As far as themes go, “The Year of Development” was never going to fly with Ohio State.
Coming off “The Chase” of 2014 — when the Buckeyes rose to win the first College Football Playoff — and “The Grind” of 2015 — when the team lost only once and finished ranked fourth — this year’s team needed something meatier.
Thus, the players and coaches have settled on “The Land of the Wolves.”
But as coach Urban Meyer opens spring practice on Tuesday, what lies ahead looks more like the original thought.
“I call it the Year of Development,” he said.
The team has just three starters back on offense and three on defense, in large part because nine players left early for the NFL. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, guard-turned-center Pat Elflein and guard Billy Price are back on offense; end Tyquan Lewis, linebacker Raekwon McMillan and cornerback Gareon Conley return on defense.
The uncertainty of youth is in the air. When the team is fully assembled for preseason camp in August, 44 of the 85 scholarship players will have freshman eligibility (21 who redshirted from the 2015 recruiting class and 23 who are part of the 2016 class). Only five full-scholarship seniors are on the list.
Plus, Meyer’s coaching staff features two new faces: offensive line coach Greg Studrawa and co-defensive coordinator/associate head coach Greg Schiano. Offensive coordinator Ed Warinner had been coaching the line but has shifted to tight ends so he can spend more time coordinating. Schiano replaced Chris Ash, now the head coach at Rutgers.
“I’m lucky that we have very good teachers here and just added two excellent teachers in Schiano and Studrawa,” Meyer said. “This will be as critical an offseason as we’ve ever had.”
On offense, the most critical area seems to be replacing the three starters on the line. Isaiah Prince and Jamarco Jones appear capable as the tackles, leaving a competition at guard, likely among Evan Lisle, Demetrius Knox and Matthew Burrell.
Other than Barrett, most of the players who touched the ball last season have departed. For example, running back Ezekiel Elliott took part in 803 plays from scrimmage. His returning backup, Bri’onte Dunn, took part in 20.
Dunn, Mike Weber and freshman early enrollee Antonio Williams will be in the mix at running back, and Meyer has hinted that a couple of last season’s hybrid backs, Curtis Samuel and a now-healthy Dontre Wilson, could enter the fray.
At receiver, Mike Thomas and Jalin Marshall left early for a chance at the NFL. Noah Brown and Corey Smith, who both suffered broken lower legs last year, are expected to compete for those jobs in the fall. But Barrett has encouraged promising youngsters such as Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin, Torrance Gibson, early enrollee Austin Mack and others to seize upon the chance this spring.
“It’s one of those deals of ‘Go get a spot,’ because in the spring that’s when you go win a job,” Barrett said. “Having so many positions open, you’re going to find out who wants it.”