COLUMBUS, Ohio — Spring has arrived! Sort of.
Though the weather in Columbus Thursday wasn’t exactly conducive for practice outdoors, spring drills for Ohio State got underway inside today at the Woody Hayes Athletic Complex for the Sugar Bowl and six-time defending Big Ten champion Buckeyes.
This year’s spring season comes with a few new wrinkles, as 11th-year head coach Jim Tressel and his staff will not only need to replace three offensive and seven defensive starters, but also find out who will fill temporary voids left by starters QB Terrelle Pryor, WR DeVier Posey, RB Daniel “Boom” Herron and LT Mike Adams on offense and DE Solomon Thomas on defense – all of whom will miss the first five games of the 2011 season.
“It was amazing watching their leadership and attitudes (through winter workouts),” Tressel said Wednesday. “In the midsts of going into their senior year with sanctions, just watching the way they led, quite honestly, I was amazed. If you ask our strength coaches and position coaches during early morning workouts, the guy who you could point to as the leader of that group was the guy going through the toughest time … which tells you a lot about their ability to lead.”
Combined with graduation, Ohio State loses (for the first five games anyhow) its top six point producers on offense/special teams and five of its top six tacklers. So if the Buckeyes plan on continuing their run atop the Big Ten Conference, youngsters will need to learn quickly.
One void has already been filled, as Luke Fickell was promoted earlier this week to Assistant Head Coach and will assume the head coaching duties during the first five games for Tressel.
As for the guys on the field, the quarterback position may be the most intriguing as Tressel and his staff will be watching and waiting for a player to “emerge” during spring drills. On paper, redshirt senior Joe Bauserman seems to have a leg up on the competition, backing up Pryor for the past two seasons with 320 passing yards and two TDs. Also in the mix will be Ken Guiton, a redshirt sophomore, who played in five games last season. But there also has been plenty of buzz surrounding incoming freshman Braxton Miller, who could move up the depth chart quickly if he proves capable during spring and preseason workouts. And don’t count out redshirt freshman Taylor Graham, who also should get plenty of snaps this spring to showcase his skills.
Competition will be fierce at running back as well. Even with the absence of Herron, the Buckeyes remain stacked with the likes of junior Jordan Hall (37 att., 169 yds, 2 TDs), sophomores Jaamal Berry (32, 267, 1 TD) and Carlos Hyde (24, 145) and redshirt freshman Rod Smith. The versatile Zach Boren, who caught 10 passes out of the backfield in 2010, is back once again to clear holes at fullback along with junior Adam Homan.
Clearing the way up front will be an experienced offensive line, anchored by All-America center Michael Brewster, whom Coach Tressel this week called “the best center in America.” Looking to fill the void left by Adams, Justin Boren and Bryant Browning will be sophomore Andrew Norwell and redshirt sophomores Corey Linsley, Jack Mewhort and Marcus Hall. Back to anchor the right side of the offensive line will be steady senior J.B. Shugarts while on the outside, the Buckeyes return two solid starters at tight end in redshirt junior Jake Stoneburner and junior Reid Fragel.
With Posey’s absence and Dane Sanzenbacher’s departure, a major void has been left at wide receiver. Thankfully, the Buckeyes have plenty of talent waiting in the wings to prove their worth. The one with the most experience, albeit eight games, is sophomore Corey “Philly” Brown, who showed great flashes in limited action last year. Also look for sophomores Chris Fields and James Louis to emerge along with 6-foot, 5-inch T.Y. Williams – a big, talented target from East Cleveland who redshirted 2010.
Defensively, co-defensive coordinators Jim Heacock and Fickell must replace seven starters from a Silver Bullet group that ranked second in the nation in total defense during the regular season. Back are junior strong safety Orhian Johnson, senior linebacker Andrew Sweat, junior tackle John Simon and senior defensive end Nathan Williams. Also returning are two once-upon-a-time starters who fell victim to season-ending injuries last season in senior defensive back Tyler Moeller and safety C.J. Barnett.
Gone up front are all-Big Ten defensive end Cameron Heyward and tackle Dexter Larimore. The front-runners to fill those voids appear to be sophomore Johnathan Hankins, who played big minutes up front as a true freshman in critical situations, redshirt junior Garrett Goebel, redshirt sophomore Adam Bellamy along with Darryl Baldwin and J.T. Moore. Competition will be on to replace two starting linebackers and two defensive backs as well. Travis Howard received valuable minutes last season at corner, recording a pick-six in the Penn State win, while redshirt sophomores Corey Brown, Dominic Clarke and Florida State transfer Dionte Allen will also vie for the other starting nod at cornerback. Seniors Nate Oliver and Donnie Evege and redshirt sophomore Jamie Wood also have the talent and experience to emerge in the secondary while Christian Bryant will look to regain his starting spot at one of the safety spots.
After Sweat, linebacker battles figure to be more than interesting among junior Etienne Sabino, redshirt sophomore Dorian Bell, junior Storm Klein, senior Tony Jackson and junior Jonathan Newsome.
Returning at punter is Ben Buchanan, who averaged 41.0 yards per kick last season, while sophomore kicker Drew Basil is expected to take over the full-time duties for kickoffs and field goals.
Thursday was the first of 15 practices this month, with the annual Spring Game at 1:30 p.m. April 23 at Ohio Stadium.