Around the B1G East: Ohio State
The 2019 season saw one of the most talented Ohio State teams to ever set foot on the field but it all came to an abrupt end at the Fiesta Bowl in a game where the Buckeyes had to settle for three instead of seven way too many times, lost a key defender to a targeting ejection and their leading rusher was hobbled due to injury. Even with that, it was a record setting year for the 13-1 Big Ten champions and one to build on going into year two under head coach Ryan Day.
What's the outlook for 2020? Can Ohio State make it four years in a row as Big Ten champs and push further in the College Football Playoff? BuckeyeGrove.com publisher Kevin Noon gives an inside look at the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Three prominent storylines
Retooling the run game
The Buckeyes say goodbye to running back JK Dobbins who had the first 2,000-yard rushing season in program history and will now have to figure out who is going to be the next man up. It looked like Master Teague was going to be the heir apparent but an achilles injury on the first day of spring ball tabled him until the start of the season and coupling that with Marcus Crowley's own ACL injury, the Buckeyes are thin when it comes to scholarship running backs. Steele Chambers is the only scholarship back at this moment but Ohio State made some big news in the transfer portal with landing former Oklahoma back Trey Sermon by way of the graduate transfer route, meaning he will be immediately eligible. Questions will be around the health of Sermon who saw his season cut short in 2019. Ohio State is also set to welcome in Miyan Williams once things re-open at some point and summer enrollees are allowed to join the team. Both Teague and Crowley are expected to be good by the start of the season but there certainly is a lot of concern about how the Buckeyes will look on the ground, even with a dual-threat quarterback like Justin Fields able to tote the rock.
Shoring up the secondary
It is nothing new for the Buckeyes to lose much of their secondary from year-to-year. Ohio State touts its secondary as Best In America (BIA) and the NFL seems to really like drafting Buckeyes each year. Ohio State is going to have to replace Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette and Jordan Fuller from the starting ranks from this past season. A pair of depth players were kicked off the team after both Amir Riep and Jahsen Wint were accused of and charged with rape during an offseason incident and the Buckeyes find themselves short on experience coming into the 2020 season outside of one player. Shaun Wade could have departed for the NFL after this most recent season but opted to come back and work under Kerry Coombs for an additional season to round out his game. The Buckeyes will heavily rely upon Wade's abilities and leadership as he helps bring along a room that is deep in talent but maybe short with on-field experience in high-leverage situations.
This has nothing to do with the 17 players on the roster with sophomore eligibility and rather year two for the Buckeyes under Ryan Day, especially coming off of such a crushing loss as the Fiesta Bowl defeat at the hands of Clemson, a game that the Buckeyes had in hand until they did not and had a shot in the final minute to still claim victory if not for a miscommunication between Justin Fields and Chris Olave. Now will be the time to see how this team responds to the only real adversity that the team faced all last season. As with most teams, a lot of key players are gone as are a couple of assistant coaches and new faces are going to need to step up in key roles as there is not really much of a warm-up period with a week two game at Oregon on the schedule. Woody Hayes, John Cooper and Jim Tressel all saw improvements in their overall records from year one to year two with Tressel winning a national championship with the Buckeyes in his second season at the helm. There is not a lot of room to improve from 13-1 but Ohio State fans, players and coaches alike would like to see the Buckeyes skip 14-1 and go all the way to 15-0.
Three biggest departures
Jeff Hafley, co-Defensive coordinator
Hafley stepped in as part of the defensive staff makeover under Ryan Day and turned things around as the Buckeyes ended the year with the No. 1 total defense, the No. 4 scoring defense and the No. 9 rushing defense along with Greg Mattison. The Buckeyes also went from being one of the most victimized teams via the big play in 2018 to one of the least in 2019. Hafley only spent one year with the Buckeyes before he became the hot name in coaching and landed the head coaching job at Boston College. He was so well-regarded by the defensive backs, his main focus in terms of position work, that all of the draft-eligible players went to spend time with Hafley as they prepared for the draft. The Buckeyes have been able to plug-in another star in his vacated position but at the time of his departure, there were a lot of nervous fans over what that meant for the future at Ohio State.
Chase Young, defensive end
21 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, the numbers go on and on. Chase Young was unblockable and would have likely put up better numbers if not for a two-game suspension after news of an impermissible loan was brought to light. After that absence, it appeared that teams made it their mission not to get beat by way of the Young sack but that does not mean that he was not every bit as dominant along the way, he was just having to do it differently as he was drawing double and triple-teams along the way as well as pockets doing everything in their power to roll away from Young and any other technique available to not allow Young to change the outcome of a game. It really didn't matter as Ohio State only lost the one game all season.
Jeff Okudah, cornerback
Really this could have been one of countless players with JK Dobbins, KJ Hill, Jordan Fuller, Jonah Jackson and plenty others all crucial to the team. I opted to go with Okudah just because of the value of a lockdown corner, a big corner that really can do it all. With apologies to the 'reporter' at the NFL Combine that felt that Okudah was 'sloppy' at times and who misidentified penalties that did not exist, Okudah was as good as anyone in the nation and there are still a lot of people that feel that he was robbed in the Thorpe Award that ended up going to Grant Delpit (LSU) instead.
Three key returners
Justin Fields, quarterback
This was the easiest pick of the whole piece with so much focus on the Ohio State quarterback who will be in his second (and likely final) year in the program. Fields completed better than 67-percent of his passes and threw for 3,273 yards along with 41 touchdowns against three interceptions. Fields also rushed for 484 yards despite not being able to 'be himself' in the final three games of the season (Michigan, Wisconsin, Clemson). There are going to be some key pieces that need to be replaced on offense but having a healthy Fields will be the difference between 12-0 and 9-3 in the regular season.
Wyatt Davis, offensive guard and Josh Myers, offensive center
I did not feel comfortable breaking these two up because they are both the best at their jobs out there and while there will be plenty of people who might disagree with me, these two will form the bedrock of an Ohio State offensive line that very well could be better than last year's line, a line that was a finalist for the Joe Moore Award for the nation's top offensive line.
Shaun Wade, cornerback
I really struggled here and almost picked Chris Olave on the offensive side of the ball but it wouldn't have been right to only focus on one side of the ball. As I mentioned earlier, Wade had every opportunity to bolt for the NFL and nobody would have felt that he made a bad or hasty decision in doing so. With this final year, Wade now becomes 'the guy' and can follow a path set by Damon Arnette previously, even though Wade is a more complete product at this point of his career than Arnette was. Wade is going to have to become the leader of the back end of the defense and help navigate the challenges of the Buckeyes breaking in some new defensive backs including guys like Cameron Brown, Sevyn Banks and Josh Proctor.
Three big additions
Kerry Coombs, defensive coordinator
He is an addition because he is 'coming back' but he is not a new name nor a new face to Ohio State fans as a coach that joined the Buckeyes in the first year of Urban Meyer before leaving for a three-year stint in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans. Now Coombs comes back as an exponentially better coach in his own words. He will have to step into the spot vacated by the loss of Jeff Hafley but he is a known quantity already at Ohio State and while he ha already proven to be a tremendous player developer, his recruiting is unparalleled as well and it already paying dividends on that front.
Trey Sermon, running back
We touched on this earlier, the Buckeyes got some big news last week with the addition of Trey Sermon to the fold as a graduate transfer who will have immediate eligibility, at least once things 'get back to normal'. This is huge for the Buckeyes as they were oh-so-thin at running back and had a running back room that more resembled a M*A*S*H unit with both Teague and Crowley injured and still working their ways back. Yes, Sermon was hurt in the Iowa State game and there is a bit of a leap of faith that Sermon will remain healthy this season and even how healthy he would be when he reports with there being serious limitations in terms of how players are able to seek out therapy with many places in "Stay in Place" situations, but Ohio State obviously felt good enough to move forward here and Sermon's downhill running and pass-catching abilities will be huge moving forward.
The Buckeyes signed a pair of quarterbacks in the class of 2020 and it is big for Ohio State to have some depth behind Justin Fields. Ohio State lost Chris Chugunov to graduation after last season and still has former Kentucky quarterback Gunnar Hoak in the mix as well as a couple of preferred walk-on quarterbacks but the advent of the transfer portal really decimated the Ohio State quarterback room with guys like Joe Burrow, Tate Martell and Matthew Baldwin all leaving by way of transfer. Now with Jack Miller and CJ Stroud in the room, it gives the Buckeyes more depth and more of an idea of the future as this likely will be Fields' last season at Ohio State. Of course everyone wants to say the loser of the Miller/Stroud battle is on their way out, but that is going to take some time and is very premature to speculate about. The fact of the matter is that Ohio State was in desperate need of QB depth and everyone held their breath if Fields took too long to get up after being hit on the field.
Expectations for 2020
The expectations for Ohio State are the same as any other year, win all your games, win the Big Ten, compete for a national championship. With a team that came so close last year and could have been the No. 1 seed in the CFP and avoid Clemson, at least for a round, there are a lot of people who feel that the amount of unfinished business is monumental. Ohio State's non-conference schedule really consists of the road game in Eugene (Ore.) against the Ducks with games at home against Bowling Green and Buffalo considered to just be "buy games". Ohio State's conference road schedule will be highlighted by back-to-back games in East Lansing (Mich.) and State College (Pa.) with what will undoubtedly be a 'White Out' game against the Nittany Lions. Ohio State's open week is early in the season, week five to be exact and the Buckeyes will have to play eight straight league games in a row that will culminate with a home game against Michigan. This is not the most challenging schedule that Ohio State has had in recent years but everyone is focused on the early out-of-conference game against the Ducks, but even with that the expectations are high and anything short than a return to the CFP, and with better results, would be considered a disappointment.