Monday, March 4, 2013

BUCKEYES SPRING PRACTICE PREVIEW: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

Braxton Miller
TBT/Darla Dunkle-Hudnell
COLUMBUS — Spring practice begins on Tuesday for the Ohio State football team, and the Buckeyes — who are no longer on a post-season ban — are regarded as contenders for a national title this season.

Of course, in order to have a championship season, you must first take command of March and April.

Here are five things to keep an eye on this spring for the Buckeyes ...

1. Braxton Miller's improvement as a passer.

— Miller put together a record season in his first year under new head coach Urban Meyer, setting a school-record for total yards with 3,310, as well as 28 touchdowns.

However, as Buckeyes' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman stated this off-season, Miller underachieved — especially as a passer — completing just 58.3 percent of his throws in 2012.

Miller has taken heed to his coach's criticism, as the junior has worked diligently this off-season on his passing mechanics and footwork — even flying out to California for his holiday break to work with quarterback guru, George Whitfield. Miller has also worked on his game-management and leadership skills this off-season, something he felt needed great improvement.

Although the Buckeyes have surrounded Miller with more athleticism this off-season, the fact still remains ... the offense goes as Miller goes. 

If he has a solid spring camp, it could give the Buckeyes all the momentum they need to make a run toward Pasadena this fall.

2. Freshmen impact.

— The Buckeyes' 2013 recruiting class was ranked in the top three by each of the major scouting services (Scout, Rivals, ESPN). While the Buckeyes will have to wait until summer for the arrival of offensive play-makers Jalin Marshall, Ezekiel Elliott and Dontre Wilson, they will have the services of some key defensive recruits, most notably defensive backs Eli Apple and Cam Burrows, and ends Tracy Sprinkle and Tyquan Lewis.

The defensive backfield lost two starters from a season ago in cornerback Travis Howard and safety Orhian Johnson. Apple and Burrows should be in competition to fill those roles. 

Nonetheless, whether they start or not, they will be greatly needed this fall, and their transition to the college game is critical. 

Same goes for Sprinkle and Lewis. The Buckeyes lost three starters on the defensive front, so there is playing time to be had. These two players must take advantage before the rest of the class arrives this summer.

3. Linebacker.

— Junior Ryan Shazier, the Buckeyes' leading tackler from a season ago, is the only returning starter at the linebacker position this fall. Because of this, Meyer made the position his main focal point in recruiting, bagging two All-American backers in Mike Mitchell (Plano, TX) and Trey Johnson (Lawrenceville, Ga.). 

Unfortunately, the two freshmen — who will push hard for starting positions this fall — will not be available until the summer, so a big spring by veterans Curtis Grant, Jamal Marcus, David Perkins, Joshua Perry, Luke Roberts and Camren Williams is mandatory.

Linebacker is by far the biggest question mark going into the season, and answers need to come this spring.

4. Jordan Hall.

— The fifth-year senior, who was granted a medical red-shirt last season with a foot, then knee injury, will be one to keep an eye on this spring.

Hall's role this coming season is sort of a mystery. He has played mostly tailback during his career in Columbus, but with the huge emergence of now-starter Carlos Hyde, as well as the promising play of Rod Smith and Bri'onte Dunn, Hall's talents may be better served in the slot.

Only thing is, Meyer is surely going to use incoming freshman phenoms Marshall, Elliott and Wilson in those roles this fall, so Hall's prospects become even more unclear.

It's going to be quite interesting to see how Meyer plans to employ Hall into a crowded stable of offensive weapons.

5. Dealing with expectation.

— Last season, the Buckeyes were under a one-year bowl ban, so there really wasn't a whole lot of pressure for the team to succeed. However, after going through the 2012 campaign unbeaten, the Buckeyes are looked at as huge contenders for a national championship berth.

In 2012, they had the luxury to develop, to find their identity. In 2013, though, the Buckeyes are expected to win. Better yet, they are expected to go unbeaten.

The way they deal with these lofty expectations — especially this spring — will go a long way toward accomplishing their goals of winning a Big Ten title and a national championship this fall.

That journey begins Tuesday.

Note: For spring practice news, notes and updates, check out The Bryan Times, TheBuckeyeTimes.com, as well as Twitter (@LeeHudnell_TBT) daily throughout camp.