COLUMBUS — Fans were back in Ohio Stadium, the band performed throughout, and head coach Ryan Day and Ohio State came away from the spring game without suffering any significant injuries. By all accounts, that made for a successful day for the Buckeye football program as it wrapped up spring practice.
Spring games are always difficult to assess, given the sterile nature of what is essentially a glorified practice. However, for a team that is looking to sort out competitions at several key positions, Saturday’s scrimmage was not without some important takeaways as the Buckeyes look ahead to fall camp and the start of the 2021 season.
Quarterbacks make their case
With Justin Fields preparing for the NFL Draft later this month, all eyes were on the Ohio State quarterbacks today as Day looks to identify the Buckeyes’ next starting signal-caller. Redshirt freshmen C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller III entered the spring figuring to battle it out for the job, with Stroud likely holding an early edge, but Saturday also marked Buckeye fans’ first look at true freshman Kyle McCord, who came to Columbus with plenty of fanfare as a top recruit in the 2021 class.
Stroud had done little to hurt his chances throughout the month, although Day insists the job is still very much wide open, and his performance on Saturday might have helped to widen his lead on Miller and McCord. Stroud looked comfortable and in command of the offense during his opportunities, showing off both his mobility and arm strength while completing 16 of his 22 attempts on the day for 185 yards and two touchdowns.
Perhaps most importantly, Stroud was able to avoid turning the ball over at any point in the day, something that his head coach prioritizes above all else.
Miller was fine, by most accounts, on the day, completing 17 of 30 attempts for 122 yards and no touchdowns. During his first drive of the game, Miller went 5-5 for 43 yards in leading his team into the red zone. However, he was picked off by cornerback Ryan Watts at the goal line to end the drive, and a Miller-led unit would not reach the end zone for the rest of the day.
While Stroud did well to further his case for the starting job come September, perhaps the true race taking shape in the quarterback room revolves around whether or not McCord can elevate himself into the mix for the backup position. McCord started his day with a bang, displaying his considerable arm strength while connecting with Garrett Wilson for a 55-yard completion on the first play of McCord’s opening series.
Two plays later, McCord missed a wide-open Jaxon Smith-Njigba for what would have been a touchdown, however, and the drive stalled. McCord later atoned for the missed throw, finding Smith-Njigba for a 15-yard touchdown pass. He added a second touchdown pass to Joe Royer and finished the day 12-17 for 184 yards, two touchdowns, and no turnovers.
Of course, with the quarterbacks not being live to take hits on Saturday, there was built-in comfort for each of the young quarterbacks to scan the field and deliver the ball on nearly every dropback, again making deep assessments of each performance difficult to make.
Following the game, Day said of his quarterbacks’ performances, “Very similar to what this whole spring’s been. Some good, some not so good. A lot of learning opportunities there … They’ve learned a lot, but now the race is on over the next few months to figure out who can make the next stride so that they’re further along. The spring has been good, there’s been a lot of progress made across the board, but still a long way to go until we play against Minnesota.”
Receiving group historically deep
Ohio State’s ridiculously good recruitment of the receiving position has been well-documented over the past few years, but Saturday’s showing by the Buckeye receivers was, perhaps, the talk of the day as Brian Hartline has an embarrassment of riches with which to work heading into fall camp.
Olave’s return to Ohio State was a bit of a surprise, albeit a welcomed one for a unit that would still have featured Wilson, Smith-Njigba, Jameson Williams, and Julian Fleming, who missed Saturday’s game as he recovers from shoulder surgery.
Olave and Wilson were up to their usual selves on Saturday, making big plays and difficult catches look routine. Smith-Njigba’s touchdown grab further showed the sophomore is poised to become the next big thing for the Buckeyes after showing flashes on several occasions last season, and Williams will continue to provide whichever quarterback ultimately wins the job with yet another deep threat.
But while the known commodities each had their moments on Saturday, it was the pair of true freshmen in Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr. that had college football fans across the country raving about the future of the position in Columbus.
Egbuka, who ranked as the top receiver in the entire 2021 class, made the most of his first opportunity in front of his coaching staff and Ohio State fans, hauling in seven catches for 123 yards. At 6-foot-1-inch and 203 lbs., Egbuka already looks the part of a college receiver, and his solid hands and ability to run after the catch were on full display over the course of the afternoon.
Not to be outdone, Harrison showed a routine ability to get open, and he added seven catches and a touchdown on the day. Perhaps overshadowed by the more-touted Egbuka, Harrison reminded Buckeye fans on Saturday that he, too, will force his way onto the field sooner rather than later.
Of course, given the long jam at the position, Day and Hartline will have their hands full in figuring out how to get all of the talents on the field, certainly a good problem to have. Fortunately for them, Day said each player has shown they are willing to work for opportunities, with the main goal being to help Ohio State win games.
Day said of what he saw from his depth at receiver, “I think they all understand that it’s a team game and the number one goal is to win the game. I’ve never heard any of those guys talk about getting their touches or getting theirs. It’ll come naturally if they just work.
He later added, “I’m impressed with all the young guys … bright future there, I think.”
Sawyer poised to make immediate impact
Of all the issues that plagued the Ohio State defense a season ago —and there were many — perhaps most glaring was the absence of the dominant pass rusher the Buckeyes had become so accustomed to featuring over the past several years. As Zach Harrison enters his junior season, there is still hope he can develop into the feared edge rusher that wrecks backfields, but there may be another candidate quickly rising to the top in true freshman Jack Sawyer.
Sawyer, a Pickerington native, is no secret to anyone who follows recruiting. He was sought after by essentially every top program in the country as the top-ranked recruit in the class. A multi-sport star at Pickerington North High School, Sawyer’s athleticism is off the charts. And under the tutelage of defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr., Sawyer is well on his way to being more than just a tremendous athlete.
With the defenses not allowed to tackle or hit the quarterbacks on Saturday, opportunities for members of the Silver Bullets to stand out were few and far in between. Yet, Sawyer managed to stand out just fine as he routinely found his way into the backfield after blowing by tackles who, at times, looked helpless in stopping him.
Sawyer was credited with three sacks on the day, each of which was as legitimate as possible despite the inability to bring the quarterbacks to the ground, and he added four tackles while looking perfectly comfortable in his first game-like experience of his college career.
“Off to a great start for sure,” Day said of Sawyer. “He’s earning more and more reps, he’s working his way up the depth chart … Jack came in with a lot of confidence, and he’s made a lot of play. What you saw today was pretty much almost every practice out there. If he can keep building and get stronger, hopefully, he’s going to have an impact and be able to participate here early in the season.”
It’s safe to say Sawyer will add to his pass-rushing arsenal between now and fall camp, and as he continues to build out his frame, the Buckeyes’ next monster on the defensive line might be ready to break out as soon as this season.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.