him for another record-setting year in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions’ coaching staff also seemed pleased with the level of competition redshirt sophomore Tommy Stevens provided as McSorley’s understudy.
The situation isn’t much different in Ann Arbor. Wilton Speight remains the starter after helping lead Michigan and its offense to another 10-win season in 2016. Speight separated himself as the leader of a team that has a lot of pieces to replace next fall and a calm, confident presence on the field. He may not be the most physically talented quarterback on the roster, though. Redshirt freshman Brandon Peters showed he has both strength and touch during the spring season.
Don’t sleep on: Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson. The third-year starter made a significant jump forward between his first and second seasons leading the offense. If he can continue his upward trajectory again in 2017, the Wildcats will have as good a chance as any team to unseat Wisconsin as the West Division champions. Thorson threw for 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season. He also showed he has the potential to make plays with his feet, although he took off less often a year ago than during his rookie season. Top target Austin Carr is gone, but Thorson should get some help in replacing him from Oregon transfer Jalen Brown and the rest of a maturing receiver group.
The impact of a recruiting battle isn’t felt until the prospect hits the field for whichever team he chose. The team that missed out is often left with a void that the prospect could have filled and the team that won is left gloating if he pans out.
Since recruiting battles happen all the time within the Big Ten, there will likely be a few big names on the field this season that teams wish they could have landed. Here is a look at past recruiting battles within the conference and who they’re impacting.
RB Karan Higdon, Michigan
Higdon was headed to Iowa in the 2015 recruiting class until Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh swooped in and got him to commit to Michigan. Higdon was at the center of a few battles as Michigan was also pursuing running back Mike Weber, who eventually signed with Ohio State after debating between the Buckeyes and Michigan.
Iowa losing out on Higdon stings because the Hawkeyes ranked 64th in the nation in rushing yards last season and 71st in rushing touchdowns. The Hawkeyes also must replace Leshun Daniels Jr., who rushed for 1,058 yards last season.
Haskins and Jones both decommitted from Maryland and flipped to Ohio State during the 2016 cycle in what ended up being a big sting for the Terps. While Maryland is headed in the right direction, these two would have been huge additions to the roster.
Having Haskins in his second season at quarterback would have been a big help to Walt Bell’s offense and could have accelerated the process. The staff has landed some nice pieces, including ESPN 300 quarterback Kasim Hill in the 2017 class.
The Buckeyes have recruited well at quarterback and will have Haskins in the mix as the backup this season.
WR K.J. Hamler, Penn State
For quite some time in his recruitment, it seemed as though Hamler would be headed to Michigan State. An in-state prospect in the 2017 class, Michigan State was hot on his trail.
Needing receivers and playmakers on offense, Hamler would have been a big addition to the Spartans’ offense, but a late push by the Nittany Lions swung him in their favor.
Penn State coaches put in a lot of work to reel in Hamler and the staff eventually won out. While Michigan State did land a few other receivers in the class, none were as explosive as Hamler.
The shifty receiver sustained an ACL injury his senior high school season, but if he fully recovers, Hamler could be a big playmaker for the Nittany Lions.
WR Tyjon Lindsey, Nebraska
Lindsey’s recruitment in the 2017 cycle was a bit odd, to say the least. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound receiver was committed to Ohio State with Las Vegas (Nevada) Bishop Gorman teammates Haskell Garrett and Tate Martell until Lindsey abruptly decommitted and switched to Nebraska.
By all accounts, Lindsey seemed solid to the Buckeyes for most of his commitment. Nebraska started making a big push as the process got closer to signing day, ultimately leading to his commitment.
Ohio State has options on the roster, but Lindsey would have been a good fit and a big help on new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson’s offense.
ATH Ambry Thomas, Michigan
Thomas is a dynamic prospect who can play offense or defense and was heavily considering Michigan State as well as Michigan. He ultimately landed with Michigan, but would have been a much-needed addition to the Michigan State roster.
The Spartans could use help on both offense and defense, and Thomas is the type of player who realistically could have had an impact both sides in East Lansing. He is a local prospect and was one of the highest-ranked prospects in the state, so not only did it sting for Michigan State not to get him on the field on their side, but it also meant losing an in-state battle to their top rival.
Urban Meyer waited only a few minutes after his Ohio State team finished its 2016 season to promise the offense would be better next year. After an embarrassing 31-0 shutout loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff, Meyer threw some conviction behind the sentiment that his program's passing game had to improve.
"We will become a good passing team, we will," Meyer said at the time. "Next year."
Since then, the Buckeyes have made some tangible progress toward meeting that goal. They’re not alone among their Big Ten brethren either, which should be a scary thought for defensive coordinators in the Midwest and beyond.
Ohio State -- despite an air attack that didn’t live up to the head coach's standards -- scored 66 touchdowns in 2016. Michigan and Penn State each matched their East Division foe with the same number. For the first time in league history, three different Big Ten teams topped 500 total points. There’s reason to believe all three could be more prolific in 2017. Could next fall be a record-setting year for scoring in the Big Ten? If spring ball is any indication, there’s a pretty good chance.
All three quarterbacks from those programs return as seasoned veterans, and all three have some exciting new toys at their disposal.
Trace McSorley and the reigning champion Nittany Lions have a crew of tall, rangy receivers that can keep defenses from loading up too much to stop star running back Saquon Barkley. At the top of that list after the spring was 6-foot-4 redshirt sophomore Juwan Johnson, who was the most improved player on the team according to his coaches and has a chance to be a breakout star next fall.
At Michigan, Wilton Speight raved about the two newest additions to his passing game. He called early enrollees Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black "pretty freaky" and "special" after just a few practices. Peoples-Jones was one of the top 25 high school players in the country last season and should be able to help the Wolverines' depleted two-deep right away. It was Black who turned the most heads this spring, with a touchdown catch in the spring game and an impressive performance in Rome.
Ohio State's J.T. Barrett has a strong cast of receivers, too, but his biggest upgrade comes in the form of new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. The former Indiana coach is working to restore Ohio State's deep-ball threat to the level it reached in 2014 when the Buckeyes scored 672 points (the highest total of any Big Ten team in at least the past 20 years) en route to a national championship.
"There is some enhancement going on now," Meyer told reporters in March. "We're not changing, we're enhancing what we do. If it was broken, we'd have to change it."
Compounding those high scores will be the fact that the most inexperienced groups on some of the league’s best teams are in the secondary. Ohio State has to replace three first-round picks in its defensive backfield. All four of the starters from a Michigan back end that had the best passing defense in the country in 2016 are gone. Penn State’s group suffered a blow this spring when top cornerback John Reid reportedly suffered a potential season-ending injury. The talent is still there, but youth usually leads to some mistakes.
The West Division will still provide some of the defense-first, slugfest-style football that one thinks of when talking about the Big Ten. Wisconsin should be stingy as usual and Northwestern will be able to ride the reliable workhorse Justin Jackson.
Elsewhere, though, some of the conference’s weaker offenses should be able to take some steps toward contributing to an influx of points. Purdue (24.6 points per game in 2016) hired Jeff Brohm after he wrapped up his season in Western Kentucky with the highest-scoring offense in the nation. Maryland (25.8) has the playmakers to make another jump under offensive coordinator Walt Bell and his fast-paced attack. Receiver Mikey Dudek should be able to help Illinois (19.7), too, if he stays healthy for a full season.
The Big Ten climbed back into the conversation as one of college football’s toughest conferences, especially in the East Division, over the past several years by adding speed and innovative coaches. It’s no surprise that the points are starting to stack up, and they could be coming in some unprecedented bunches in 2017.
Defending Big Ten champion Penn State is loaded with experience on offense. Quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley are preseason Heisman Trophy contenders. They'll play behind a veteran offensive line and with a standout tight end in Mike Gesicki.
The one question about that unit going into the spring was at wide receiver. Not necessarily in depth of talent, as the Nittany Lions bring back accomplished players Saeed Blacknail and DaeSean Hamilton at the position. The question was more along the lines of who would become the true No. 1 wideout, someone who could replace the production of Chris Godwin?
The answer to that question might be one of the biggest breakout players in the Big Ten this spring: Juwan Johnson.
The redshirt sophomore created major buzz around the program all spring, earning raves from coaches and teammates and winning Penn State's most improve offensive player award. He showed the public what the fuss was about with seven catches for 81 yards in Saturday's Blue-White game.
Johnson played mainly on special teams last season, though he did start on offense against Purdue. He finished the year with two catches for 70 yards.
"I've been patient the past two years," Johnson told reporters Saturday. "It's time for me to step up and play a role on the team."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Johnson is ready to make an impact. He's a former ESPN 300 recruit who's listed at an impressive 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds. He could become a top target for McSorley, who often sought out Godwin (59 catches for 982 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2016) during key situations.
"He has just has taken a very mature approach, a very aggressive approach all offseason," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "He's playing with a lot of confidence right now, and I think we all know he's got some special physical abilities. It's all kind of coming together for him right now."
Here's a look at some other breakout players from around the league this spring now that every team has wrapped up its practice sessions until fall camp (in alphabetical order):
Ohio State CB Damon Arnette: Whoever emerges in the secondary for the Buckeyes is a good bet to become a star. Arnette had some struggles as a redshirt freshman last season but performed very well all spring to become the front-runner to start opposite Denzel Ward. Given how much pure talent Ohio State has at the position, that's saying something.
Wisconsin WR Quintez Cephus: The sophomore -- who had four catches for for 94 yards as a true freshman -- turned in some big practices for the Badgers this spring. It was an emotional spring for him after his father was shot and killed. Cephus is in line to replace Robert Wheelwright as the team's No. 2 receiver.
Michigan LB/S Khaleke Hudson: It's unfair to compare Hudson to Jabrill Peppers. But Hudson might well be the guy who replaces Hudson at the Viper position, one where he'll be asked to do many of the same things Peppers excelled at. The early returns have been positive, as Hudson looked like a playmaker during an active spring game performance.
Minnesota S Jacob Huff: The junior has no career starts but has played as a backup the past two seasons. He showed up in a major way this spring at a position of need for the Golden Gophers. "All he does is make plays," head coach P.J. Fleck said of Huff.
Michigan State CB/WR Justin Layne: He made an impact as a true freshman in the Spartans' secondary, even returning an interception for a touchdown. Layne played on offense and defense during the spring game, catching a touchdown pass at receiver. Could he be a true two-way star this fall?
Nebraska slot receiver JD Spielman: The MVP of the scout team offense last year, Spielman looks ready to contribute where it counts this season. He impressed coaches most of the spring and went out and grabbed a 30-yard touchdown among his four catches in the spring game.
Indiana TE Ian Thomas: New offensive coordinator Mike DeBord intends to use the tight ends more than the Hoosiers have in previous seasons, and Thomas should be the biggest beneficiary of that strategy. A standout in junior college, Thomas had only three catches last season but snagged a touchdown in the spring game, a potential sign of things to come.
Iowa RB Toren Young: Akrum Wadley is the No. 1 tailback, but the Hawkeyes like A) spreading the carries around and B) occasionally putting Wadley out in space. Young and Toks Akinribade are both in the mix for work this fall, but it was Young who ran for 96 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. "I liked the energy he ran with and the toughness he ran with, and he's pretty much been doing that all spring," head coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The Big Ten had a banner year in 2016, with four teams jockeying for spots in the College Football Playoff until the final days of the regular season.
The postseason didn’t go so well for the league, as only one of its four New Year’s Six bowl participants (Wisconsin) brought home a victory. That brought out the usual Big Ten skeptics who wondered if the conference had been overrated all along and whether 2016 was just a fluke.
There’s no guarantee of a repeat of last year’s success in 2017. But there is one simple yet large reason to be very excited about the league’s fortunes this fall and beyond: the Big Ten has the best roster of head coaches of any conference in America.
A grand statement like that naturally requires lots of evidence to back it up. So here goes.
Start with Ohio State's Urban Meyer. He’s no worse than one of the two best coaches in college football, with only Alabama’s Nick Saban as serious competition. Meyer has three national titles, the highest winning percentage among active coaches (.851 -- third-highest all time among those who coached at least 10 years) -- and an absurd 61-6 record with the Buckeyes. Enough said.
Michigan's Jim Harbaugh also belongs on the short list of best coaches in the land. Though he has never won a national title, he’s the master of the program turnaround. He’s gone 32-7 in his last three seasons in college, including Stanford, and was the NFL coach of the year during his time in San Francisco. Whether you like his online shtick or find it annoying, dude can coach 'em up as well as anyone.
Penn State's James Franklin joined the ranks of the elite coaches last year by leading the Nittany Lions to a surprise Big Ten title. Franklin had already worked wonders at Vanderbilt, of all places, and he silenced his doubters en route to winning Sporting News national coach of the year honors in 2016.
Though Michigan State is going through some turbulent times right now after a 3-9 debacle, Mark Dantonio has firmly established himself as one of the top coaches. His Spartans won at least 11 games five times in the six years prior to last season and made the playoff in 2015.
That’s four cream-of-the-crop coaches right there. What other league can claim that?
The ACC might come the closest, with Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher owning national titles and Louisville’s Bobby Petrino being one of the top offensive minds around. But unless you’re buying into North Carolina’s Larry Fedora or Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente as elite, the list pretty much stops at three.
The Big 12 has Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, TCU’s Gary Patterson and legendary Kansas State boss Bill Snyder. Maybe first-year Texas coach Tom Herman lives up to the hype. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy has done good work but hasn’t quite reached the level of the Big Ten’s top four.
In the Pac-12, Washington’s Chris Petersen belongs on any short list of top coaches. Stanford’s David Shaw is highly accomplished, and Colorado’s Mike McIntyre won several national coach of the year honors last year. The jury is still out on USC’s Clay Helton, though he did beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
What about the SEC, you ask? Saban rules, obviously. But who’s the second-best coach in that league? It might be Florida’s Jim McElwain. Or Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. Would either school’s fan base trade them for Harbaugh? You betcha.
It’s not just the top tier that makes the Big Ten coaching roster so special, either. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst is quickly rising up the ladder toward elite, having gone 21-6 in two years at his alma mater. His middling 19-19 record at Pitt before returning to Madison must be considered in relation to the mess he inherited there.
Chryst is also a perfect fit for the Badgers, just as Pat Fitzgerald is at Northwestern and Kirk Ferentz is for Iowa. Fitzgerald’s 11-year run in Evanston seems unusually long except when compared to Ferentz, who’s going into Year 19 with the Hawkeyes while showing signs of slowing down.
Nebraska's Mike Riley is one of the most respected coaches around, and while it’s fair to question whether he was the right fit for the Cornhuskers, he has won 10 of his last 14 games in Lincoln. Illinois' Lovie Smith has plenty to prove as a college coach but had a strong track record in the NFL.
The Big Ten also added two of the hottest young coaches in the country this offseason in Minnesota's P.J. Fleck, who led Western Michigan to a 13-0 record and Cotton Bowl appearance last year, and Purdue's Jeff Brohm, who went 30-10 at Western Kentucky with one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses.The story is still being written for Indiana's Tom Allen, Maryland's D.J. Durkin and Rutgers' Chris Ash, though all three were outstanding defensive coordinators.
Add it all up, and you’ve got the best lineup of coaches in any conference.
“I think it’s outstanding,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve gotten a huge commitment from all of our teams to do whatever it takes to be successful. It’s a special time to be a part of the Big Ten.”
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The touchdowns were nice, especially since Johnnie Dixon hadn't caught one with a crowd watching since high school.
The frequent targets, his team-high yardage total in the spring game and a couple of jaw-dropping moves were positives as well, signs that he could be a major factor at wide receiver for an Ohio State team that could use a new weapon for the passing attack.
But Dixon's measure of success for his work in camp over the past month was a bit simpler. And as soon as he stepped on the field at the Horseshoe on Saturday to give him a perfect participation grade over Ohio State's 15 workouts, Dixon was already a winner heading into the summer.
"Yeah, it's amazing -- I haven't missed a day of practice," Dixon said. "It's been a long time since I've done that. It was amazing to be out there every day, bringing energy to the group and all that. It was an amazing feeling.
"It's always fun to go out there and be able to compete and feel fully healthy. I mean, I haven't been able to catch a passing touchdown since my high school days."
The Buckeyes would have had a hard time envisioning the drought would last this long for Dixon, who arrived on campus early in 2014 with plenty of fanfare and no shortage of hype about his potential as a playmaker.
But knee injuries and tendinitis not only robbed the redshirt junior of chances to make a splash on game days for the Buckeyes, they largely made it difficult for him to even get through consecutive practices. And after a season in which he was limited to just seven appearances, including one with his only career rushing touchdown in a blowout win over Rutgers, there were legitimate questions about his ability and desire to even give another year a shot.
"Johnnie is an enigma," coach Urban Meyer said. "A very talented guy, nice person. But he got here, had this tendinitis and issues in his knees, and he would go two practices and have to miss two. ... He probably shouldn't have come back, if you had a career like he's had.
"But his teammates, his position coach, Zach Smith, and I talked to him, and he wanted one last swing. And he had the best spring -- he didn't miss a practice. I was so happy to see him have great success today, because we really need him."
Ohio State's receivers underwhelmed collectively last season and then lost their top three players in the offseason. There's perhaps no unit on the roster more in need of emerging talent. And while Dixon only has seven receptions on his résumé, his experience around the program could help set him apart from the new wave of touted recruits coming in looking to boost a sagging passing game.
On top of that, the former ESPN 300 pick also shown that he can handle adversity after working back from his injuries. And he hasn't backed down from the challenge when it would have been easy to just walk away from the game.
"After the year, he had to really see if he could get his body healthy and get it to where it is today," Smith said. "And he did, so we're excited to see a healthy Johnnie Dixon, you know? He's healthy right now, but he's still developing. He's played, but for three years he really has been kind of not practicing.
"At the same time, he's been mentally developed for three years. He understands football, he understands the position, he understands the offense, so he's ahead of where a young kid would be. But physically, the grind of being able to go through 15 practices and push through it and get better -- that's what he’s dealing with and having to push through."
In front of a sold-out crowd at Ohio Stadium on what eventually turned into a sunny afternoon, Dixon did more than just survive one final spring practice.
And while getting healthy was an important step, the 108 yards and two touchdowns hinted that it might almost be time to find a new way to measure his success.
"It's been some of the toughest times I've been through," Dixon said. "I wouldn't say there were doubts, because it was more like me not knowing if I wanted to continue to play or whatever.
"We all sat down and had the meeting, decided to take one more swing at it. I'm glad we did."
And if the Buckeyes can keep him swinging day after day in the fall, odds are Dixon will be in line to catch some touchdowns when it really counts.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Any clarity on the future of the most important position at Ohio State was tossed aside just two plays into the second drive of its spring game.
As always, the actual results of a scrimmage in April don’t really mean anything. And, sure, there’s a danger into reading too much into the allotment of snaps for an exhibition at the Horseshoe.
But coach Urban Meyer has been clear over the years that he wants to see how the Buckeyes perform in front of crowds like the one of over 80,000 that packed Ohio Stadium this past Saturday afternoon. Which makes it telling that during the first opportunity for one of the backups to lead the offense, Meyer elected to use both of them and rotate Joe Burrow and Dwayne Haskins every two plays.
Both played well enough to ensure the Buckeyes will clearly still be in good shape when J.T. Barrett’s career ends after this season. But right now, it’s tough to tell just who he will be passing off the torch to when Ohio State moves on without him.
“We haven't had that [conversation] yet,” Meyer said. “I know it is very close. But I'm not prepared to say who is No. 2, who is No. 3, et cetera, yet.”
The Buckeyes can skip over the top spot, where Barrett remains entrenched as the unquestioned starter heading into his senior season. And despite getting hit in the pocket once to disrupt a pass that was intercepted, the veteran looked sharp while completing 8 of his 12 throws with a touchdown in a short outing before spending the rest of the afternoon standing next to Meyer and watching the intriguing battle to back him up unfold.
Both Burrow and Haskins made compelling cases that they are more than capable of leading Ohio State’s power-spread attack. Burrow, who came in with the edge in experience and at least was given the first snaps on that second drive, delivered the ball accurately and efficiently in throwing for 262 yards and three scores to lead the Scarlet to the scrimmage victory. But Haskins matched him with three touchdowns of his own, hitting on 26 of his 37 attempts and finishing with 293 yards after eventually switching teams and taking over for Barrett on the Gray.
There is certainly no reason for Meyer to rush to a decision about his depth chart this early in the year, particularly since the Buckeyes still have a whole training camp looming in August. But even with a clear-cut starter returning for the fall, the eventual call figures to be significant since it will send a clear signal about who Ohio State believes will be next in line for 2018 -- even if that’s not the primary focus for a team already chasing a national title right now.
“I think it’s definitely close,” Haskins said. “It’s up to the coaches to decide who they want to be No. 2. But I think I’ve done everything that I possibly could do during the spring to show what I can do.
“They haven’t given me a timeline or set a time when they want to announce it. It’s a backup role, and the most important player is the starter. So right now, we’re just competing and getting each other better going into fall camp.”
Once it arrives, the attention on both of them and the urgency to sort out a pecking order will increase. And it might also even include true freshman Tate Martell after he flashed some athleticism during his late-scrimmage cameo, although he appears to have plenty of ground to make up based on how extensively the Buckeyes worked Haskins and Burrow on Saturday.
Nobody at Ohio State has to be reminded the importance of the backup roles, especially not with Barrett still around and Cardale Jones popping by the Horseshoe to flash his arm strength at halftime. Once upon a time, they were competing to take the reins for Braxton Miller -- and for both of them, that moment actually arrived before it was supposed to on the way to a championship.
The message for Haskins and Burrow: Get ready.
“I thought we played really well this spring,” Burrow said. “We got a lot better. Obviously the focus on deep balls this spring was high, and I think we got a lot better, lot more accurate this spring.
“I’m just going to keep getting better, do what I can do, control what I can control and it will all work out eventually.”
The Buckeyes can sort out the exact details later. For now, it looks like Ohio State will be in good hands either way.
Odds are, the Ohio State senior is going to be in for a short afternoon of work at the Horseshoe as his final spring camp with the program comes to a close on Saturday.
That doesn’t mean Barrett can’t offer some glimpses of improved footwork, better timing with his receivers or add some fuel to the Heisman Trophy conversation by hitting some deep throws before Urban Meyer pulls him off the field. And considering that Barrett still is trying to silence some skeptics after a humbling shutout loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff, he almost certainly will be looking forward to the chance to remind the world that Ohio State still is his team.
“I’m still trying to enhance myself and get better in order for us to be what we want to be,” Barrett said after an early spring practice. “That’s all I can do. It’s full throttle, pedal to the metal.
“School is taken care of [after graduating], and it’s really ball, that’s what I have left here at Ohio State. I’m taking a couple online classes, but right now, my life is football, literally. Just ball, and I’m trying to make sure that at the end of the day we can all be on the same page.”
Barrett’s script figures to be short when the Scarlet and Gray square off, but even without him, there is a huge amount to be learned about the Buckeyes any time the football is in the air this weekend. Here’s what Meyer will be watching closely.
Backup battle: Barrett’s spot on the depth chart is secure, but there is plenty of intrigue behind him in the backup role. Joe Burrow hasn’t done anything to lose the spot he had last season, and his experience and command of the power spread offense continues to make him a viable option down the road.
But even if Burrow hasn’t done anything wrong, he’s still getting a strong push from Dwayne Haskins that could ultimately shake up the pecking order. With another sellout crowd expected, Meyer will get a chance to see how the strong-armed redshirt freshman performs under some pressure. While an encouraging outing may not elevate Haskins right away, it may stick in the back of the minds at Ohio State when training camp rolls around. And whenever the decision is made about the No. 2 quarterback, it will have ramifications not just this season if Barrett is sidelined at some point, but also into the future when he’s gone.
Target practice: The top three wide receivers from last season all are gone. And by the players’ own admission, the unit didn’t exactly live up to expectations even with Noah Brown, Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson catching passes a year ago.
The pressure has been squarely on the wideouts to take a step forward as part of Meyer’s mission to expand the passing attack after the offense largely became one dimensional against top-notch defenses last season. So guys such as Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, Austin Mack, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon will be under the microscope one last time before heading into the offseason. Spring game results always come with a grain of salt, but with Meyer unlikely to hand the football off much in an exhibition, there will be no shortage of chances for the receivers to make an impression.
Secondary matters: It’s not just the offense that is going to be evaluated in the passing game, and how the group of young cornerbacks handles any throws that come their way could help determine who makes it into the rotation this fall -- or who might become the next first-round pick.
The Buckeyes consider Denzel Ward a returning starter, but the early losses of Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley to the NFL draft still leave a pair of enormous shoes to fill in the secondary. Ohio State has recruited perhaps better than any program in the country when it comes to defensive backs, and Kendall Sheffield, Jeffrey Okudah, Marcus Williamson and Shaun Wade all will get the same number of opportunities to show their stuff as their counterparts on the other side of the ball.
On Wednesday's spring teleconference between reporters and Big Ten coaches, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald leaned into a familiar football saw.
"There's an old saying out there that when you have a quarterback, you have a chance," Fitzgerald said.
If there's truth in that cliché, then it stands to reason that the Big Ten has a chance of being very good in 2017.
The vast majority of league teams already know who their quarterback will be this fall and feel good about it. Most remaining quarterback competitions are coming into focus. If having a proven signal-caller is a good indication of success, then the conference's best teams from last season should be primed to contend again.
The four Big Ten clubs that were in the playoff mix last December -- Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin -- all return their starters from a year ago.
J.T. Barrett didn't finish strong for the Buckeyes and drew some criticism for his downfield throws. But he's still a two-time Big Ten quarterback of the year with a top-five Heisman Trophy finish on his résumé. Penn State's Trace McSorley should have won the league's quarterback of the year award last year and will enter 2017 as a Heisman candidate. Michigan's Wilton Speight showed promise his first year as a starter last season and, according to Jim Harbaugh, has taken a step forward with his understanding of the game and the Wolverines' system. Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook is the least accomplished of the quartet, as a redshirt sophomore, but the Badgers are confident in his ability.
Other returnees include Indiana's Richard Lagow, a strong-armed pocket passer capable of putting up some big numbers in his second year as a starter; Purdue's David Blough, who led the league in passing yards and touchdowns last year and who should improve his decision-making under new head coach Jeff Brohm; and Northwestern's Clayton Thorson, who somewhat quietly threw for more than 3,000 yards as a sophomore and continues to get better.
"He's shown absolutely amazing growth as a leader," Fitzgerald said. "His confidence is at an all-time high."
Some teams that went into spring with ostensible competitions have all but settled on their guy.
Michigan State's Mark Dantonio said in the winter that sophomore Brian Lewerke was the leading candidate to start. Lewerke solidified that by playing well this spring, bulking up to 215 pounds and not getting much competition from redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver, who rarely practiced because of back issues.
"He's bigger and stronger and throws the ball in great rhythm," Dantonio said of Lewerke. "He's clearly the starter, and I think that's warranted."
Lovie Smith called Chayce Crouch his starting quarterback at Illinois before spring ball began. Even though Crouch was held out of contact drills while recovering from offseason surgery, he still has Smith's full backing.
"He's the undisputed leader of our football team," Smith said of the junior, who threw 32 passes in 2016.
Rutgers began the offseason with an open audition under center, but Giovanni Rescigno -- who started the final five games last year -- has fended off challengers. Scarlet Knights coach Chris Ash called Rescigno's improvement this spring "a pleasant surprise" and called him the team's "clear No. 1."
That leaves just four teams currently undecided, at least officially, on a starter. An alphabetical rundown:
Iowa: Quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe called the race between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers "neck and neck" on Wednesday. But Stanley was the backup to C.J. Beathard as a true freshman, and most believe he'll win the job.
Maryland: D.J. Durkin says there's still a three-way competition raging, but North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson seems like the safe bet to take the snaps in the opener at Texas.
Minnesota: This might be the one truly wide-open battle in the league, as there's very little experience on hand for first-year coach P.J. Fleck. Senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft appear to be the leading candidates, with early enrollee Tanner Morgan a dark horse. Fleck said he likely won't name a starter until training camp.
Nebraska: For the first time since they entered the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers don't have an obvious starting quarterback lined up. Mike Riley said he has split the reps evenly between Tulane transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien; both will get a chance to shine at Saturday's spring game.
"We've been through it a few times in our life," Riley said. "One thing it does is, it kind of keeps an edge there."
Experience isn't everything. McSorley had never started a college game before leading Penn State to the Big Ten title last year. But coaches would usually prefer certainty at the game's most important position. The veteran returning talent and coaches' confidence in their options this spring would seem to bode well for the league's chances.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The feeling was nagging at Parris Campbell, long before Ohio State's 31-0 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals made what he already knew apparent to the rest of the world.
Ohio State had put up a ton of points in the 2016 season, the highlight reel was again relatively well-stocked, and a team that was in position to play for a national championship couldn’t have done so without getting any contributions from the wide receivers at all.
But game after game throughout the regular season, Campbell and the rest of his unit would look back at the film unsatisfied with efforts that didn’t match the expectations for a batch of touted recruits in a program with the Buckeyes' rich history at the position. And the postseason debacle, with an almost nonexistent passing attack, obviously didn’t do anything to change that.
“You know, it wasn’t what we wanted,” Campbell said. “You never want to go through a season not meeting your goals. It was hard, and then having the outcome that we did [in the Fiesta Bowl], it was hard to deal with.
“I mean, all you guys saw it. We weren’t making plays when plays were supposed to be made. Too many balls on the ground, too many opportunities left on the field. As a whole unit, I feel like we never left a game feeling complete, feeling like we did what we wanted to do. For me, that’s the summary.”
That brutal assessment is perhaps a bit too harsh, particularly given some of the positives from last season. There was the dynamic work of Curtis Samuel, who led the team in receptions. Noah Brown emerged as an acrobatic red zone threat and finished with seven touchdown grabs. Even when the football wasn’t in the air, the blocking the wideouts provided on the perimeter was invaluable for an attack that rushed for nearly 3,200 yards.
But it’s also true that the receivers came into spring camp as perhaps the position group most under pressure to deliver given coach Urban Meyer’s mandate to improve a passing attack that started to sputter well before posting just 127 yards in the loss to eventual national champ Clemson. And while the receivers aren’t solely responsible for the problems of last season and aren't the only solution needed in 2017, they also aren’t denying how much work there is to be done -- particularly with Samuel, Brown and Dontre Wilson all gone from the program.
“Coach [Meyer] uses this term: We’re not going to swing and miss,” redshirt junior Terry McLaurin said. “We have the talent, but talent isn’t anything if we can’t put it all together. We know what it was like years before, and then when we’re not meeting that expectation, it’s tough on all of us.
“You just have to keep pushing. I know it’s kind of cliché to say, but we’re just working really hard. The biggest difference I’ve seen, this is going into my fourth year, we’re meeting with the quarterbacks every single day on the deep ball alone. We’re not leaving any stone unturned this year.”
Considering the undeniable potential in a meeting room loaded with blue-chip prospects, that sort of commitment to improve figures to produce some results.
Campbell has earned rave reviews as he’s transitioned into the H-back role Samuel made famous last season. McLaurin’s speed has helped him become a consistent big-play threat on the practice field leading up to the final week of spring camp. K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, Johnnie Dixon and Austin Mack have been singled out for praise at various times and could give the Buckeyes at least six targets they can rotate even before another batch of talented freshmen jump in the mix.
The offensive line will still have to protect the passer better. Quarterback J.T. Barrett will still have to deliver the football accurately and confidently downfield. The playcalling will still need to be more creative under new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson.
But the receivers can’t control any of that, and they’re well-aware that they have to hold up their end of the bargain if the Buckeyes are going to get back to where they want to go.
“As a whole, it’s about being a complete receiver unit,” Campbell said. “Catching the ball, running great routes, being where we have to be on time, getting open. You have to get over [last season], get to the next page and go to work. I think we’re just taking a huge step.
“We came out here with a chip on our shoulder this spring, knowing we had to improve after the past years and not having the successful seasons that we wanted. We knew we had to take a big step, and I think this spring that’s what we’re doing.”
And if everything goes according to plan, by the fall, Campbell won’t have to worry about dealing with those incomplete feelings anymore.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State has more top-notch pass-rushers than it knows what to do with and an unwillingness to keep them on the sideline.
Even if it takes some creative thinking and a new formation, the Buckeyes might just play them all at the same time.
A position group that has liberally substituted thanks to its depth up front during the last couple of seasons and has a terrifying package of four defensive ends in the playbook already is now toying with the idea of putting five of them on the field at the same time. A surplus of talent is one of the best problems defensive line coach Larry Johnson could have, and now it’s just up to him to figure out the pieces for a new rotation and scheme with what could be the nation’s best unit -- and perhaps the busiest as well.
“I can’t give you all my secrets,” Johnson said with a smile. “We haven’t got to it yet. It’s still on the drawing board right now, but we’ve got a plan.
“It’s something we’re not doing right now. We’re just trying to get fundamentally better, but that’s something that if we see fit to do it, we’ll do it. There’s a lot of things we can do with them because those guys are athletic enough to do it. Right now it’s just something on the table.”
If the Buckeyes use the five-man package, that would impact another position group, most likely taking a linebacker off the field. Whether the logistics are still being worked out or just being kept secret, there are already hints as to how the coaching staff plans to handle that formational math.
The versatility of junior Sam Hubbard would in all likelihood be the fulcrum, since the speed and mobility that once made him a defensive back would allow him to stand up on the edge and potentially drop into coverage if needed. He’s already been working on those skills in spring practice, and Jalyn Holmes could potentially fill a similar role as well to round out a group that would also include senior Tyquan Lewis and sophomores Nick Bosa and Dre’Mont Jones.
The Buckeyes weren’t expecting to have this many options available to them this year with Lewis, Holmes and Hubbard all eligible to declare for the NFL draft. All three elected to stick around, giving Ohio State a top-five group of returning linemen that combined to pile up 37.5 tackles for loss last season.
“I think as of right now, it’s the strength of our team on defense,” Urban Meyer said. “They’re fast, they’re really good players. Defensive end, I challenge that we’ll be as good as anybody in America at defensive end.
“It’s kind of fun in spring, you can try all kinds of stuff and see how it works. ... We have five premier [defensive linemen], in my mind, and I would like to see all five on the field at one time. Coaches like to say, ‘How are the checkers?’ Those are five really good checkers right there: Play them all at once.”
Even if the Buckeyes figure out the best way to do it, they aren’t likely to be rolling out a five-man defensive line all that often during the game, particularly considering the amount of playmakers in the pipeline at linebacker and in the secondary.
Ohio State is clearly committed to getting all of its linemen involved. While that cuts down on the number of reps individually, the Buckeyes believe that’s a positive since it keeps them all fresh. Because Lewis only needed to average 45 snaps per game to become the Big Ten defensive lineman of the year last season, it’s hard to argue with the results.
“I think it’s just about getting the best guys out on the field to make plays,” Hubbard said. “That’s what they’re trying to do. If you can rush the passer, they want to get you out on the field. I don’t want to talk too much about it. They’re all putting their minds together, cooking something up and I’m just doing what they tell me to do. I’m liking it.
“It’s going to be fun to watch. ... Guys can rush the passer from all different sides and places, and that’s going to be scary.”
The Buckeyes figure to be frightening enough with four pass-rushers on the field.
Now they’re trying to find a way to add to the nightmare.
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