A 12-0 season in Urban Meyer’s first year in Columbus has raised the bar on the always incredibly high level of interest in Ohio State football.
When the Buckeyes begin spring practice Tuesday, it will be the first opportunity for Meyer to coach the team since it beat Michigan to finish 12-0. NCAA sanctions prevented OSU from going to a bowl after that perfect season.
Ohio State will practice again Thursday, then take a week off for spring break before returning to the field March 19. The spring game will be April 13 at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
So, what are the big questions for Ohio State this spring? Who has a chance to move up the depth chart listings? Who might be down to their last chance?
The questions start with the defensive line, where all four starters have to be replaced. Actually, the front seven on defense, where standout linebacker Ryan Shazier is the only returning starter, is the biggest question.
Defensive line starters Johnathan Hankins, John Simon, Nathan Williams and Garrett Goebel are gone.
Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, who combined for four sacks in backup roles last season, are the leading contenders to win the starting defensive end jobs. Michael Bennett, who missed much of last year with a groin injury, and Tommy Schutt could get the other two spots on the line.
Se’von Pittman, a highly regarded recruit a year ago, missed last season because of a knee injury and 2013 recruits Tyquan Lewis and Elyria High’s Tracy Sprinkle have enrolled early.
Shazier (115 tackles, 17 tackles for losses, five sacks) is the only returning starter at linebacker, a position so thin in 2012 that fullback Zach Boren was moved there six games into the season.
Junior middle linebacker Curtis Grant, who came to Ohio State ranked as one of the top recruits in the country, might be in a make-or-break situation after producing only 10 tackles in the 18 games he has played.
Second-year players like Joshua Perry and Camren Williams have a chance to make an impression. While they are not yet enrolled at OSU, 2013 recruits Trey Johnson and Mike Mitchell could also be in the picture in the fall.
Who will be the receivers is also a question. Meyer likes to have three or four receivers on the field and last season Ohio State had about 1½ reliable ones.
Corey Brown (60 catches, 669 yards) was the most consistent pass catcher and Devin Smith (30 catches, 618 yards) came up with huge plays some games but was invisible in others.
Evan Spencer, Chris Fields and Michael Thomas all played last year, but it is incoming freshmen like Dontre Wilson, James Clark and Jalin Marshall who have excited OSU fans.
Quarterback, running back and the offensive line are three areas where the questions range from few to none.
Braxton Miller made himself a Heisman Trophy contender with a sophomore season in which he threw for 2,039 yards and rushed for 1,271 yards.
Carlos Hyde (970 yards rushing) established himself as the No. 1 running back last season. Jordan Hall, Bri’onte Dunn, Rod Smith and Warren Ball, who missed all of his freshman season with a foot injury, are also back. When summer practice starts, recruits Ezekiel Elliott and Wilson will join that group.
Four of the five starting offensive linemen are back from a group that was good and lucky last season, when no starting offensive lineman had to miss a game because of an injury.
Center Cory Linsley, tackle Jack Mewhort and guards Marcus Hall and Andrew Norwell are all back. Taylor Decker is expected to replace Reid Fragel at tackle. Tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett are also back.
Going back to the defense, the defensive backfield looks solid with Bradley Roby returning at cornerback and both starting safeties, C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant back. Doran Grant started one game when Roby was injured. Safety Vonn Bell was one of the top recruits in the country in 2013 and highly rated cornerbacks Eli Apple and Cameron Burrows are already in school.
Kicker Drew Basil was 8-of-11 on field goals last season with a long of 52 yards. After punter Johnny Townsend switched from OSU to Florida on signing day in February, Basil could be forced to take over that role, too. Another option would be to give receiver Frank Epitropoulos, who averaged 42 yards per punt as a high school senior, a chance to win the job.