Ohio State Football: Position-by-Position Spring Practice Preview
Spring practice kicks off for Urban Meyer and Ohio State on Tuesday, signifying the official start of the 2014 season.
After watching the 2013 season—and a 24-game winning streak—come to a crashing end with back-to-back losses, the Buckeyes will be looking to regroup and make a run at major college football's first-ever playoff.
That starts with reaffirming the roles of returning starters, identifying new contributors and molding the depth chart.
Here's a look at each position group and what Meyer has to work with this spring.
Braxton Miller is back for his senior season, but the leader of Ohio State's offense won't get a lot of work this spring.
After undergoing minor shoulder surgery in February, it was announced by Ohio State that Miller will be limited throughout spring practice. While it's not ideal to be down a starter, it will give Meyer an opportunity to get a long look at Miller's backup options.
In fact, finding a safety net for Miller is one of Meyer's top priorities this spring, according to Andrew Coppens of Bleacher Report.
Cardale Jones, who played in just three games as a redshirt freshman last year, has the most experience.
Jones is a 6'5", 250-pound tank of a quarterback who isn't as fast as Miller, but he has the athleticism and strength to chew up yards in the open field. He also has a strong arm, but according to a report by Doug Lesmerises of The Plain Dealer, offensive coordinator Tom Herman wants to see more.
Cardale needs to show consistency. He’s got a ton of physical talent and he’s a lot smarter than you think. He’s kind of (sic) class clown. I think he has grown up a lot and continues to grow up.
And all the things we’ve seen in the off-season and off the field need to start to translate onto the field and his maturity coming through and I think that will show in his consistency of play. He’s a good player, he just needs to mature. He’s a lot smarter and a lot more decisive than some people think.
Challenging Jones will be redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett.
The former 4-star dual threat missed all of last season as he recovered from an ACL tear, but now that he's fully healthy, Herman is excited to see how he looks at full speed.
You want to talk about intangibles and just being able to feel when guys kind of have that it factor, he’s got that. He has a quick release, he’s pretty accurate, and those things are what drew us toward him. Now he’s done laying in the weeds, now he has to get out of the weeds and attack this thing.
Stephen Collier, the early enrollee from Ohio State's 2014 recruiting class, will also be available this spring, but Meyer views him more as a development project.
"We have four backs coming back next year. We're going to compete and just have to work hard through spring practice."
That was Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State's soon-to-be sophomore running back, talking about the starting role that has opened up with Carlos Hyde's departure, per Zack Meisel of The Plain Dealer.
Elliott didn't get a lot of action during his freshman season, but he made the most of his limited opportunities. In seven games, Elliott was given just 30 carries, but he totaled 262 rushing yards (8.7 yards per carry) and two touchdowns.
His explosiveness didn't go unnoticed by the coaching staff, and his impressive freshman campaign gave him positive momentum heading into the spring.
The Buckeyes also return Rod Smith, Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball, all of whom have seen the field in a limited capacity throughout their careers.
Those four will get the first look, but Curtis Samuel, one of the most heralded members of Ohio State's 2014 recruiting class, will try to make some noise.
The 4-star prospect enrolled early to participate in spring drills, and his speed already has Meyer excited, which the Ohio State coach expressed in a press conference. Samuel piled up 1,047 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on just 91 carries during his senior year of high school, and if he adjusts to the speed at the collegiate level, it will be hard to keep him off the field.
Ohio State has a lot of perimeter weapons returning, but it will need to replace Corey Brown, who led the team in receptions and receiving yards in back-to-back seasons.
Devin Smith has the most experience and is a dangerous deep threat, but inconsistency has plagued his collegiate career, according to Coach Meyer, per Todd Porter of CantonRep.com. For Ohio State's passing attack to mature, Meyer and the coaching staff will need Smith to lead a talented young group as a senior.
Evan Spencer, who caught 22 passes for 216 yards and three touchdowns last year, will also be back, but he'll sit out spring practice as he recovers from a gruesome leg injury he suffered during the Orange Bowl.
Behind Smith and Spencer is a lot of talented players short on experience.
Sophomore Dontre Wilson got his feet wet last year, piling up 460 total yards and three touchdowns in the Percy Harvin role. With a need for playmakers, it's safe to assume Meyer will be asking more of the speedster from DeSoto, Texas.
The Buckeyes will get a boost from a pair of tall wideouts who redshirted last year.
Jeff Greene, a 6'5", 218-pound Georgia Tech transfer, will make a strong push for playing time. Greene led the Yellow Jackets with 18 receptions for 284 yards and two touchdowns in 2012, but with an offense that passes the ball more, he could produce much bigger numbers.
Michael Thomas will also rejoin the fold. The 6'3" sophomore caught just three passes in 2012, and he didn't see the field at all last year. That didn't stop him from voicing some strong criticisms on Twitter, per Lesmerises, of the wide receiver group following Ohio State's Orange Bowl loss, so this spring will serve as a proving ground that he can be an upgrade.
There will also be a number of younger players such as redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall and early enrollee Johnnie Dixon who will be vying for playing time.
Jeff Heuerman had a breakout junior campaign in 2013, catching 26 passes for 466 yards and four touchdowns. That kind of production has been missing from the tight end position for a long time.
As a senior, Heuerman is expected to be one of the team leaders.
He was one of Ohio State's most consistent players down the stretch last year, hauling in 327 of his 466 total receiving yards in the Buckeyes' final six games. With Corey Brown's departure and an unproven group of receivers, Heuerman's presence will be key to the offense's success.
Nick Vannett, Heuerman's top backup, will also be back.
Vannett, who didn't play much after Heuerman's emergence, caught just eight passes for 80 yards and a touchdown last season. He's the only legitimate backup, though, after redshirt freshman Marcus Baugh was indefinitely suspended from the team for a recent underage drinking arrest.
With a pair of seniors returning, Urban Meyer has what he needs at the tight end position.
After losing four of five starters, all of which were seniors, Ohio State's offensive line is the most depleted group.
Piecing that unit together will be a tall order for Urban Meyer and offensive line coach Ed Warinner, but the Buckeyes have a lot of talented players up front.
Speaking to the media after signing Ohio State's 2014 class, Meyer said that he expects Taylor Decker—who started all of last season at right tackle—to make the switch to left tackle this season, per Kyle Rowland of ElevenWarriors.com. He also said that Darryl Baldwin will replace Decker at right tackle.
With the edges taken care of, the interior will receive a boost with Pat Elflein at right guard.
Elflein shined when he was pulled into action against Michigan following Marcus Hall's meltdown and ensuing ejection. A week later against Michigan State's stingy defense in the Big Ten title game, he helped the Buckeyes pile up 273 rushing yards in a disappointing loss.
Jacoby Boren has been groomed over the last two years to replace Corey Linsley at center, so he should fit right into the middle. On the other side, at left guard, Antonio Underwood and Chase Farris will battle for a starting role.
Sophomores Kyle Dodson and Tommy Brown and freshmen such as Billy Price (redshirt), Demetrius Knox and Jamarco Jones will give the Buckeyes some much-needed depth.
While Ohio State's offensive line is the most depleted group, the defensive line could wind up being its strongest unit in 2014.
All four starters—defensive ends Noah Spence and Joey Bosa and defensive tackles Michael Bennett and Tommy Schutt—are back to lead the defense. Key rotation players such as Adolphus Washington, Jamal Marcus, Steve Miller and Chris Carter also return, giving the Buckeyes a solid group of big men up front.
Bosa could be on the verge of stardom.
First-year players along the line don't usually have the strength, mentally and physically, to play at a consistently high level. That wasn't the case for Bosa, who cracked the starting lineup midway through the year. Despite playing sparingly through the first four games, he finished the season with 7.5 sacks (which ranked second on the team) and 13.5 tackles for loss (third).
The Buckeyes will have Spence, who lead the team with eight sacks, coming off the other edge. While Spence will miss the first two games of the 2014 season due to a suspension, he'll still be able to participate in spring drills.
With Bennett and Schutt, the interior of Ohio State's defensive line will be formidable.
Bennett is an athletic tackle who is excellent in run support, but he's also very good at rushing the passer. He piled up seven sacks during his junior season, which is an incredible number for an interior guy.
Schutt, at 6'1" and 299 pounds, can collapse the inside scheme of an offensive line about as good as anyone in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes missed Schutt for the first month of the season after he suffered a broken foot, but he returned to solidify the defensive line as one of the team's greatest strengths.
In 2014, the Buckeyes should be just as dominant, if not more dominant up front.
While Ohio State does return two of its three starting linebackers, it will need to find a replacement for Ryan Shazier.
Shazier, who led the team in total tackles in 2011 and 2012, was Ohio State's most impactful defensive player last year. He led the Big Ten with 143 total tackles and 22.5 tackles for loss during his junior season, which resulted in AP first-team All-American honors.
Replacing a player of that caliber is close to impossible.
Outside linebacker Joshua Perry and middle linebacker Curtis Grant will look to fill that void.
In fact, those two will see the field most when the Buckeyes go to their nickel package. Three-linebacker sets are becoming more rare with the evolution of the spread offense, but when the Buckeyes do need to load the box, Trey Johnson will get the nod.
Junior Camren Williams and redshirt freshman Darron Lee will give Meyer some depth, but true freshman Raekwon McMillan will be looking to earn some playing time.
"I have a good chance to start, but it’s all going to be wasted if I don’t put in the work right now. I can’t be out on the field if I don’t really know what’s going on out there."
If McMillan does want to start this season, he'll need to prove he can handle it during spring drills.
The secondary was Ohio State's weakest unit in 2013—only 13 teams were worse against the pass—and the Buckeyes return just one starter in cornerback Doran Grant.
With new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash in the fold, Ohio State is hoping for better results in 2014.
After an impressive showing in the Orange Bowl, it's safe to assume that Vonn Bell will be a key contributor this season.
The former 5-star safety played sparingly during his freshman season last year, mostly on special teams, but he could be on the verge of providing Ohio State's defense with a boost it has lacked for years.
Tyvis Powell is in line for the other starting safety spot, while Cam Burrows, a converted cornerback from Ohio State's 2013 class, will also compete for playing time.
The corner spot opposite Doran Grant is up for grabs, and Armani Reeves should have the inside track. Reeves was the first corner off the bench last season, and while his play was erratic throughout the year, he does boast an experience that Ohio State's other corners lack.
After last year's struggles, though, Meyer won't hesitate playing the best players, whether they have the experience or not.
David Regimbal is the lead Ohio State football writer for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.