Ohio State needs newcomers to contribute, veterans to lead

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer surveys the crowd before playing Michigan last November.
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer surveys the crowd before playing Michigan last November.

COLUMBUS — It starts today, football with a chance of snow.

Ohio State is set to open spring practice earlier than ever, which is fitting because few seasons have been more anticipated.

After finishing 12-0 in Urban Meyer’s first year, the Buckeyes are vying for an encore — and the expectations are outsized. They will begin the season with a quarterback on the Heisman Trophy short list, a team billed as a national title contender, and history on their side. Meyer’s second year at Utah and Florida, respectively, ended in perfection and a national title, the same outcome of Jim Tressel’s follow-up season in 2002.

Yet none of this guarantees anything. If the Buckeyes "may have been the most flawed undefeated team in the history of college football," as offensive coordinator Tom Herman told reporters last month, many of the same flaws remain.

Here are five questions OSU hopes spring practice will begin to answer:

1. Will the Buckeyes keep their edge? A year ago, Meyer wanted and got an angry team bent on restoring respect to a program walloped by scandal and on-field disappointment.

What sort of bunch will he have after a perfect season?

OSU needs new veterans to start the fire previously kindled by galvanizing leaders like defensive end John Simon. One candidate is All-Big Ten left tackle Jack Mewhort, a fifth-year senior set to anchor an offensive line with four returning starters.

"Jack Mewhort is already there, he's already a leader," Meyer said of the St. John’s Jesuit graduate. "We're asking him to take over a position that maybe a Simon took, and that's the overall heart. He's a tough guy."

2. Can a new-look defense restock? The Buckeyes’ four leading tacklers are back. The issue: No one else is.

Standout junior linebacker Ryan Shazier is their only returning front-seven starter, though a wave of second-year linemen from Meyer’s touted first recruiting class will help fill the void.

As for linebacker, who wins the battle to fill the two spots alongside Shazier is anybody’s guess. Possibilities include Curtis Grant, once ranked by Scout.com as the nation’s top overall recruit, and sophomores Josh Perry and Camren Williams. But they need to start proving themselves now. Newly signed five-star prospect Mike Mitchell and former Auburn commit Trey Johnson should challenge for immediate time.

3. How about the passing game? For all of junior quarterback Braxton Miller’s gifts, he was 43rd nationally in pass efficiency last season, while the Buckeyes’ average of 181.5 passing yards per game ranked eighth in the Big Ten.

Can Miller, aided by offseason training with quarterback guru George Whitfield, Jr., take the next step? And can he get a little help?

Ohio State’s search for playmakers on an offense that returns nine starters continues. Though senior Corey Brown (669 receiving yards) and junior Devin Smith (618 yards) showed potential last year, Miller too often had nowhere to throw. Look for incoming receiver recruits James Clark, Corey Smith, and Jalin Marshall, along with hybrid back Dontre Wilson, to help open up the passing game.

4. Who the heck will punt? Seriously. Know any strong-footed recent high school graduates with a minimum of Pop Warner punting experience? Give OSU a call.

After Johnny Towsend had a zero-hour change of heart and signed with Florida, the Buckeyes begin spring without a punter. Kicker Drew Basil will get the first crack but also watch out for freshman receiver Frank Epitropoulos, a two-time all-state punter at Upper Arlington. Another option: first-year walk-on Jake Russell, a Twinsburg native who originally committed to play soccer at Bowling Green State University.

Or, to the delight of that guy who rains down boos from the C deck when OSU doesn’t go for it on fourth-and-12 at its own 20 in the first quarter, the Buckeyes just won’t punt. OK, probably not.

 Meyer prefers not to redshirt freshmen, so he will b5: Can the freshmen step up?e looking for early contributions from a 24-member class rated No. 1 nationally by Scout and second by Rivals.com.

Five of them are already on campus: Cornerbacks Eli Apple and Cam Burrows, defensive linemen Tyquan Lewis and Tracy Sprinkle, and quarterback J.T. Barrett.

Barrett, a dual threat from Wichita Falls, Texas, who is rehabilitating a torn ACL suffered last fall, is seen as Miller’s heir, while Apple and Burrows could be in the immediate plans. The four-star cornerbacks will compete to replace Travis Howard, though second-team roles behind lockdown senior Bradley Roby and Doran Grant are more realistic.

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.