Spring practice is underway for Ohio State as the Buckeyes took the field Monday morning for the first of 15 workouts.
The practice, which was open to the media in its entirety, served as the first glimpse of who will be in the mix to replace the high-level talent lost from last year’s 13-1 team.
Among the positions that will be up for grabs throughout the spring —and possibly into fall camp — are two spots along the offensive line. With left guard Jonah Jackson and right tackle Branden Bowen now hoping to hear their name called in the NFL Draft next month, the competition will be aplenty to solidify the offensive front.
Coaches raved last season about how advanced then-freshman center Harry Miller already was by the time fall camp rolled around. Offensive line coach Greg Studrawa even went as far as to say he would be comfortable with Miller being forced into the first-team role if anything were to happen to Josh Myers.
Fortunately for Ohio State, Myers was healthy all season and appears to be primed for an All-American season this upcoming year. That meant Miller was relegated to backup duties last season, but it looks like he will get the first shot at replacing Jackson as he received the first reps with the offense during Monday’s practice.
Redshirt sophomore Matthew Jones, a highly-touted recruit in his own right, also received reps with the first-team at left guard.
At right tackle, it has been assumed that Nick Petit-Frere would step right into the role after narrowly missing out on winning the job over Bowen last fall. Petit-Frere received the first reps during practice, but it is clear he will be pushed all offseason by Paris Johnson Jr., the prized true freshman recruit from Cincinnati.
Following practice, Day said of Miller sliding to guard, “We’re trying to find the best five guys to play. And Thayer (Munford), Josh (Myers) and Wyatt (Davis) are obviously returning. So now we’ve got to find (starters) four and five. However that shakes out, we’ll try to figure that out.”
Day added, “But certainly don’t want to put guys into roles and then not have the best five guys on the field. So, whatever that is, we’re going to try Harry at guard and see if he can be (starter) four. And then figure out who plays at right tackle, that’s the idea.”
As for Johnson, Day said, “He’s very, very talented. He’s got a lot of ability. And if he’s the best player, he’s going to play.”
In the receiving corp, the loss of K.J. Hill, who set the program’s all-time catches record last season, leaves a significant hole in the slot for the Buckeyes. On Monday, it was a surprise candidate who appeared to be first in line to replace Hill. Sophomore Garrett Wilson, who burst onto the scene last season as a dynamic playmaker on the outside, started at the slot during first-team reps and looked smooth in doing so.
Wilson was backed up at slot by Demario McCall, who is making the switch to receiver, and two true freshmen in Mookie Cooper and Jaxon Smith-Njigba.
Day said of the decision to move Wilson inside, “I think when you look at his background, his basketball background, his spatial awareness is off the charts. His range is really good. He can operate in short areas. And the other thing for him is he can time up (the ball) down the field … He’s got a unique skill set.
“But I think his ability to catch the ball, put it away, and run after the catch so quickly is something you want out of a slot receiver. And running option routes, setting up defenders and understanding space and everything like that, it happens a lot faster in there. But I think his skill set fits that. The same with Jaxon, I think they fit that way. So that’s why we made that move.”
Of course, the quarterback position will be one area where there will not be any changes at the top. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any competition, however, as the backup gig behind Justin Fields remains wide open. Fifth-year senior Gunnar Hoak returns after transferring from Kentucky ahead of last season. He is joined by a pair of true freshmen in C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller.
The trio split the second-team reps on Monday, a clear indication that Stroud and Miller will have every chance to elevate themselves to the next man up behind Fields. Day said he anticipates the competition will extend into preseason camp, acknowledging that between Hoak transferring into the program and the freshmen just having arrived, “there is a lot of football to be learned.”
While quarterback competition will only involve the backup position, that’s not to say Fields is without room for improvement this offseason as he looks to build on a spectacular 2019 season.
“I’m proud of his development from where he was at this point last year to where he is right now in practice one,” Day said. “He’s come a long way in the pocket, moving in the pocket, seeing things and drop-back protection. We have a list of things that he’s working on to get better at.”
Day said that having Fields returning for a second season allows for him, quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis and Fields to dive into the intricacies of the position and go further into the playbook this offseason.
Shakeup on Defense
On the defensive side of the ball, no single position group was hit harder by offseason departures than the secondary, which lost both starting cornerbacks and its starting safety.
Two more defensive backs in Jahsen Wint and Amir Riep, both of whom saw playing time last season, were dismissed from the team last month while facing felonies charges. Asked if there was any way either of the two could find themselves back on the team, pending the outcome of their legal cases, Day issued a firm “No.”
The return of Shaun Wade was critical for the Ohio State secondary, from both a talent and experience level, and that fact certainly has not been lost on Day.
“I mean, Shaun coming back was huge,” Day said. “I think Shaun, in my opinion, should be considered the top corner in the country coming back in all of football.”
Wade was limited during Monday’s practice, however, as was Cam Brown. Without the two, it was Sevyn Banks and Tyreke Johnson manning the outside corner spots, with Marcus Williamson serving as the slot corner. Safety Josh Proctor did not practice at all, which allowed for Marcus Hooker to take the first reps at safety.
A trio of true freshmen in cornerbacks Lejond Cavazos and Ryan Watts, and safety Kourt Williams saw reps with the second-team, although their place on the depth chart will likely change as guys get healthy.
At linebacker, Pete Werner began his day by playing inside at the weakside position, alongside returning middle linebacker Tuf Borland. Fifth-year senior Justin Hilliard saw the starting reps on the strongside. Day said after practice that the changes aren’t permanent. Rather, the staff wants to move Werner around to see what the best combination of linebackers may be.
Baron Browning, who figured to be in the mix as well, was limited in practice.
Nobody made their presence known more than newly-hired defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, who partook in his first practice at Ohio State since leaving following the 2017 season. Coombs was as passionate and loud as ever, just the way Day said he remembered Coombs.
“He hasn’t lost his step, that’s for sure,” Day said. “Running around all over the place. Just as I remember him. A lot of energy. The guys love playing for him. But (he’s) very intense and extremely competitive. You talk about a guy who fights every single day, that’s Kerry Coombs.”
Ohio State returns to the practice field on Wednesday for one more practice before heading into spring break. Spring practice will conclude with the annual Spring Game in Ohio Stadium on April 11.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.