That's A Wrap
This week's This and That: one-item menu.
In my previous blogs, I've touched on a few different topics. This time there's only one thing to talk about: the Buckeyes' spring game, so we can put a wrap on spring practice. Ok, so, "game" is being generous. "Two-hand" touch is more like it. There certainly wasn't a lot of hitting and physical play in Ohio Stadium on Saturday. I know most of the nearly 48,000 fans were dying to see a rock'em, sock'em display featuring runs by J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber (I know, there's that whole quarterback thing. I'll get to that in a minute). They combined for exactly two carries (one of those was a 63-yarder by Weber, which left safety Brendan White frozen in place) as Urban Meyer and his staff went to great lengths to avoid injuries. Meyer limited the participation of many starters throughout the spring to cut down on physical wear and tear. Fine with me. If a few less reps in the spring means fresher key players to carve up the sacrificial lamb that is the winner of the Big Ten West in the conference championship game, I'm all for it.
Lots and lots to talk about. Let's get to it.
-Physical play may have been one of the things Buckeye fans wanted to see, but let's face it, THE thing fans were eager for was a firsthand look at the three-way quarterback battle which has been raging all through spring practice. Dwayne Haskins, Joe Burrow and Tate Martell have, seemingly, been dead even throughout the entirety of the session. But, after Saturday, it's obvious Haskins and Burrow have surged ahead of Martell.
While Meyer is very impressed with Martell's athleticism, he feels he needs to get better throwing the ball. This was very evident during the spring game as he showed nowhere near the accuracy of Haskins and Burrow. In fairness to Martell, he was not throwing any of the top-six receivers from last year. However, Martell is still going to get playing time in 2018. He's said there will be special packages put in for him; one of those could be a short yardage series of plays. If the redshirt freshman from Las Vegas did anything better than the duo he was competing against, it was run the read option. Time and again he sucked in the defensive end by riding the running back, only to pull the ball out and get up the field for a gain. I'm really looking forward to seeing how offensive coordinators Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson utilize this kid in the fall.
Throughout the spring, Meyer talked about how, when one quarterback looked as if he were starting to create some separation, the others would close the gap quickly. We saw exactly what he was talking about Saturday while watching Burrow and Haskins trade great throws. Just as you were marveling at Haskins dropping in a deep ball over a defender to Binjimin Victor, Burrow does the same to DeMario McCall. Both have a command of the offense, both are leaders and both will make the Buckeyes a better offensive team than they've been over the last few seasons. You need a microscope to see any separation between them, a very powerful microscope.
Next week, Urban Meyer and his two offensive coordinators will start the process of figuring out which of their talented signal callers will be listed first on the depth chart. Under normal circumstances, Meyer would not feel an urgency to name a starter; he'd table it until fall camp and name a starter just before the opening game. But, the elephant in the room is a possibility of a transfer by Burrow. He graduates in a few weeks and has said he will discuss his options with his family. When interviewed after the game by ESPN, Meyer said, “I love Joe Burrow. He’s a loyal soldier, and I think I owe him an answer. Our staff owes him an answer. And I don’t know what that is right now. (He’s) a guy who gives so much to our program.” Regardless of who the staff chooses, the Buckeyes will have a talented player leading them. I’d rather have this problem than Michigan’s. They have little talent at the position.
-The biggest surprise to come from Saturday’s game was the flip-flop of offensive tackles Isaiah Prince and Thayer Munford. Throughout the spring Munford was on the right side, Prince on the left. When the first team offense took the field for their opening series Saturday, they had switched. No idea if this is going to be the plan heading into fall camp. If so, Munford has a lot of work to do after struggling, for the most part, to block Chase Young and Nick Bosa. A lot of offensive tackles will struggle to keep those two from decapitating their quarterback, but this is one of the things I was interested to see in the spring game; how would Munford perform against Young and Bosa. As we saw with Prince struggling at the right tackle spot in 2016, if you have just one weak link on your offensive line, it can cause a ton of issues for your offense.
One thing Meyer is happy with, along the offensive line, is depth. He feels he finally has a good two-deep line. Although, he did say they are still searching for that third tackle. Also, Meyer said Malcom Pridgeon has made a real push for playing time. The junior college transfer redshirted in 2016 due to a knee injury and spent last season on special teams. With 2017 starters Michael Jordan and Branden Bowen due back when fall camp begins, look for Pridgeon to be the first guy in line to spell either of them
-The Buckeye boss acknowledged Brady Taylor at center and Luke Farrell at tight end are the starters “for now.” He said it is still very close between Taylor and redshirt freshman Josh Myers. However, Farrell appears to be the clear leader at his position. Rashod Berry, the only other tight end with measurable game experience, did not play Saturday after getting banged up a bit over the final few practices. But, I think it’s obvious Farrell had the job won before Saturday.
Many observers feel Pete Werner is really pushing Keandre Jones at weakside linebacker (the WILL position). So much so, Werner may be making it nearly impossible to keep him off the field for regular snaps. Meyer loves his intensity and how he goes hard every play. While I think Malik Harrison has locked down the strongside (the SAM position), it looks like Baron Browning is going to push Justin Hilliard right up to the opening game for the middle (the MIKE position).
-At the beginning of spring practice, Urban Meyer was most concerned about who will take over at center for the departed Billy Price. Which position concerns him most now? Who will line up opposite of All-America-in-waiting Jordan Fuller at safety. Sophomore Isaiah Pryor and junior Jahsen Wint appear to be the favorites right now, but this is a long way from being settled. Amir Riep, who made a name for himself on special teams last season, was moved from cornerback in the off season and is still learning the position. Riep is that physical type of player, who can also cover a receiver, you need at safety. Class of 2018 recruit Josh Proctor will join the team when practice begins in August, but I'm guessing Meyer will not want to start a true freshman at that position unless he has to.
-Early enrollee running back Master Teague certainly passes the “look test.” He does not look
like someone who should still be in high school and he certainly ran like someone who isn’t in high school. I like this kid a lot and can see why Antonio Williams, who is third on the depth chart, has made a leap in performance and attitude. Williams looks like a different player for sure. But, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Teague redshirt because of how crowded things are in front of him.
-How much fun was it watching wide receiver Jaylen Harris and cornerback Marcus Williamson battle each other? Each had their share of getting the better of the other. It was certainly a glimpse of the future for the Buckeyes watching those two go at it the entire game. Meyer said Harris is another who is making that push for playing time.
The only one of the top-six receivers to play the entire game on Saturday was Binjimin Victor. Meyer feels he has a ton of potential, but must get better and more consistent. The junior from Florida had far too many drops last season. If that begins to happen again in 2018, you'll probably see Harris replace him in the rotation. But, on Saturday, Victor caught five passes and looked improved over what we saw last fall. Ok, yes, he caught those passes against early enrollee Sevyn Banks, but he didn't drop any balls. Hopefully, Victor is one of those guys who finally makes that big leap in performance.
-Demario McCall had a big day catching a couple of touchdown passes. Meyer has already said he will play a prominent role returning kicks, but is there enough room for him to get regular reps at H-back? Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill each return for another season and I'm not convinced the head coach will want to rotate three at this position. But, McCall's explosiveness may force offensive coordinators Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson to figure out a way to make him part of the offense.
-Meyer said the team will use the same three-man rotation at cornerback they used last year. Kendall Sheffield, Damon Arnette, both a part of the 2017 rotation, will be joined by Jeffrey Okudah. Urbz left the door open to using a fourth in the roatation if one of the other cornerbacks shows himself worth of playing time. Read that to mean Shaun Wade had an excellent spring and could force defensive coordinators Greg Schiano and Alex Grinch to expand the rotation.
-Who had the best spring of all the Buckeyes? According to Urban Meyer it's defensive tackle Dre'Mont Jones. The coaching staff has each practice rep charted in a win/loss format. Meyer believes Jones didn't lose many. You have no idea how happy I am this kid came back instead of bolting for Roger Goodell's football league. Jones has showed improved pass rush skills and is expected to be part of the Rushmen package this upcoming season.
-Kicker Sean Nuernberger looks like he’s finally developed the long range leg the Buckeyes have needed. On Saturday, the fifth-year senior connected on increasingly longer field goals; the last of which was a 53-yarder. Kicking a 25-yard field goal because the offense stalled at the eight is frustrating; drilling one from fifty while an opposing defense is celebrating, because they think they’ve forced a punt, makes you smile. Big legs are a weapon.
-This team appears to be talented, deep and have a ton of potential. But, there is still a lot of work to be done if they’re going to compete for a playoff spot or even a place in the Big Ten championship game and Meyer knows it. Because of the amount of inexperience, he feels this team is nowhere near as far along as last year’s at this point. If you need any proof of why he feels this way, take a look at Mike Weber’s long run. At least two projected starters were woefully out of position on the play (Chase Young and Justin Hilliard). That’s just one example, but I think it illustrates there is work to be done once August gets here.
Watching the spring game reminded me of one thing: I do enjoy watching Buckeye football. By this time next week we’ll, hopefully, have some news on the quarterback situation. A lot of the pictures I used come courtesy of Eleven Warriors. Those guys do a great job covering the Buckeyes on a daily basis.