COLUMBUS, Ohio — Spring practice officially is underway as the Ohio State football program looks to take another step forward in its sixth season with Urban Meyer.
As always, the Buckeyes possess no shortage of expectations for the coming season. That’s why despite compiling an 11-1 regular-season record and making the College Football Playoff in 2016, Ohio State still has a sour taste in its mouth following a 31-0 loss against Clemson in the CFP semifinal Fiesta Bowl.
But despite the Buckeyes losing seven starters — all likely NFL draft picks — from the playoff team, there’s reason to believe Ohio State will be even better in 2017.
What exactly are they? Let’s take a look.
Despite ranking third in the Big Ten in efficiency, the Buckeyes passing attack didn’t play to its potential in 2016. Ohio State ranked 81st nationally in passing offense, averaging 213.9 yards per game.
Enter new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, formerly of the same role at Oklahoma and the ex-head coach at Indiana. In Norman and Bloomington, Wilson’s offenses were some of the most dynamic in college football. The Hoosiers ranked 28th nationally — and second in the Big Ten — a year ago.
“We’re not changing,” Meyer said of Ohio State’s offensive approach. “We’re enhancing what we do.”
The should mean a big season for quarterback J.T. Barrett, who failed to pass for more than 127 yards in any of Ohio State’s final three games of the 2016 season. If the Buckeyes can fix their biggest issue from a year ago this offseason, they should be in good shape.
Better wide receivers
It wasn’t all scheme that contributed to Ohio State’s aerial issues last season. Perhaps no position group on the Buckeyes roster underperformed as much as the wide receivers in 2016.
“It wasn’t there last year,” Meyer said of his wideouts’ production.
While the addition of Wilson should help the pass catchers, the Buckeyes also should benefit from the improvement of their younger wideouts and the addition of their 2017 class. Most notably, look for Binjimen Victor and K.J. Hill to take big steps in their sophomore seasons.
Add in highly touted — and big-bodied — incoming freshmen Trevon Grimes, Jaylen Harris and Elijah Gardiner and Ohio State’s wide receivers appear poised to once again carry their weight. After the Buckeyes’ first practice, Meyer said he’s already seen signs of improvement.
“Absolutely,” Meyer answered when asked if he liked what he saw. “There’s good, talented guys.”
Ohio State’s 2017 class
Speaking of Ohio State’s incoming recruiting class, it’s not a stretch to say the Buckeyes will improve their talent level in the coming year. Ranking No. 2 nationally, Ohio State’s 2017 class laid claim to the highest per-player ranking in the history of 247Sports.
“One of the best classes in history,” Meyer said on National Signing Day.
Already, the Buckeyes have 10 of their newest players on campus as early enrollees, several of whom are competing for starting spots. Ohio State’s roster will improve in June, when 5-star defensive end Chase Young arrives on campus.
With players including Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley off to the NFL, the Buckeyes are losing plenty. But they’re also bringing in the rare recruiting class that possesses plenty of players capable of making impacts on Day 1 of their college careers.
Sure, it might be out of the Buckeyes’ control. But it’s nonetheless worth noting that Ohio State appears to possess a much more manageable schedule in 2017 than a year ago.
Most notably, the Buckeyes will host their toughest out-of-conference opponent, Oklahoma, at Ohio Stadium on Sept. 9, with more than a week to prepare after a Thursday date with Indiana to start the season. Ohio State also will host the only team to beat it in the 2016 regular season — Penn State — on Oct. 28, a week after the Buckeyes’ off week.
Tough trips to Nebraska and Iowa could cause problems, but Ohio State will avoid reigning Big Ten West champ Wisconsin in the regular season. The Buckeyes also will travel to Ann Arbor to face rival Michigan at the end of the season. Meyer will hope to extend his winning streak against the Wolverines to six.
From an opponent standpoint, Ohio State’s schedule is hardly easy. But compared to a year ago, the Buckeyes seem to be facing a better draw.
Whether it is because they opted to enter the NFL draft or because they were unable to finish their college careers, fifth-year seniors often don’t play for Meyer.
This upcoming season appears to be the exception.
With Barrett, Tyquan Lewis, Billy Price, Chris Worley, Marcus Baugh and Michael Hill, the Buckeyes are benefiting from what was a historic 2013 recruiting class. That leadership already has manifested itself in what will be one of the most mature groups Meyer has coached.
“We have a ton of great leaders here,” Meyer said.
Between the leadership and experience at the top and infusion of talent at the bottom, this might be the most complete roster Meyer has coached at Ohio State. Considering his 61-6 record in Columbus, that’s saying something. But there are plenty of reasons to believe the Buckeyes can live up to the hype.