With “Hell Week” — a week that included three two-a-day training sessions — in the past, the Ohio State football team can fully turn its attention to its Sept. 7 opener at Virginia Tech.
The Buckeyes might have won the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship, but as the Hokies proved to OSU in last year’s 35-21 loss in the home opener, any team has a lot of work to do to get into anything close to peak form.
Coach Urban Meyer brought his team into fall camp this year with the goal of not only making it two for two in CFP titles, but finding that championship mode much closer to the entrance of the season.
Here are five things to watch out for as OSU makes the shift from training camp to game practice.
Monitoring health: It is unreasonable to think that any team could make it through high-intensity preseason training without some bumps and bruises, and the Buckeyes are no exception. While there have not yet been any injuries as costly as the season-ending shoulder injury then-senior quarterback Braxton Miller sustained shortly before last year’s opener, Meyer named several players on Saturday who have been recently held out of practice with ailments.
- Redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Michael Hill (knee)
- Redshirt senior offensive lineman Joel Hale (calf)
- Redshirt junior wide receiver Michael Thomas (foot)
- Redshirt junior running back Bri’onte Dunn (foot)
- Senior defensive lineman Tommy Schutt (undisclosed)
- Senior defensive lineman Adolphus Washington (undisclosed)
- Redshirt senior quarterback/H-back Braxton Miller (hamstring)
- Freshman running back Mike Weber (meniscal tear)
Shallow lines: When asked on Saturday about what the biggest areas of concern on the roster are for the Buckeyes, Meyer immediately gave two: backup offensive line and interior defensive line.
While “The Slobs” of the offensive line were instrumental in OSU’s run to the title last year — and only Darryl Baldwin departing school and being replaced by redshirt senior Chase Farris at right tackle — the depth should one of the starting five go down is shaky. Sophomore Jamarco Jones played in 10 games as a true freshman last season and should be considered the sixth man, but the experience beyond him gives Meyer reason to pray for health.
On the defensive line, the talent of the interior is a concern after the departure of Michael Bennett. Washington is a potential All-American and should do a lot of damage as a run stopper, but the other spot is still in question. Based off Meyer’s comments on Saturday, it appears that Schutt will get the start in the opener next to Washington, but despite Meyer raving about Schutt’s performance in camp, how much can the Buckeyes count on a player who has only made two starts and 17 tackles in three years of play?
Room to improve: The Buckeyes may have a core group of potential award winners and All-Americans, but that doesn’t mean younger or less experienced players can’t use the fall camp to turn coaches’ heads and make a name to enter the rotation. On Saturday, Meyer named seven players who he considered the most improved and impressive in camp: Schutt, sophomore wide receiver Noah Brown, sophomore cornerback Gareon Conley, Farris, Dunn, redshirt freshman defensive lineman Sam Hubbard and sophomore defensive lineman Jalyn Holmes.
Schutt, Conley and Farris are in line to become first-year starters, while Meyer said on Saturday that Hubbard is expected to start in place of the suspended junior defensive end Joey Bosa against Virginia Tech.
Starting early: It is very easy to remember OSU coming up flat in their home opener loss to Virginia Tech last year. But the week before, in the season opener at Navy, the Buckeyes weren’t much more impressive. OSU trailed 7-6 at the half but settled in enough to shakily beat the Midshipmen 34-17.
Now, Meyer is moving the early focus from conditioning to game planning in order to avoid similar early-season rust.
“We actually started a little bit earlier, obviously we open up with them and we have a lot of respect for who they are, and they beat us,” Meyer said about Virginia Tech. “So we’ve been working on them a little bit, but it’s going to be in our style, over half our practice will be devoted to Virginia Tech now.”
The other starting battle: The battle for the starting quarterback between redshirt junior Cardale Jones and redshirt sophomore J.T. Barrett has been the talk of OSU and much of the nation for several months. But now, with that battle still ongoing, a second one-on-one fight for a starting spot has opened up.
Sophomore Sean Nuernberger and redshirt senior Jack Willoughby have been duking it out to try to land the starting kicker spot.
Willoughby transferred to OSU from Duke in June and is expected to be used for kickoffs, but Meyer said he has entered the field goal discussion as well. According to Meyer, Willoughby turned heads in practice by hitting consecutive 60-yard field goals. Nuernberger hit 13 of 20 field goals last season and a perfect 89 of 89 extra points, while Willoughby was only used as a kickoff specialist at Duke behind all-American Ross Martin.