Going into spring camp, Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer had a definite answer for who was going to be the guy behind the center: redshirt junior J.T. Barrett. But beyond Barrett at quarterback, there are many questions of who is going to replace players such as running back Ezekiel Elliott or receivers Braxton Miller and Michael Thomas.
With the Buckeyes’ annual spring game set for Saturday at 1:30 p.m., there are several young players looking to make a good impression on Meyer and the offensive coaches. OSU is looking to limit the transition phase to only the spring so it can come into the regular season ready to produce at the high level that is expected, and having the veteran Barrett still at the helm makes that slightly easier.
After former offensive coordinator Tom Herman took the head coaching job at Houston before the 2015 season, co-offensive coordinators Tim Beck and Ed Warriner were left with the tall task of replacing him. There were obvious growing pains during the 2015 season, but they seemed to recede toward the end of the year, evidenced by the dominant performances against Michigan and Notre Dame. Meyer said Beck and Warinner are still learning, but, at the same time, they’re helping grow the offense.
“(Beck) took over for a very valuable guy, and I expect more out of him and our offensive staff in general,” Meyer said. “We have to do a better job than we did a year ago. I see it happening this spring as far as the growth of the offensive staff.”
As the centerpiece of the offense, Barrett has impressed many this spring, including Meyer. Just the fact that Barrett is healthy and getting a chance to take part in these valuable reps is a benefit that he hasn’t been afforded since leaving Texas for Columbus.
“He’s having a great spring,” Meyer said. “He’s never been the quarterback in spring practice or in a spring game. We are changing some things on him that were not fundamentally where they needed to be last year. … He is a fast player and we need him to play as fast as he can.”
Barrett said he is already working on some of those fundamental changes that Meyer and the offensive staff encouraged him to make.
“I am trying to evolve my game to be able to see things faster because the game slows down as you play more,” Barrett said. “That’s just from watching film and transferring what I see onto the field.”
That comes from practice, which Barrett said is a key part of what Buckeye fans see on Saturdays in the fall.
“We don’t have game players,” Barrett said. “You have to make plays in practice in order to make plays on Saturday.”
Two players taking advantage of the practice time are fighting for the top spot in the offensive backfield: senior Bri’onte Dunn and redshirt freshman Mike Weber.
Even though Dunn has more game experience at the college level — he has 48 carries for 287 yards in his career — Meyer said both Weber, a high-profile recruit from Detroit, and Dunn are neck and neck to take Elliott’s spot.
“As of now, Bri’onte and Mike are still fighting it out, and the young guys have done a decent job,” Meyer said. “No one has separated themselves yet.”
The backup quarterback role is another position, in addition to offensive line, that still needs to be decided upon. Even though Barrett has solidified himself as the clear starter, redshirt freshman Joe Burrow is performing at a high level this spring.
“He’s doing pretty well,” Meyer said. “I don’t think he’s the athlete that J.T. is right now, but he is becoming a much better runner, his release is night and day of what it was.”
Meyer was asked what would happen if Barrett sustained an injury and Burrow had to assume the starting spot.
“We would probably lean on the tailback and high-percentage passes,” Meyer said, “But he’s getting close to being game-ready.”
With that said, a way for young players, like Burrow, to become game-ready is through the spring game. With fans breaking the national attendance record for spring games last year, Meyer is hoping that will happen again for the sake of the younger players.
“I want to see Joe Burrow and Mike Weber perform in front of 100,000 people in the stadium,” Meyer said. “They have never done it. The value is probably the greatest it’s been in my four years here to see the young players respond.”
Spring practice is not the stopping point, though, before the football season starts. It’s only a jumping off point, as there is still a lot of work to do before the team is game-ready, Barrett said.
“One of the things we like to talk about is development and developing guys, and spring ball has definitely helped,” Barrett said. “Also, we still have summer. That’s the time where I get to work with receivers, especially the ones who haven’t been in. That’s definitely going to help us later on.”