The Buckeyes kicked off the 2014 season last week when they took the practice field for the first time since the season ending loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Now that practice is underway there are plenty of storylines surrounding the Buckeyes. How will injuries affect the team’s preparation? The linebackers and secondary are essentially entirely up for grabs as underclassmen look to steal spots from the “rightful” senior members of the team. Can Chris Ash fix the secondary? Can Herman and Meyer build another formidable offensive line? All of this and more are going to be key for the Buckeyes as they look to kick off the 2014 season and shake off the back to back losses to end Meyer’s 2nd season at the helm.
Ohio State suffered a couple of key injuries prior to and during spring drills to Braxton Miller and Vonn Bell. Miller underwent minor shoulder surgery and will not be physically participating in spring drills. He has been on the field and should be playing the leader role to J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones as they fight for the #2 spot on the depth chart. The silver lining to Braxton’s injury is the amount of reps J.T. and Cardale are getting with the first team. Ohio State had the luxury of having the best backup QB in the nation last year in Kenny Guiton. Braxton has a history of missing time in the regular season and having the backup QB developed will be key.
The bigger injury blow was to Vonn Bell, who had surgery to repair his MCL after the first day of practice. Bell was a five-star recruit in the 2013 class and saw limited playing time during the regular season on special teams. He got the start in the Orange Bowl and made one of the best defensive plays of the season for Ohio State in a “tip-to-self interception” at the goal line. He is still just a sophmore this season (it showed in the Orange Bowl as Sammy Watkins burned him a couple of times during the game) and missing spring reps will hurt his development significantly more than it would Braxton. Hopefully Bell will be healed in time to make it back for the summer and become the anchor in the back end of the secondary the Buckeyes needed so desperately last year.
Last year the Ohio State defense was the reason they failed to gain national respect and fell short of the national title game. The offense set all sorts of school records, while the defense seemed to regress as the season went on. The secondary was often confused, and mediocre offenses were able to crack big plays against the Buckeyes. The fans in Columbus certainly are not used to not fielding a nationally elite defense and will expect Meyer & Co. to fix the Silver Bullets.
First and foremost, the secondary needs to get its act together. The defense will field at least three new starters in the secondary, with Doran Grant being the lone returning starter (likely). Grant will be expected to replace Roby as the units’ leading cornerback. Grant showed flashes at times of being a good defensive back and it’ll be interesting to see if under Ash’ tutelage if he can take that next step. Opposite him, look for Armani Reeves to win the spot, but it could be contested by Tyvis Powell, and redshirt freshmen Eli Apple and Gareon Conley. At safety, Vonn Bell is the heavy favorite to win the free safety spot, while strong safety is a whole other story. Cam Burrows is likely the favorite, but the spot is up for grabs between half a dozen players as far as I’m concerned.
For the linebackers, Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry are the only returning players. Both enter the spring as #1 on the depth chart for MIKE and SAM spots respectively. Perry appears to be locked in as the SAM, but watch out for stud freshman McMillan to challenge former five-star recruit, Grant for the MIKE position. Trey Johnson and Darren Lee, both in their second year with the Buckeyes are expected to battle for the WILL position.
The defensive line was hardly the issue last year and look for Spence (suspended for the first two games), Bennett, Washington, and Bosa to all retain their starter status and continue to play well up front.
Altogether, it is certainly a transition year for the Buckeyes’ defensive roster, the new comers are all Meyer’s recruits and are highly touted. It’s time for Fickell, with the help of newly hired Chris Ash to step up and send a unit out there worthy of the Silver Bullets title. The Buckeyes are going to score plenty of points as long as Meyer is running the offense, the defense can afford to be a more aggressive and attacking unit than it was the past two seasons. Hopefully this is the season where the Buckeyes can field a complete team and dominate on both sides of the ball, not just the offense.
Speaking of the offense, check back next week for a look at Ohio State’s offense during the spring drills.