Ohio State's spring game offers little insight, but Urban Meyer sees progress
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Spring games feature about as much structure as a backyard game of 500, where the kid throwing basically makes up the rules as he goes along (heavy on the “Dead or Alive” and “Mystery Box” yells). As a result, it’s hard to take too much away from them.
In the case of Ohio State and coach Urban Meyer, little was resolved and much was left open until the fall as the Gray team beat the Scarlet team, 17-7, in front of 61,058 at Ohio Stadium on Saturday. The most competitive aspect of the day occurred before the scrimmage even started, when Meyer led the team in the Circle Drill and the roster formed a giant “O” over the existing “O” at midfield.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott resisted freshman linebacker Raekwon McMillan’s push as best he could and was frustrated when McMillan started to gain ground, ending in a frustration spar. Both backup quarterbacks, Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, were given multiple chances to go one-on-one, with Jones outmuscling the redshirt freshman from Wichita Falls, Texas.
On the field, it was difficult to judge the offense with quarterback Braxton Miller sitting out the spring with a shoulder injury and H-back Dontre Wilson out with a stinger. The team was segmented into something that barely resembled what the final depth chart will look like on either side of the ball, and there are freshmen -- most notably on the offensive line -- who aren’t even on campus yet who will compete for a chance to play.
“'I’m not trying to evaluate an offense because who cares?” Meyer said after the game during his press conference. “There are guys out there that will either never play or they're not ready to play now. Jerry [Emig, associate director of athletics communications,] hands me stats and I'm not sure what to do with these. I don't care. What I do care is who is physically going to make the plays that you can. This is more an individual game today. That's what I wanted to watch. I wanted to see who was going to compete and make plays, not who is going to fit into the team concept, because we all know what we saw out there, it's not the Ohio State Buckeyes. It's a bunch of people all over the place.”
From an individual standpoint, a couple of things stood out. Elliott was given only three carries, but as evidenced by his showing against McMillan before the game, his speed and physicality put him in a separate category from the rest of Ohio State's runners. Fifth-year senior Rod Smith (who sat the game due to academics) and redshirt sophomores Bri’onte Dunn and Warren Ball, who combined for 90 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries during the spring game, will be in the mix. Yet, ultimately, their upside doesn’t match Elliott's. Meyer said he wasn’t ready to “anoint” a starter yet, but if the Buckeyes hope to replace the production they’re losing with NFL-bound tailback Carlos Hyde, their best bet would probably be Elliott.
That’s not to discount the impact Wilson or freshman Curtis Samuel could make in the fall. Those two fit a role that is always prevalent in Meyer’s offense. Wilson showed last season that he can move around the field and make every touch count, and Samuel is a similar type of player. The early enrollee can escape tackles, and on one particular catch-and-run in the red zone on Saturday, he got 13 yards out of what really should’ve been a no gain.
“The guy that really, really excites me is No. 4 Curtis Samuel,” Meyer said. “We've just got to figure out if he has the size and strength to take the pounding the running backs take.”
Jones, the odds-on favorite to back up Miller, looked dreadful in the first half. His poise was a storyline all spring -- how he’s moved beyond the “We ain’t come to play school” tweet that (fairly or unfairly) has defined his college career to this point -- but he wasn't comfortable on Saturday. Many of his throws sailed and he struggled to establish a rhythm. He finished 14-of-31 for 126 yards and took two sacks. Barrett was a bit better statistically, but he didn’t recognize pressure. His throws were often rushed or way behind his wideouts.
“The chemistry wasn’t in the huddle because of certain guys playing different positions,” Jones said, “but overall it was a good learning experience.”
Meyer said he wasn’t going to let Saturday “ruin” Jones’ spring, and all signs would point to him earning the No. 2 quarterback role come fall. Miller is the engine that makes Ohio State run, though, and Meyer has done everything he can to get him to where he needs to be from a maturity standpoint, whether it is bringing Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly to practice, simulating a Jon Gruden football camp or planning a meeting with a former NFL GM for the summer.
For the Buckeyes to bounce back from the two straight losses -- the Big Ten title game against Michigan State and the Orange Bowl against Clemson -- that ended last season, Miller has to be healthy, the offensive line must take shape and someone out of that talented-but-inconsistent batch of receivers must step up. With so much focus on the defense this spring, it’s easy to overlook the necessary offensive adjustments that could take Ohio State to an elite level. But this is an Urban Meyer offense. When the stats are real in the fall, chances are it’ll be a unit worth watching.