The dog days are coming, and that’s a good thing. With Big Ten Media Days kicking off on Monday, Land Of 10 is breaking down the three biggest questions each team is hoping to answer coming out of Chicago. We’ll post two per day, with one from each division, turning this time to the program that has become the alpha male of the conference.
OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
- Are the play-calling questions cured?
The 2015 Ohio State season was a bizarre one on offense. A unit that returned eight starters from the one that scorched Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon in three straight games to win the 2014 national championship was in a funk from the second game of 2015 on. With Devin Smith gone to the NFL and offensive coordinator Tom Herman now coaching Houston, the big plays disappeared. An offensive line that brought four starters back appeared stuck in the mud. And a quarterback position that was supposed to have three potential Heisman contenders suddenly couldn’t find even a good option by the middle of the year.
Things only turned after they hit rock bottom in a loss to Michigan State, where 132 total yards, 14 points and 12 carries for Ezekiel Elliott caused the star running back to call out the play-calling. Urban Meyer then moved co-offensive coordinators Ed Warinner and Tim Beck side-by-side in the press box, and the next two games got back to the offense of old. The results were sensational, with the Buckeyes rolling up 42 points against Michigan and 44 against Notre Dame in two blowout wins built on tempo and big plays.
Are two wins enough to believe the problems are solved? Will Warinner and Beck continue to split the duties side-by-side up above the game, with no coordinator on the field?
Taking Warinner away from the field seemed to hurt the cohesiveness of his offensive line earlier in the year, and although that group was humming like the rest of the offense by year’s end, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think it could suffer another setback with three starters gone and one of the returners, Pat Elflein, moving from guard to center.
This Ohio State offense won’t have the developed skill at receiver or running back that last year’s unit did, so finding the right way to use the assets available is going to be crucial to contending for the Big Ten.
2. Following a gruesome leg injury, can Noah Brown still be the spark?
A year ago, with Smith off to the NFL, a four-star redshirt freshman named Noah Brown was supposed to be the missing piece in the receiving corps. He was expected to slide opposite Michael Thomas and help create space for Braxton Miller, Jalin Marshall and Nick Vannett in the middle of the field.
Instead, he went down with a broken leg before the season began, and Ohio State played the next season in a phone booth with no outside receiver with the speed to stretch it. Cardale Jones’ biggest asset was gone and more pressure fell on an offensive line that underperformed. The Buckeyes fell to 100th in passing, and it largely cost them a trip back to the playoff.
Brown is an important piece for this year’s team, but not because he’s going to be another Smith. At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, Brown is closer to a possession receiver than he is to a deep threat.
However, if he’s able to recover from the broken leg to get back to the player that dominated spring ball, he has the potential to break out early and draw the attention that can open up a running game for a unit moving on from Elliott. He could give J.T. Barrett a go-to option while creating spacing for the other brand-new receivers who appear to hold lower ceilings.
3. Are Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard ready to play without Joey Bosa?
As the Ohio State offense slipped last season, the defense only got better, rising to the No. 2 in the nation in points allowed. That ascension came thanks to the breakout seasons by two new pass rushers in Tyquan Lewis – a backup in 2014 – and Sam Hubbard, a former four-star recruit who moved from safety to linebacker and finally to defensive end. The two finished with 8 and 6.5 sacks, respectively, good for the two best marks on the team.
It wasn’t all them, though. In his third season, Joey Bosa’s superstar status demanded double teams on a regular basis. His ability to move inside on passing downs added further confusion for offensive lines destined to account for him, and the result was open shots on the quarterback for the pass rushers that teams didn’t know to fear.
Bosa is gone – he was the third overall pick in the NFL Draft – but Lewis and Hubbard are back. The optimists’ view is that those two used the first year of legitimate playing time to improve, but the pessimists would say they can’t possibly be as effective without a star teammate drawing so much attention from them.
The Buckeyes are going to need Lewis, a true junior, to continue to wreck plays in the running and passing games, as he did with 14 tackles-for-loss last year. But they’re going to need him to do it through blockers and with a higher volume of pressures, as he posted just two quarterback hurries all season. Bosa, by contrast, had 14.
They’re going to need Hubbard, a redshirt sophomore, to grow out of his situational pass-rush role to reach the ceiling he’s always held. At 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, he measures almost exactly what Bosa did at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine. It’s unreasonable to expect him to be anything near Bosa, but he will need to start showing more balance as his frame suggests he can.
With three new starters in the secondary and two on the interior of the defensive line, it’s going to be imperative for this unit to succeed.