In a small, positive step in the right direction, the Buckeyes began walkthrough workouts on Friday, July 24th ahead of the August 7th date when ‘real’ practice is penciled in to commence.
Coronavirus Hits College Campuses & Possibly CFB’s Start Date
The news comes just three weeks following the shutdown of campus facilities at Ohio State when several Buckeye athletes were hit by a flurry of positive Covid-19 test results. A day later, on the ninth of July, the Big 10 Conference announced it would be scheduling a conference-only suite of regular-season games for the 2020 season. The decision was likely spurred on by the news out of Columbus, as the Buckeyes joined a handful of other programs, including Clemson, LSU & UNC, to have football players test positive for the virus.
With the recent slew of positive test results and the majority of states in America seeing alarming surges in new cases of Covid-19, it’s time to start accepting that the NCAA’s ‘worst-case scenario’ – Spring 2021 football – becomes more likely by the day. Time is no longer on the sports side. News on Monday, from Major League Baseball, threw another wrench into the NCAA’s plans. A significant outbreak of Covid-19 in the Marlins clubhouse calls into question the practicality of a football season (both college & pro) without an NBA-style bubble that insulates players and staff from the raging pandemic.
Ramifications of Spring Football
The new, emerging reality requires an appraisal of how a Spring football season would impact the Buckeyes & the product that they would put on the field.
Over the past two seasons, Ohio State balanced spread & under center formations with such virtuosity that the starters barely saw the field in the second half of games. Opponents were ruthlessly torched to ashes as the Buckeyes coasted through the regular season.
Ryan Day’s first full season as Head Coach delivered a season that saw the Buckeyes offense finish top four in the country in points per game, finishing in third, total yards per game, finishing in fourth and led all of football in first downs per game. They were the only offense in the FBS to do so.
That booming production looks primed to become even more explosive with top QB Justin Fields & WR Chris Olave entering their junior seasons. Alongside them is a deep crop of supremely talented & young wide receivers, headlined by Olave’s fellow breakout candidate in Garrett Wilson.
Fields have already been tabbed to, once again, be in hot pursuit of the Heisman Trophy in 2020 & strengthen his already bulletproof case to be the number one overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. And if Olave builds on his 2019 performance he will make his own case to be taken off the board on Day One.
But pandemic threatens to extinguish that high-octane firepower if the season is delayed until the Spring. It is considered a foregone conclusion that Fields, Olave & other high first-round prospects, such as Trevor Lawrence & Ja’Marr Chase, would sit out a Spring season in order to be prepared for the NFL draft. The pro league has already made it clear it has no appetite to move the event back a couple of months.
So title contenders like OSU & Clemson will be faced with a significant depletion in their talent ranks, hurting their CFP and national title hopes. On the Buckeyes’ defensive side of the ball, the family of star corner, Shaun Wade, has already made it clear the top Defensive Back prospect would be ‘Outta here’ if football moves to Spring. One draft expert suggested each program could see up to ten players opt to not play if a Spring season were in play.
The likely upshot will be that Buckeyes fans are denied one of the all-time great offenses in CFB history. Fields, if he gets to step on a college football field on Saturday again, would likely finish his college career as the best QB to ever do it in scarlet & gray. But, in the colossal shadow of Covid-19, Ohio State’s 2020 season could crumple into a tragic case of ‘what might have been’.
Looking on the bright side & assuming that, at worst, the FBS season is delayed by a month or two, & Spring football is taken out of the equation. How does the much-vaunted offense for the Buckeyes shape up?
Ridiculously Stacked & Mariana Trench Deep
It doesn’t get more stable & dependable than the o-line that exists in Columbus. The Buckeyes will, yet again, be trotting out one of the best offensive lines in the country. A starting line that is characterized by talent, experience & chemistry.
The line will bring back three starters from 2019. Those three were all part of the same high school class: left tackle, Thayer Munford; center Josh Myers & right guard Wyatt Davis (both redshirt juniors). The other two positions are set to be manned by two first-year starters who were both former five-star recruits: Harry Miller, at left guard, & Nicholas Petit-Frere at the right tackle position.
Both Munford, who has over two thousand snaps under his belt, and Josh Myers earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season. Myers is a solid bet to claim the Rimington Trophy – given to the best center in college football. Wyatt Davis, who is probably the most talented player among the entire position group, could end the season as only the third Buckeyes lineman with multiple All-American honors (Orlando Pace & Chris Ward). Davis was probably good enough last year to enter the draft & be selected in the first round but chose to come back & avenge the 2019 Fiesta Bowl defeat & get another crack at a national title. These three amigos possess an abundance of talent & a ton of experience playing together. All great indicators of a rock-solid line.
New Guys’ Time to Shine
Now for an eye on the fresher blood. Harry Miller looks to slide over from his more familiar center position to the left guard. Manning the spot left vacant by Jonah Jackson. His development as a true freshman last season impressed his coaches enough for Miller to earn the backup center job & line up for 181 snaps last year.
During the few Spring practices before the shutdown, is soon became apparent that the left guard job was Miller’s to lose. Miller was often the reserve lineman who shone brightest once the starters came out of the game during blowout victories, like the destruction of Maryland where Miller threw the nose tackle around like a doll. Most expect the transition to be smooth for Miller. Having a stalwart left tackle like Munford beside him will also help make that transition easier.
That leaves the only real competition for a starting spot at right tackle. Most commentators expect 2018 top offensive-line recruit – Nicholas Petit-Frere – to win the job outright, but he’ll still have to earn it. Petit-Frere has served as the backup RT in each of the last two seasons. Now he has the chance to put it all together in a starting role after the departure of Branden Bowen to the NFL. Petit-Frere, like many of the 2018 Buckeye recruits, has yet to make a significant impact on the field, but has the physical gifts that offensive line coaches crave – length, flexibility, quick feet, etc.
His first year in Columbus he took a redshirt as the Buckeyes’ defensive struggles kept opponents in games & limited the game time opportunities for reserve & freshman players. In 2019, Nicholas saw snaps in eleven games & made one start, for the injured Munford, at left tackle. The kid out of Tampa, FL showed a great attitude & eagerness to learn, despite not seeing the field as often as he would have liked, & has credited his teammates in the o-line room with helping him develop & get better despite the limited snaps. In 2020, he finally gets the opportunity to make his presence felt on the field.
The 2019 offensive line led the way in helping the team finish with 529.9YPG of offense while hanging 46.9PPG on opponents. It paved the way for JK Dobbins to become the first Buckeyes running back to eclipse two thousand yards rushing in a single season. By returning three of those starters, & plugging in highly-touted recruits to man the other two spots, the line looks a certainty to repeat as one of the best in the country. One that will dominate the line of scrimmage to give their star QB plenty of time, & space, to find his man, while also opening up canyons for an exciting collective of running backs to break away for big momentum gains.
Speaking of running back collectives…
Sadly, “J.K. all day!” is no more. Even a blue-blood & recruiting powerhouse like Ohio State will struggle to replace the 2,003 yards on the ground which Dobbins racked up so effortlessly. Outside of the three forces teams, who throw the ball fewer times than the Browns win playoff games, the Buckeyes finished behind only Kentucky in rushing yards per game (267.3). two thousand yards a lot of production to make up. Fortunately, the Buckeyes have the pieces in the backfield to still do damage in the running game.
How It Might Play Out
The Buckeyes were so far ahead at half time, that their reserves saw decent time on the field in 2019. Few did more with that playing time than Master Teague, who ran for 789 yards & four TDs on 135 carries. Teague, a redshirt sophomore, was slated to take over as the feature back before an Achilles injury derailed his 2020 preparations. Running backs coach, Tony Alford, says Teague is on track with his rehab, but it is still unknown how the injury will affect his role for the season. Largely because we don’t yet know for sure when the season will start.
Marcus Crowley has his own injury woes. The sophomore is returning from a devastating ACL injury he suffered against Maryland. This put the overall running back position in a fragile state to begin the year. That was until former Oklahoma running back – Trey Sermon – announced that he would be transferring to play ball in Columbus. It seems logical, given the situation with Crowley & Teague, to assume Sermon will open as the team’s starting back in week one. What cannot be assumed is that he will see the lion share of the carries, in the way Dobbins did last season, or if Ryan Day’s staff will look to adopt a running back-by-committee approach.
The decision will likely be an evolutionary process whereby coaches monitor the status of Teague & Crowley while weighing that against Sermon’s production & assimilation into the team’s offense. Sermon, for his career, has 2,076 rushing yards & averages 6.1YPC. Dobbins averaged 6.2, albeit during a higher volume of carries. So there’s plenty to be excited about once he gets put in a much more advantageous environment to thrive (The Sooners’ O-Line was a rebuilding project in 2019 after losing a ton of experience).
Impressively maximizing his opportunities on the field in 2019, Teague will have caught the eye of his coaches & I would expect them to want to get Teague involved as much as possible once healthy. I expect the number of carries between Sermon & Teague to reach near-equilibrium by the time the season concludes. Maybe 60-40 in favor of Sermon as he is ahead of the competition in relation to his health. Whatever happens with the running backs, the team still looks on course to hang a ton of points on opponents this season.