A season of change in Columbus promises to mean more time is necessary for player assessment than normal for the Ohio State football team.
New coaches — including four on the defensive side — need to learn what they can about the returning players, and a handful of newcomers are working their way into the program on both sides of the ball this spring.
Injuries, some minor and others more severe, also affect who is available and who is not on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis.
First-year head coach Ryan Day said last week the plan is to develop a list of players who are game ready then figure out how to use them.
"In a perfect world have two deep and a spare, a pair and a spare,” he said, trotting out a saying that was an old favorite of former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel. “Ideally, that’s what you do.
“Now, who is really game ready? That’s what it will come down to in the preseason. We’ll make a list of guys we think are game ready, and if they’re game ready when we play.
But everyone wants to know who is going to be playing when the games start for real in August, right?
So far, there have been some hints via interviews and public viewings of practice.
Here is the picture at each position group as the annual spring game nears.
Justin Fields, a transfer from Georgia, has gotten most of the first-team reps during practices that are open to the media, but Day continues to insist the sophomore is in a competition with redshirt freshman Matthew Baldwin to replace Dwayne Haskins as the starter.
J.K. Dobbins is back as the undisputed top dog after sharing carries with Mike Weber last season, but who will back him up?
Redshirt freshman Master Teague has the experience edge over Marcus Crowley, who just got to Columbus in January, but both have shown off why they were four-star recruits.
Junior Demario McCall, who has moved from running back to receiver and now back to running back, is also an intriguing option as perhaps something of an Eric Metcalf-type weapon in the running and passing game.
Here’s another area where experienced veterans are on top of the depth chart, but there is no lack of intriguing options behind rising seniors Austin Mack, Binjimin Victor and K.J. Hill.
Jaylen Harris, Chris Olave, Ellijah Gardiner, C.J. Saunders, Jaelen Gill, Garrett Wilson and Garyn Prater have all been mentioned by Day or receivers coach Brian Hartline as being in the mix.
With four veterans back and no newcomers, the intrigue surrounding this position is if the foursome of Luke Farrell, Jake Hausmann, Rashod Berry and Jeremy Ruckert can look good enough to the coaching staff to earn them more time on the field in expanded packages this fall.
So far, returns are encouraging.
This all-important group has had more upheaval than most with four starters having graduated or left school early and the fifth, Thayer Munford, out following an offseason surgery.
Josh Myers appears to have locked down the center role while Wyatt Davis, Gavin Cupp and Branden Bowen at guard and Bowen, Josh Alabi and Nicholas Petit-Frere in the mix at tackle.
As usual, coach Larry Johnson has an embarrassment of riches.
Behind returning starters Jonathon Cooper and Chase Young is a bevy of second-year standouts looking to make the next step at end: Tyreke Smith, Tyler Friday, Javonte Jean-Baptiste and Alex Williams. True freshmen Zach Harrison and Noah Potter have impressed at times, too.
At nose tackle, Wayne graduate Robert Landers has been limited by nagging injuries, but Johnson has sung the praises of Davon Hamilton, Tommy Togiai and Antwuan Jackson.
The other tackle spot is three or four deep with converted end Jashon Cornell, Taron Vincent, Haskell Garrett and Jerron Cage.
Like offensive line, this picture is somewhat muddled by who is and who is not available.
Tuf Borland and Barron Browning have missed time with injuries, but new linebackers coach Al Washington was effusive in praising senior Malik Harrison early in the spring while sophomores Teradja Mitchell and Dallas Gant have gotten first-team looks at the two inside spots in what figures to be a modified 4-3 defense.
Junior Pete Werner is back at the outside “Sam” linebacker, where sophomore K’Vaughn Pope has also been spotted, but how much that position is used in the new defense remains to be seen.
New assistants Jeff Hafley and Matt Barnes have a lot to sort out here after a disappointing season by the group collectively.
Damon Arnette and Jeffrey Okudah give them veterans to lean on at cornerback with Shaun Wade as a versatile option at cornerback, nickel back or safety and several youngsters vying to fill out the two deep.
Starting safety Jordan Fuller has been out all spring while veterans Brendon White and Jahsen Wint work at a new position called “Bullet” that is part linebacker, part safety and part defensive end.
That has created room for Isaiah Pryor, Josh Proctor and Amir Riep to get more looks along the last line of defense.
So, who will play this fall?
Day wants to find time for as many players who earn it as possible.
If more than 22 players deserve playing time, well, all the better.
“It was the same philosophy last year on offense,” Day said. “You say, ‘Well, don’t take Parris (Campbell) out of the game,’ (but) we had K.J. 'Don’t take Terry (McLaurin) out of the game,’ and we had Johnnie (Dixon). So those guys kept rolling over and over again. It’s the same thing with our D line. If they start coming out in waves like that, by the time you get to the fourth quarter and you’ve got guys who are fresh coming at you, it makes a difference.”
While managing player workloads has become an area of emphasis across the country in recent years, Day also noted the team has a pair of open Saturdays to plan for this fall.
“That being said, our great players have to play great,” he said. “We talk to our team about that all the time. Whether it is football, basketball or any sport, in order to win championships your veteran players have to play that way, so that’s a challenge, but we’ll make that list in the preseason. Figure out who’s game ready and go from there.”
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