In the world of college football, returning contributors often find themselves with a leg up on younger players, but that isn’t necessarily the case at Ohio State.
The Buckeyes will be forced to replace their top running back and top pass catcher from 2013, and a plethora of young talent has gained praise from the coaching staff throughout the offseason. OSU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman said the added youth combined with returning players has given the team depth at skill positions it may not have had in years past.
Herman said that depth will lead to a more competitive feel around those position groups, and will force every player to earn their right to touch the ball.
“You want to go on that field and touch the football, you’re going to have to prove everyday in practice that you deserve it and that you deserve it more than these 10 guys,” he said Sunday at the annual OSU football media day.
In 2013, the Buckeye offense relied heavily on then-senior running back Carlos Hyde, who carried the ball 208 times for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns. Wide receiver Corey “Philly” Brown has graduated as well, leaving the Buckeyes without his production of 63 receptions for 771 yards and another 10 scores.
The 2014 OSU roster features experienced players at both running back and wide receiver, but that doesn’t mean the coaching staff will rule out freshman and sophomores who have seen less time on the field to replace those players.
Two true freshmen in running back Curtis Samuel and wide receiver Johnnie Dixon have repeatedly been praised by OSU coach Urban Meyer and other members of his staff. While those two may be leaned on more than other newcomers, it may be a sophomore expected to step into Hyde’s shoes –– at least to an extent.
Ezekiel Elliott has been pegged as a potential starter at running back for his second season in Columbus, and Meyer even said he is the current No. 1 despite a continuing competition. Elliott himself said his top priority is to simply make sure he is the first man up come Aug. 30 when OSU is scheduled to open the season against Navy.
“The first thing first is just securing the starting spot,” Elliott said. “We’ve got a lot of great backs in our backfield and everyone works hard, everyone brings a little bit something different to the table.”
OSU running backs coach Stan Drayton said he recognizes the need to replace Hyde, but added to expect that same exact production is “unfair.”
Even though Elliott seemingly sits ahead of Samuel and others on the depth chart, Drayton said his work ethic is rubbing off on the other running backs and helping to fuel the competition for carries.
“That alone, and the way he goes out and works, he’s constantly creating a competitive environment in that group,” Drayton said. “As long as you can keep that type of fire going, everybody in that room improves.”
Regardless of Elliott or any other running backs, Meyer made it clear that Samuel is 100 percent in the picture going into his freshman season.
“I’ve got to be careful because I do this, but I love that kid, and man, oh man, does he go hard,” Meyer said during his Sunday press conference. “He is talented and he will play this year.”
Outside of Elliott and Samuel, Meyer said redshirt-senior Rod Smith and redshirt-sophomore Bri’onte Dunn are in the running for more carries this season.
As far as the receivers are concerned, there’s a long list of players who expect to have an impact in 2014.
Senior Devin Smith had 44 catches for 660 yards and eight touchdowns last season, and senior Evan Spencer and sophomore H-back Dontre Wilson each had 22 receptions. While they contributed, none of that trio had the same impact as Brown in 2013.
Wilson, for one, said he is confident in his role replacing Brown going forward.
“As of now I start at the slot position, I’ve been starting since spring, so I’m pretty comfortable with that,” Wilson said. “I’m glad I start, I worked hard for the position, I feel like I’m really a big part of the team.”
With that slot position locked up, the outside spots would seemingly be left to Spencer and Smith. Spencer said he simply wants to “play and compete at the highest level that I am able to do,” but said he always wants to stay motivated with the competition behind him.
“I always try to keep the fire under myself…just to keep me…going and keep performing,” he said. “But I mean, yeah, competition is always there, it’s what drives out great players.”
Yet another player hoping to make his mark on the receiving corps is redshirt-junior Corey Smith, who sat out last season after transferring from Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan. Smith said he wants to have a role, but is willing to do whatever is asked of him.
“I plan on having a big role, just do my best in whatever role it is to contribute,” Smith said. “But I plan on having a big role.”
The Buckeyes will have the remainder of fall camp to sort out these competitions before taking the field for the regular season. OSU is scheduled to return to the practice field Monday for its second two-a-day session of the fall. After that, there are 11 more practice days on the schedule for camp.
OSU’s opening game against Navy is scheduled to kickoff at noon Aug. 30 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.
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