COLUMBUS, Ohio — Spring practice gets underway Thursday afternoon at the Woody Hayes Athletic Complex for the Rose Bowl and five-time defending Big Ten champion Buckeyes. Today is the first of 15 practices this month with the annual Spring Game at 1:30 p.m. April 24 at Ohio Stadium.
On paper, head coach Jim Tressel will again feature another deep and talented squad that begins its quest for an unprecedented sixth straight Big Ten title. And expectations will be plentiful coming off an 11-2 season, a Rose Bowl victory, nine returning starters on offensive and seven on the defensive side. And while several positions appear to be set in stone with the number of veterans returning, a lot can change between now and Sept. 2 (season opener vs. Marshall) as players vie for starting jobs and playing time on both sides of the ball during spring drills.
With the amount of firepower returning on offensive, Ohio State appears to be locked and loaded for a breakout season offensively. Returning under center is third-year starter Terrelle Pryor, who is coming off his best performance to date. Through all the ups and downs of his sophomore campaign, Pryor stayed the course, stiff-arming his opponents and critics all the way to an upset of favored Oregon and Rose Bowl MVP honors. Pryor, 19-3 in his career as a starter, passed for a career-high 266 yards and two touchdowns in that game and ran for 72, setting an Ohio State bowl game record with 338 yards of total offense. In all, he passed for 2,094 yards, piled up 779 yards on the ground and accounted for 25 of Ohio State’s 39 offensive touchdowns last season.
Returning at wide receiver are his two favorite targets: junior wide receiver DeVier Posey and senior Dane Sanzenbacher. The duo accounted for 67 percent of Pryor’s passing yardage last season and combined for 17 receptions in the Rose Bowl victory. Posey was the team’s top receiver, catching 60 passes for 828 yards and eight scores while Sanzenbacher averaged more than 15 yards per catch with six touchdowns. Also battling for time at the receiver spot will be sophomore Duron Carter, seniors Taurian Washington and Grant Schwartz and redshirt freshmen Chris Fields and James Jackson. Sophomore Jake Stoneburner will be the likely candidate to fill the tight end role, backed up by sophomore Reid Fragel and junior Spencer Smith.
Tressel has indicated that a team can never have enough tailbacks. Good thing, because this backfield might be the deepest in Tressel’s 10 years. With leading rushers Brandon Saine (pictured left) and Daniel Herron back to carry the bulk of the load, plenty of talent will be waiting in the wings for opportunities. Saine and Herron split time behind Pryor last season, combining for 1,339 yards and 11 touchdowns. Sophomore Jordan Hall was the only other back who saw significant time in 2009, rushing 48 times for 248 yards and a score. No other back had more than 11 carries. But others to keep an eye on will be sophomore Jermil Martin, redshirt freshman Jaamal Berry (who was forced to sit out last season due to injury) and true freshman Carlos Hyde, who enrolled in January.
Clearing the way up front will be a veteran offensive line that helped the Buckeyes rush for more than 2,500 yards last season. Returning starters will be junior Mike Brewster at center and seniors Justin Boren and Bryant Browning at the guards; juniors J.B. Shugarts and Mike Adams appear to be the leading candidates to assume the tackle spots. However, sophomore Marcus Hall, seniors Andrew Miller and Connor Smith, and sophomores Jack Mewhort, Corey Linsley and Sam Longo are expected to challenge for playing time up front.
Moving over to the defensive side, the Silver Bullets will be anchored by senior lineman Cameron Heyward (pictured) who bypassed the NFL to come back for his senior season. Heyward, dominant at defensive end, led the Buckeyes with 6.5 sacks and had 10 TFL for OSU’s Top 5 ranked defense. However, the Buckeyes must replace linemen Doug Worthington, Todd Denlinger and Thaddeus Gibson, who bypassed his senior season for the NFL.
Junior Nathan Williams, who recorded 8.0 TFL and 3.5 sacks last year in a backup role, is the leading candidate to replace Gibson, with junior Solomon Thomas in the mix as well. At the tackle spots, senior Dexter Larimore is a proven veteran, while up-and-comer John Simon may be ready to step into a starting role after playing in all 13 games as a freshman. Sophomores Garrett Goebel and Keith Wells are two of the leading candidates to challenge for time as well.
Linebacker has always been one of the steadiest positions under Tressel and this season will be no exception. Despite the loss of co-captain Austin Spitler, the Buckeyes return seniors Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, who were 1-2 on the team in tackles last season with 108 and 94, respectively. Homan also tied for the team lead with five interceptions; Rolle is most remembered for his game-clinching interception return on a 2-point conversion attempt by Navy in the season-opener. Looking to fill the void left by Spitler will be juniors Etienne Sabino and Tony Jackson, sophomore Storm Klein and redshirt freshman Dorian Bell.
Seniors Devon Torrence (pictured) and Chimdi Chekwa are returning starters holding down both corner spots. But the two safety positions will be the biggest question mark with the departure of all-Big Ten performer Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell. Jermale Hines, who split time with Russell at free safety last year, is the most likely candidate to take over full time. At the other safety, look for sophomore Orhian Johnson to emerge with challenges from Nate Oliver, Jamie Wood, and C.J. Barnett. Senior Tyler Moeller, limited in contact this spring, will also work at safety in the fall.
The kicking duties will most likely be handed off to Devin Barclay and Ben Buchanan. Barclay, the former MLS soccer player who drilled the game-winner against Iowa in overtime last year, filled in down the stretch in 2009 for the injured Aaron Pettrey to make 7-of-8 field goals from inside 40 yards. Buchanan punted four times behind Jon Thoma in 2009 with an average of 42.8 yards per punt.