One inevitable thing in college athletics is change.
Every player must leave eventually and be replaced with a new face on the roster. The Ohio State football team is no different.
Players like Ryan Shazier, Bradley Roby, Jack Mewhort and Carlos Hyde are gone but as spring practice opened Tuesday, young players had their first shot at replacing big names from prior seasons.
Although the final depth chart isn’t likely to be decided until fall when the season is close, spring practice is a time for the coaches to assess a player’s abilities.
Coach Urban Meyer made it clear after practice Tuesday he wants a team that can play with more intensity than in years past.
“I want an angry, blue-collar team and I’m hoping … I don’t know, it’s still early. I’m hoping that’s what we have,” Meyer said. “Last year, it was 12-0, you’re preseason this or this. I haven’t had many people ask about our preseason (ranking), not that I know what it is.”
Meyer said the team is “just trying to find out who’s going to play for us in some spots.”
One of those big spots was on the offensive line, which lost four of five regular starters from last season in Mewhort, Corey Linsley, Marcus Hall and Andrew Norwell.
The unit’s single returning starter is junior Taylor Decker, who is slated to take over at left tackle now that Mewhort is gone.
Redshirt-sophomore Pat Elflein will likely slot into the starting lineup after impressing in place of a suspended Hall for the majority of the Michigan game and for the entire Big Ten Championship game against Michigan State.
After the performance against the Wolverines, Linsley called Elflein “un-freaking-believable,” also saying that he thinks Elflein has a great career ahead of him at OSU.
“All year I’ve said to him, I’ve said ‘Man. One day you’re going to be a hell of a player. You’re going to get drafted real high,’” Linsley said of Elflein. “He’s going to get all these accolades and stuff because he’s a heck of a player.”
Who will likely fill the remaining three starting spots on the offensive line alongside Elflein and Decker is something that’s not yet set in stone, with only a handful of players having ever seen the field as Buckeyes.
Four players took reps with the first team during spring practice, with junior Jacoby Boren at center, redshirt-senior Darryl Baldwin at right tackle and senior Joel Hale and redshirt-junior Antonio Underwood splitting time at left guard.
At running back, sophomore Ezekiel Elliott, who finished 2013 as the fifth-leading rusher for OSU and posted a 162-yard performance against Florida A&M, looks to have the inside track to the starting job. Elliott took a majority of the first-team snaps, with numerous other backs getting the occasional rep.
Although quarterback Braxton Miller is set to be back for his senior season, he lost a major weapon in wide receiver Corey “Philly” Brown, who led the team in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns through the air in 2013.
Meyer said there are some young receivers who he wants to see have the chance to practice without being limited by the coaching staff.
“(Freshman Johnnie Dixon) looks the part, I wish he did better today. I’m going to grab him today … and I just want guys to play. It’s 12 yards instead of 10 yards,” Meyer said. “I’ll put that on the coach. Don’t restrict players, let them go and have fun and play the game … (redshirt-freshman) Jalin Marshall today, completely different football player than he was a year ago. Why? I put that on the coach. Let the kid go play … Great looking dude, but he didn’t play great.”
Although the offense is dealing with some turnover, it is the defense that comes into camp with the most question marks. Although the entire starting defensive line is still intact, the defense must replace five regular starters from last season’s squad that finished the year 112th in the country in pass defense, Shazier among them.
Meyer said the biggest concern in terms of team depth was the linebackers, but he was impressed with some of the younger players.
“I was really impressed with (freshman) Raekwon (McMillan) today, did a really good job,” Meyer said. “Moved around, very mature … very positive, of what I saw. (Sophomore) Darron Lee, out there playing walk out (outside) backer was very impressive. He triggers.”
Meyer added he liked what he saw of the secondary, who looks to replace safeties Christian Bryant, Corey “Pitt” Brown and C.J. Barnett and cornerback Bradley Roby.
“I like our safeties. We only have three of them right now,” Meyer said. “Four would be (redshirt-junior) Ron Tanner, but Ron just packs some physical skills. Great, tough kid but I like (sophomore) Vonn (Bell), (sophomore) Tyvis (Powell) and (sophomore) Cam Burrows. They’re quick twitch, trigger guys back there. I think (senior cornerback) Doran Grant is a different player than he was last year. I’m seeing much more aggressive play out of him.”
OSU is scheduled to continue practice Thursday in preparation for the 2014 season opener, which is slated for Aug. 30 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore against Navy. Kickoff is scheduled for noon.