Ohio State Football: 5 Biggest Position Battles Heading into Fall Camp
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Ohio State is only a few weeks away from opening fall camp, but questions remain when it comes to who will be starting for the Buckeyes come Aug. 30. Urban Meyer and his staff are still in the process of figuring out who will replace their leading rusher as well as a number of key pieces on the defensive side of the ball from a season ago.
Factor in that Ohio State will be breaking in four new starters on what was one of the best offensive lines in the country for the past two years, and we could be in store for one of the most competitive camps in recent memory in Columbus. That's the way that Meyer likes it, as he's attempted to instill a culture of competition since taking over the Buckeyes program two years ago.
There will be battles across the board at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center in the coming weeks, but five in particular seem to stand out. With that in mind, let's examine the five biggest position battles heading into Ohio State's 2014 fall camp.
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Replacing Carlos Hyde will be no easy task after the now-San Francisco 49er rushed for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns en route to being named the Big Ten's Running Back of the Year in 2013. But the Buckeyes could benefit from one of their deeper backfields in recent memory, which features no shortage of former blue-chip prospects.
The first back who will get a chance at succeeding the bruising Hyde will be sophomore Ezekiel Elliott, who showed flashes of greatness in his freshman campaign. Appearing in seven games as a running back, the St. Louis, Mo. native rushed for 262 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries, including a 162-yard, two-touchdown performance against Florida A&M.
Elliott has yet to lock up a starting spot heading into his sophomore campaign, but Meyer has already mentioned him as a breakout player for the coming season. Thanks to his blend of size and speed, Elliott is considered by most to be the front-runner in Ohio State's running back race.
Nipping at Elliott's heels, however, is perhaps the player on the Buckeyes roster who most resembles Hyde. At 6'0" and 216 pounds, Bri'onte Dunn runs with a violent style that is reminiscent of the former OSU running back, which could bode well for the Canton, Ohio native in 2014.
A former 4-star prospect (per 247 Sports), Dunn was considered to be one of the cornerstones of the Buckeyes' highly touted 2012 class. He even took home a Big Ten Freshman of the Week award two seasons ago, but Meyer opted to redshirt him in 2013 in order to preserve an extra season of eligibility.
Elliott has the edge right now, but Dunn has the talent to push him for more than just reps this fall. With his career not having gotten off to the start that many imagined it would, the third-year sophomore now has the opportunity to turn it around in the coming weeks.
While this may not be Dunn's last chance to snag a starting spot in Columbus, the same can't be said for fifth-year senior Rod Smith. The 6'3", 231-pounder has also shown spurts of the power that has been so effective in Meyer's spread offense, but off-field troubles have made him a mainstay in Meyer's doghouse. At this point, it's hard to consider Smith anything more than a dark horse in Ohio State's running back race.
The same goes for redshirt sophomore Warren Ball, who rushed for 76 yards on 13 carries in his first season of action a year ago. Unlike Smith, Ball has been praised for his positive influence in the Buckeyes' running back room, but a talent gap could make him the odd man out at the position this fall.
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The Buckeyes' battle at middle linebacker is undoubtedly its most intriguing.
On one hand, you have a senior trying to create a lasting legacy. On the other is arguably the hottest freshman in the Big Ten.
Three years ago, Curtis Grant was Raekwon McMillan, a 5-star prospect hoping to make an instant impact and crack Ohio State's starting lineup. But the Richmond, Virginian's career got off to a shaky start, as he was relegated to special team duty as a freshman and lost his starting spot as a sophomore.
Last year, the 6'3", 240-pounder managed to maintain his starting position for a full season, recording 52 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 12 games. Those numbers were solid, but far from steady enough on a Buckeyes defense that underperformed for most of the 2013 campaign.
Enter McMillan, who in choosing to attend Ohio State over Alabama and Clemson last winter became the favorite to replace Grant should he continue to underwhelm. At 6'2" and 240 pounds, McMillan hardly looks like your standard freshman, and as an early enrollee, he managed to get a jump-start on his college career.
Expect for Grant's experience to give him an edge in camp, but there's no guaranteeing that he'll maintain one throughout the season. With Navy's triple-option offense first up on OSU's schedule, there may not be a more important position on the Buckeyes defense than middle linebacker, which is where all eyes will be once camp commences.
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The "apex" of the Ohio State offense, as Meyer calls it, is the center position, and it is one of the utmost importance in the Buckeyes' spread attack. For the past two seasons, it's been occupied Corey Linsley, who ultimately ended up being selected in the fifth round by the Green Bay Packers in May's NFL draft.
Linsley was backed up by Jacoby Boren for the last two years, but the brother of former Ohio State starters Justin and Zach Boren will have to earn his starting spot this fall. When Alabama graduate transfer Chad Lindsay opted to end his college career in Columbus, he became the new favorite to spend this fall snapping to Braxton Miller.
Throwing a wrench into this position battle is Billy Price, who arrived at Ohio State in 2013 as a defensive tackle but switched to center midway through his freshman season. As the strongest player on the Buckeyes roster, the redshirt freshman has a bright future on the OSU offensive line, but the time may not be right for Price just yet.
Having already started at center on college football's biggest stage with the Crimson Tide, it'd be surprising to see somebody other than Lindsay starting at center for the Buckeyes come the start of the season. But Boren—a junior—has more experience in Meyer's spread system and shouldn't yet be counted out of the competition.
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Given what he's already accomplished at Ohio State, one would imagine that Devin Smith already has his starting spot locked up for the coming fall. The Buckeyes' top returning receiver, Smith caught 44 balls for 660 yards and eight touchdowns in his junior season in 2013.
But heading into Smith's senior season, Ohio State wide receivers coach Zach Smith insists that the Massillon, Ohio native still has to earn his status as a starter.
"There's not a, ‘Behind Devin' or ‘In front of Devin.' I've got a group of guys that are fighting for spots," Coach Smith said. "There's not a starter in my room."
That very well may be the case, but it's hard to imagine a world where Smith isn't starting for the Buckeyes in Baltimore, Md. at the end of August. There remain plenty of opportunities for the OSU receiving corps, however, as Meyer looks to replace the production lost from the departure of Corey "Philly" Brown.
Senior Evan Spencer has proven himself effective as a blocker, but he has left much to be desired as a pass-catcher thus far in his college career. His experience should keep him on the field in certain situations, but it's unlikely that Spencer will be featured prominently in the OSU offense this fall.
The same can't be said, however, for redshirt junior Corey Smith and redshirt sophomore Michael Thomas, each of whom sat out the 2013 season to preserve extra seasons of eligibility. Both players had impressive springs this past offseason and will look to put together similarly productive fall camps in efforts to earn more playing time.
And then there's a trio of fresh faces in redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall and true freshmen Johnny Dixon and Noah Brown. While Brown is likely redshirt candidate himself and could ultimately wind up converting to tight end, both Marshall and Dixon were highly-touted prep prospects who can add the dynamic of speed in Meyer's spread attack that he so desperately covets.
All quotes obtained firsthand, unless indicated otherwise.
No. 2 Cornerback
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Doran Grant will enter 2014 as Ohio State's replacement for first-round pick Bradley Roby—that's not up for debate. But the race to team up opposite the senior cornerback this fall remains the Buckeyes' most wide-open position battle.
As a junior, Armani Reeves has the most experience outside of Grant in OSU's defensive backfield, but he's been inconsistent throughout the first two seasons of his college career. Given his size (5'10", 198 pounds), the former 247 Sports 4-star prospect may actually be a better fit at nickelback in defensive coordinator Chris Ash's press-coverage scheme.
If that ends up being the case, then it could be redshirt freshman Gareon Conley who finds himself in the starting lineup. The Massillon, Ohio native drew rave reviews for his play during the spring this past offseason and his rangy nature is ideal for OSU's new scheme.
But Conley wasn't the only redshirt freshman who impressed this past spring, as Eli Apple threw his hat into the fray for one of the Buckeyes' starting corner spots. Apple was admittedly behind the curve when he arrived on campus a year ago, but he appears to be ready to contribute this fall in one way or another.
Also, don't count out Ohio State's talented duo of true freshmen, as Meyer has maintained that neither Damon Webb nor Marshon Lattimore will redshirt this fall. Both 4-star prospects and U.S. Army All-Americans, Webb and Lattimore each possess the talent that could help them make immediate impacts at the college level.