Winston Churchill once made a comment regarding Russia as being "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". While Ohio State, like other football programs around the nation, usually has questions to answer about their teams during spring football practice, I cannot imagine another program having nearly the depth of concern and confusion as the Buckeyes do as they begin spring practice on March 31st.
The revelation of Coach Jim Tressel's involvement in "Tattoo-Gate" has shaken Ohio State's program to the core. Rumors continue to swirl of Coach Tressel's firing or resignation, despite public support from Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. The NCAA has not, to the best of my knowledge, provided any timetable for their final judgment of Coach Tressel's violations. At best, Coach Tressel will miss the first five games of the 2011 season, along with QB Terrelle Pryor, RB Daniel "Boom" Herron, WR DeVier Posey, OT Mike Adams, and DE Solomon Thomas. LB Jordan Whiting will only miss the opening game against Akron.
While Jim Tressel's punishment lies in the hands of the NCAA, looming over the program, other football-related issues need to be addressed before the spring game on April 23rd in Ohio Stadium concludes spring football~
10. Who will emerge as Ohio State's starting running back? - Considering how Ohio State traditionally has a strong running game, it could be surprising to some that I list this question as the least of my worries heading into spring practice. My reasoning - Ohio State is loaded at this position, with arguably four players worthy of being the starting tailback.
Jordan Hall, Jaamal Berry, Carlos Hyde, and Rod Smith will all vie to win the starting tailback spot, in lieu of "Boom" Herron's five game suspension. Hall and Berry have primarily made their marks as special team players, Hyde saw minimal action last season, and Smith was redshirted last season.
My guess is Hall will be the first player in the rotation, but word out of the Sugar Bowl practices was that Smith was emerging as a player to keep an eye out for at tailback. The challenge for the coaching staff will be keeping all players happy, as Ohio State will undoubtedly rely upon its running game during the opening five games, when both Herron and QB Terrelle Pryor will be out of the lineup.
9. Can the punting and place kicking be improved this spring? - Punter Ben Buchanan returns, after averaging a little over 41 yards a punt. In several games last season (Miami (FL), Eastern Michigan, @ Illinois, @ Wisconsin, @ Minnesota), Buchanan had games where he was under a 40 yard average. The last memory Ohio State fans have of Buchanan for the 2010 season was a crucial punt block that nearly cost Ohio State the Sugar Bowl.
Placekicker Drew Basil earned playing time last season kicking off for Ohio State. Basil's placekicking were for designated long field goals, and Basil was 0-2 on those attempts. Remembering that former PK Devin Barclay was often called upon in clutch situations to win the game for Ohio State, it is imperative that Basil rises up this spring as Barclay's replacement.
8. Can the special teams units be improved this spring? - Last year's coverage units repeatedly cost Ohio State precious field position. The opening kickoff returned for a touchdown by Wisconsin put Ohio State behind, never to be able to regain the momentum. Is it scheme? Personnel? No matter the answer, I expect Ohio State to continually work on this nagging problem throughout the spring, and probably well into summer camp in August.
7. Who will emerge at the linebacker position? - Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, two solidly dependable players for Ohio State at linebacker, have exhausted their eligibility and hope for their NFL dreams to be realized in the 2011 NFL Draft. Andrew Sweat returns to probably fill one of the spots (Sweat was a starter at SAM linebacker in 2010, but could move to another linebacker position), leaving two spots open.
Ohio State has recruited well at this position for a number of years, with candidates such as Etienne Sabino, Storm Klein, Dorian Bell, and Jonathan Newsome all eager to stake their claim. With incoming freshmen Ryan Shazier, Curtis Grant, Ejuan Price, and Conner Crowell arriving, Ohio State's returnees need to step up this spring, to avoid being bypassed by the talented freshmen.
6. Who will replace Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore on the defensive line? - Heyward earned playing time as a true freshman in 2007, and was a steady performer throughout his career at Ohio State, saving his best for last against Arkansas in the 2011 Sugar Bowl. Larimore was never a dominant interior lineman, but was a reliable run-stopper.
Another thing to keep in mind is Solomon Thomas is one of the players who will serve a five game suspension, so Ohio State's vaunted defensive line depth, a key to the success Ohio State's defenses have had under defensive coordinator Jim Heacock, will be put to the test.
Look for massive Johnathan Hankins to be given the first opportunity to replace Larimore in the interior defensive line. If Hankins has the stamina, he should form a strong compliment to returnee John Simon. Adam Bellamy and Garrett Goebel will also be in the rotation at defensive tackle.
Nathan Williams will return at one defensive end position, leaving the other spot open for players such as Melvin Fellows (if free from injury), David Durham, and J.T. Moore opportunities for playing time during Thomas' suspension. True freshmen Steve Miller, Kenny Hayes, and Chase Faris will all enroll over the summer - like the linebacker spots, the returning players need to make a strong impression now, lest they are bypassed by the incoming talent.
Part Two will focus upon what I consider the top five pressing questions this spring for Ohio State.