Ohio State Football: Complete Spring Game Preview
When Ohio State takes the field Saturday to kick off its annual spring game, Urban Meyer will be showcasing a new culture for his football team.
The Buckeyes haven't lost a regular-season game since 2011, but they're trying to rinse the taste of defeat out of their mouths after suffering back-to-back postseason losses.
That belief led to a defensive makeover. New coaches and a new scheme will have the Buckeyes playing much more aggressively, especially in pass coverage.
On the other side of the ball, Ohio State is replacing four starting offensive linemen, its leading rusher and leading receiver.
The new-look Buckeyes are hoping to jump-start a title run this Saturday. Here's a complete preview of Ohio State's spring game.
Date: Saturday, April 12
Time: 1:30 p.m. ET
Place: Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
TV: Big Ten Network
Named the 2014 Life Sports Spring Game, Ohio State will be back in "The 'Shoe" after minor renovations forced the Buckeyes south to Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium last year.
The Ohio State football team was split into two smaller squads Thursday night, with cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs and running backs coach Stan Drayton serving as acting head coaches. The teams were created to pit the best units against each other, so one features most of the first-team offense, while the other has most of the primary defenders.
The spring game will pit those two teams against each other, using a scrimmage format with 10-minute quarters and no kickoffs. If it follows the format of spring games past under Urban Meyer, it will start off with the "circle drill" at the 50-yard line.
Traditional scoring will be used, and the losing team will be punished with a community service project of cleaning up the "Buckeye Grove," which honors Ohio State's first-team All-American selections.
Position Battles to Watch
Ohio State needs a safety net for the oft-injured Braxton Miller, and with Kenny Guiton gone, the competition between redshirt sophomore Cardale Jones and redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett has been fierce.
Jones has pulled ahead—Meyer has raved about his strong arm and maturity—but Barrett isn't out of the picture yet.
During Ohio State's last scrimmage, however, Jones showed nerves that affected his play. This Saturday, he'll need to show more resolve to hold off Barrett—with the added stress of having thousands of fans watching his every move.
Last year, Ezekiel Elliott emerged as the top running back behind seniors Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall.
That gave him a leg up as the Buckeyes entered spring practice, and he has done nothing to lose his status as the top ball-carrier. That doesn't mean the competition is over, however.
Meyer told the media on Wednesday that senior Rod Smith has been catching up academically, so the running back pecking order is Elliott, Bri'onte Dunn and freshman Curtis Samuel.
Even with Smith out of the rotation, Ohio State's deep stable of running backs will be on full display.
McMillan's age hasn't been a factor in his rise this spring. The 6'2", 242-pound standout looks like a junior, and his incredible speed and strength have helped him make an instant impact.
His biggest hurdle is learning Ohio State's playbook, something that has given Grant the edge this spring. But McMillan will get the chance to run with the defense-heavy team on Saturday, so Ohio State fans will get a good look at the touted freshman.
The New-Look Defense
Chris Ash was brought in to be the co-defensive coordinator alongside Luke Fickell, and he's leading a defensive overhaul for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State ranked No. 110 nationally in pass defense last year, allowing 268 yards per game. Ash's aggressive pass defense has the Buckeyes playing press coverage exclusively—as opposed to the zone coverage that gave receivers a 10-yard cushion last season—in hopes of preventing easy completions.
"This defense is all about being fearless and playing aggressively," Bell said. "You'll see the difference next year, I can promise you that."
With the spring game Saturday, Buckeyes fans won't have to wait that long.
The Perimeter-Oriented Offense
Ohio State's offense was so successful last year because of how effective the running game was. The Buckeyes averaged 308 rushing yards per game, which ranked fifth in the country.
Running back Carlos Hyde and four senior starters along the offensive line, all of whom were largely responsible for that success, have graduated.
According to Eric Seger of The Lantern, that has Urban Meyer focusing on Ohio State's new offensive strength—perimeter speed:
It’s going to be a different … we’re going to have to lean on some perimeter ways of getting first downs and all that. Where, last year when you rushed for 300 yards a game, it’s because that offensive line. We have other weapons.
The Buckeyes have a bevy of playmakers, highlighted by Dontre Wilson, Devin Smith, Michael Thomas, Corey Smith, Jalin Marshall and Curtis Samuel.
Without Hyde and those seniors in the trenches, Meyer wants to showcase Ohio State's speed.
What the Experts Are Saying
ESPN's Big Ten blog visited Ohio State this week and came away very impressed with Raekwon McMillan: "Freshman LB Raekwon McMillan is a beast. Hard to believe he's a freshman, Lot to learn still, but he's a specimen."
Patrick Murphy of The Ozone writes that Braxton Miller's injury might serve as a blessing in disguise because he can sit back and really observe what the defense is doing: "Miller has developed tremendously in three years as the Buckeyes' starting signal caller, but he has spent little time sitting and watching. His most important lessons may ultimately come while unable to play."
Ari Wasserman of The Plain Dealer writes that the spring game is a big moment for a number of players who are fighting for starting positions, especially along the offensive line:
Meyer said the only two players on the offensive line who have solidified starting spots are right tackle Taylor Decker and right guard Pat Elflein, so this game will be crucial for position battles. Remember, the second-team offensive line will be facing a rather capable defensive line, so we should learn a lot in four quarters. How will players like Darryl Baldwin, Jacoby Boren and Antonio Underwood stack up? They can't hide.
Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors writes about Ohio State's defensive overhaul:
Saturday marks the first public display of the new-look secondary. Daily challenges are meant to test the unit and fully prepare them for games. Coaches want to mimic game situations with the goal of making it an unpleasant event for pass-catchers by putting them on the offensive.
Ohio State has had some back luck on the injury front.
The most significant injury occurred before spring drills even began. Braxton Miller had minor shoulder surgery in February stemming from an injury he suffered during Ohio State's Orange Bowl loss to Clemson. He hasn't participated in spring drills and won't play in the spring game, but the coaches have kept him engaged by forcing him to take mental reps.
Starting safety Vonn Bell went down with an MCL sprain during the team's first spring practice, a setback that will sideline him until the start of summer conditioning. Just two weeks later, Jalin Marshall underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus, and he too will be out until the summer.
Last week, the Buckeyes lost starting tight end Jeff Heuerman for the remainder of spring practice after he had surgery to repair a sprained foot.
While all four are expected back at full health by the fall, Meyer and the Buckeyes don't want to add to this list on Saturday.
David Regimbal is the lead Ohio State football writer for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.
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