The first week of fall camp for the 2014 season is about to wrap up at Ohio State, and unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of storylines to be found in Columbus.
Whether it's health concerns over their Heisman Trophy candidate, the return of a formerly dismissed player or Urban Meyer's thoughts on various position battles, the Buckeyes have found a way to consistently manufacture headlines with three weeks to go until their season opener against Navy.
What follows is a firsthand account from inside Ohio State's Woody Hayes Athletic Center over the last week. The Buckeyes have hardly hit their stride yet, but will look to build on a strong start as two-a-day practices approach in the coming week.
As the media was welcomed to witness Ohio State's third practice of the week on Wednesday, one observation in particular was made by those in attendance: Star quarterback Braxton Miller was hardly participating.
With Miller's importance to the Buckeyes having been compared to that of LeBron James' to the Cleveland Cavaliers, it was obviously concerning to see the reigning two-time Big Ten MVP sitting out in favor of understudies Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett. But as Ohio State offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner explained, Miller's limited action on Wednesday was a part of a bigger plan to bring him back from offseason shoulder surgery.
"We have a really good plan to get him where he needs to be Aug. 30, and we don’t need to rush it. The guy has played for three years, so just bring him along like a pitcher in spring training," Warinner said. "An inning, then two innings, then three innings and by the time opening day comes, he can pitch seven innings for you or eight innings or whatever you need. So, I think we’re doing that the right way."
That seems to be in line with what Meyer stated Monday, when he said that the Buckeyes staff would be monitoring its star player's reps for the remainder of fall camp. Nonetheless, it's worth noting that Miller may not be capable of handling a full workload just yet, although he insisted to ESPN.com that's not the case.
“Nah, nothing [wrong] at all,” Miller told Austin Ward. “I’m 100 percent, just trying to stay healthy. I’ve got to get it back in shape."
The Reinstated Returns
When the Buckeyes hit the practice field for the first time on Monday, they did so alongside a familiar, albeit unexpected face.
After being dismissed from the Ohio State program in July as he faced charges of possession of drugs, drug paraphernalia and rioting/failure to disperse stemming from an incident in Lorain, Ohio, redshirt freshman defensive lineman Tracy Sprinkle was reinstated to the Buckeyes roster moments before the start of the team's first fall practice.
Days earlier, the drug-related portion of Sprinkle's charges were dropped, and he pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of failure to comply.
Sprinkle's return to the OSU program will come at a price, however, as he'll pay his way through school for the remainder of the summer before sitting out the Buckeyes' season opener against Navy.
"He was dismissed because of an arrest and some bad words was involved like cocaine or something like that and it was all dropped," Meyer explained. “He lost his scholarship for the summer. Every week, he has community service and a multitude of other things to take care of before he’ll ever see the field.”
While the 6'3", 283-pounder isn't expected to make much of an impact this season, his additional depth will be welcomed on an Ohio State defensive line that will be without suspended All-Big Ten defensive end Noah Spence for the first two games of the season.
Fear the Freshmen
A year ago, Meyer showed a reluctance to play true freshmen, ultimately redshirting 17 members of his 24-player class for various reasons. Meyer insists that this season will be different, and his actions have already proved it.
While Monday's dual-practice sessions were split between first-year players and veterans, two true freshmen were selected to work with the latter. Unlike their classmates, linebacker Raekwon McMillan and wide receiver Johnnie Dixon found themselves practicing with their older teammates on the first day of camp, after what Meyer described as "rare" offseasons for the two true freshmen.
"They act like pros," Meyer said of McMillan and Dixon. "They act like grown men, so we let them practice with the grown men today."
McMillan and Dixon aren't the only freshmen who have caught Meyer's eye thus far in fall camp, as the third-year Buckeyes head coach has also singled out Dante Booker, Kyle Berger, Sam Hubbard, Noah Brown, Parris Campbell, Marshon Lattimore and Erick Smith.
Couple that with a talented crop of redshirt freshmen who have already impressed in camp, and a youth movement in Columbus could be on the horizon.
As is the case with most fall camps, position battles have garnered significant attention, with Meyer stating that none has caught his eye more than the fight at left guard. And while Antonio Underwood may currently have a leg up on Joel Hale and Billy Price in that battle, a number of other races for starting spots have also begun to take shape.
After one week, it appears as though Jacoby Boren is ahead of Alabama graduate transfer Chad Lindsay at center, Ezekiel Elliott has emerged as the Buckeyes starting running back, Gareon Conley and Eli Apple are in a dead heat opposite Doran Grant at cornerback and Evan Spencer has been taking first-team wide receiver reps opposite Devin Smith.
Another interesting development has come at safety, where presumed starter Vonn Bell has been the odd man out, behind Tyvis Powell and Cameron Burrows.
Bell appears to have been motivated by the slight, performing admirably on Monday and recording a diving interception in a scrimmage situation on Wednesday. It's also worth noting that the sophomore missed the majority of spring practice due to an MCL injury.
With multiple scrimmages scheduled between now and the season opener, there remains plenty of time left for these position battles to play out before the Buckeyes' battle with the Midshipmen at the end of the month. But the first five days of camp have provided solid insight into who already has momentum, and who has catching up to do.
*All quotes obtained firsthand, unless noted otherwise.