Ohio State begins spring football practice on April 1st - no joke. The 2009 season was capped off with a Rose Bowl win over Oregon, but Ohio State has several areas to address before the 2010 season begins on September 2nd against Marshall. As Jim Tressel has said in the past, a team cannot win the national championship in the spring, but they certainly can lose it if the team does not develop.
In the style of David Letterman, I have posted what I consider the critical areas for Ohio State to address this spring, from least importance to high importance. While I do not expect all of these questions to be answered by the Ohio State spring game on April 24th, I do believe most of these areas will be addressed as Ohio State will break until the beginning of fall camp.
* Honorable Mention ~ Who Will Handle Ohio State's kickoff returns and punt returns?
While I consider this an important area for Ohio State, as they lose Ray Small (out of eligibility, possible NFL career) and Lamaar Thomas (transfer to New Mexico), I believe this is one of the topics that could linger until fall camp. Ohio State had to adjust to Ray Small's suspension from the Rose Bowl. In the Rose Bowl, Ohio State made due with DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher as punt returners, and Daniel "Boom" Herron, Anderson Russell, and Brandon Saine as kick returners.
This is one of the areas where I believe multiple players will be given opportunities to win these jobs both in the spring and in the fall. While I believe Tressel will take a sure-handed receiver such as Dane Sanzenbacher as a punt returner, I also believe redshirt freshmen Chris Fields and James Jackson will be given opportunities to demonstrate their punt return capabilities this spring.
As for kickoffs, redshirt freshman Jaamal Berry could possibly take over either Saine's or Herron's kickoff duties. Incoming freshmen James Louis and Corey Brown are other candidates who will arrive for the fall camp with definite possibilities as kickoff returners.
Concern Level: None. As you can see up above, there are multiple players on Ohio State's roster who can contribute as kickoff or punt returners.
10 ~ Who Will Handle Ohio State's Punting This Season?
No joke - any time you have a coach who openly speaks of the punt as the most important play in football, this has to make the list. Jon Thoma was a walk-on who had an average year (just under 38 yards per punt) punting for Ohio State. Waiting in the wings for Ohio State is redshirt sophomore Ben Buchanan, who was one of the first commitments to Ohio State's 2008 recruiting class. Another possibility could be incoming freshman Drew Basil, who will participate in spring football for Ohio State.
Concern Level: None. While Jim Tressel truly values having a good punter, Tressel is not afraid to insert walk-ons at this position. I predict Buchanan will seize this job by the end of spring football, leaving Drew Basil to battle Devin Barclay for the place kicker position (see below).
9 ~ Who Will Handle Ohio State's Place Kicking This Season?
Another area where Ohio State is not afraid to use walk-ons, such as Devin Barclay. The reason why I rank this area higher in importance is because Ohio State's offense commonly relies on its field goal kicker for points, an ugly truth that reared its head during the 2009 season.
Devin Barclay is the favorite to win this job, but I would not count out Drew Basil in this competition. Jim Tressel is not afraid to use a true freshman as his field goal kicker either, as fans can recall with mixed emotions from the 2001 season.
Concern Level: I will give this a 2 in terms of concern. I believe Barclay will win the job, but it is so important for Tressel to have a reliable field goal kicker.
8 ~ Who Will Emerge As Ohio State's Third Starting Linebacker?
Austin Spitler has exhausted his eligibility and hopes for an NFL shot. Who will join returnees Brian Rolle and Ross Homan?
Confounding this dilemma is the amount of quality linebacker depth Ohio State has at the linebacker position. Tyler Moeller may return from a head injury that sidelined him the entire 2009 season. Even if Moeller is not cleared to play again, Ohio State has players such as Andrew Sweat, Etienne Sabino, and Storm Klein returning with game experience. Redshirted freshmen Dorian Bell and Jordan Whiting will also look to throw their hats into the ring. And we have not even contemplated true freshmen David Durham and Scott McVey, who will arrive in the fall.
Concern Level: I will give this a 2 in terms of concern also. Any other college throughout the nation would kill for Ohio State's problems at this position. I believe Ohio State will mix and match players throughout the spring, even moving Rolle out of the MLB spot to see what kind of talent they can plug in at the LB positions.
When the spring is done, I will predict the starters going into fall camp will be Brian Rolle, Ross Homan, and Andrew Sweat. Etienne Sabino, Storm Klein, Dorian Bell, and Jordan Whiting will all contribute as backups, but the bulk of their contributions will come on special teams. And I predict Ohio State will redshirt both David Durham and Scott McVey.
7 - Who Will Emerge As Ohio State's Third Wide Receiver?
Last season, Duron Carter was able to contribute as a true freshman, playing as the third wide receiver alongside starters Dane Sanzenbacher and DeVier Posey. Carter's academic suspension from the Rose Bowl opened up the door for Taurian Washington as the third wideout.
This battle will likely be waged between Carter and Washington for this spot, but redshirt senior Grant Schwartz, as well as redshirt freshmen Chris Fields and James Jackson will also be battling for playing time.
Concern Level: I would rank this as a 3. In the Rose Bowl, Ohio State focused on controlling the clock by running the ball, and I believe Ohio State will always focus on a low-risk offense as long as Coach Tressel is running the show.
There will be times when Ohio State will need, or wants, to come out in a three wide receiver set, and it will be important for the coaching staff to have trust in the third wide receiver as a viable option. More than likely, Duron Carter will be that player, but until the conclusion of spring football, this is a worthwhile area of curiosity.
6 - How Will Ohio State Address The Tight End Position?
The underutilized Jake Ballard has exhausted his eligibility, hoping for a shot in the NFL. Redshirt sophomore Jake Stoneburner returns, and will be the likely favorite to win the position. As a high school wide receiver, Stoneburner was not asked to block in the manner that Ohio State tight ends traditionally are used (think an extra offensive lineman).
Other returnees at the position include sophomore Reid Fragel and redshirt sophomore Nic DiLillo. Of the three players, Stoneburner had two receptions last season, and Fragel and DiLillo had none. Jake Ballard only had fourteen receptions at tight end for Ohio State in 2009.
Concern Level: I would rank this as a 3. Any Ohio State fan who believes Jim Tressel is going to start throwing to the tight end more simply has not been paying attention during Tressel's tenure as Ohio State's head coach. Of bigger concern to me is the fact that Stoneburner has not established himself as a blocker, so I will be curious to see which of these three players does that this spring to set themselves up as the starting tight end in 2010. I have a feeling Reid Fragel will emerge as the starter by the end of spring football due to his blocking prowess, but I could be mistaken.
Part Two of this article will emphasize the top five areas of concern or question that I have for Ohio State as they begin spring football and head into the 2010 season. I hope to submit this article sometime before spring football kicks off for Ohio State on April 1st.