COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State football is back, with spring practice beginning on Tuesday.
For Ohio State, spring is a time of development and experimentation, with breakout players often emerging from the extra reps and attention given to younger players. With the Buckeyes once again sending off a huge haul to the NFL — Ohio State had the second-most players at the NFL combine with 11 — there will be a bright spotlight on some of the program’s younger players.
Here are five players to watch as Ohio State opens spring practice on Tuesday:
QB Dwayne Haskins
Sophomore Dwayne Haskins is the favorite to win the starting quarterback job, which makes him one of the most compelling figures of this spring — if not the outright most interesting. J.T. Barrett held the job for almost all of the last four seasons, which makes seeing a new quarterback behind center that much more intriguing.
Haskins showed in the game against Michigan in November that he can step up and direct the offense. With Barrett injured, he came off the bench and led a come-from-behind victory at Michigan Stadium. But just as interesting as his prodigious talent is his skill set and what it might look like in the Ohio State offense. Will the Buckeyes throw deep more often? It seems to be a sure bet that they will run the quarterback less often, but what form the offense will take under the strong-armed Haskins is still a bit of an unknown. Spring practice will offer the first glimpse at not only the depth chart but also the play calling when Haskins is under center.
OL Thayer Munford
Can Ohio State turn over the reins at right tackle to a sophomore? Thayer Munford’s play as a freshman in 2017 certainly makes that a possibility. He impressed so much in practice that he shot up the depth chart. But the true measure of how the coaches felt about him came when right tackle Isaiah Prince was injured in the Michigan game. It was Munford who replaced him, and it came in a rivalry game on the road as opposed to the waning minutes of a blowout.
“Thayer Munford is going to be special,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said during Cotton Bowl interviews. “He’s an awesome player already as a true freshman. He’s going to play very soon and play for a long time. I’ve been impressed with him since camp. He’s a talented player and a great kid. All the hype he’s getting in bowl season, I’m wondering why it took so long.”
With Prince expected to shift to left tackle, a star turn from Munford could give the Buckeyes plenty of flexibility. If he plays well enough to win that job, it could allow Branden Bowen to stay at right guard instead of moving back to tackle.
DT Antwuan Jackson
Antwuan Jackson might not be full go for some of the first spring practices, as he had surgery for a fractured bone in his left foot in early February. His recovery timeline should make it possible for him to take part in most of spring practice, though. If that is indeed the case, he’ll have a chance to make a name for himself early. Ohio State’s defensive line has plenty of depth but is short on experience. Only Dre’Mont Jones, Robert Landers and Jashon Cornell have anything in the way of meaningful experience. Given that he was a highly rated recruit and excelled at the JUCO level after transferring from Auburn, Jackson could shoot up the depth chart and give the Buckeyes a key presence in the middle.
“My goal is to gain trust from my teammates, first thing, and my coaches,” Jackson said. “Like they want to say, ‘Who is that guy out there and why is he out there?’ My choice is to be a top 2, first group or second group and try to be a starter here. The No. 1 thing is just to gain trust from my teammates.”
CB Jeffrey Okudah
Although Ohio State lost Denzel Ward to the NFL, the Buckeyes return what amounts to two starters at cornerback, thanks to the rotation system employed by former cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs. Even so, expect sophomore Jeffrey Okudah to step up and seize a valuable role. No player received more love from his teammates based on the way he improved toward the end of the 2017 campaign.
“You can really see [the young players] coming into their own, especially Jeff,” defensive end Jalyn Holmes said. “I mentioned that the last couple months. You can tell he’s getting more comfortable and loose. That’s the main thing. They’ve all just been getting loose and you can finally tell they’ve caught the speed of the game.”
Okudah has 5-star talent and this spring offers a chance to vault him into the thick of the cornerback rotation.
S Isaiah Pryor
There’s a gap at safety because of Damon Webb’s departure, and Isaiah Pryor looks to be the most likely candidate to fill it. But given that safety is a relatively thin position, Ohio State needs him to seize the role as a standout instead of in a situation where he wins it by default. Luckily for the Buckeyes, Pryor is perfectly equipped to do so. During his first year at Ohio State, he followed a similar path to that of Okudah.
“I think, defensively, two guys in the secondary who have played some for us but gotten a lot of defensive secondary reps are Jeffrey Okudah and Isaiah Pryor,” defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “I think those guys have really performed well. I’m excited. If you look at these young guys, they’re as good as anyone in the country at their position. This has been a huge development period for them.”
Pryor’s emergence would solidify a secondary that also includes budding star safety Jordan Fuller, as well as the aforementioned trio of cornerbacks.
“We’re going to see who gets that spot,” Pryor said. “But I’m going to give my all, play my hardest and try to go out there and start.”