COLUMBUS — Ohio State’s ability to survive, and even thrive, despite losing an historic number of players to the NFL last year might have surprised some people.
A week before the end of this year’s spring practice in Saturday’s spring game, OSU faces that same question again.
Maybe the biggest difference is that after last year’s success at finding replacements, the expectation has become that Ohio State will find a way to do that again.
And the numbers are not as extreme as last season when the Buckeyes had only six returning starters and sent 14 players to the NFL, including nine underclassmen.
Despite that, OSU finished 11-2 and reached the College Football Playoff semifinal round.
This year, Ohio State has 15 returning starters but still has to replace players who left eligibility on the table to go to the NFL, like Gareon Conley, Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore, Raekwon McMillan, Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown, along with its best offensive lineman, fifth-year senior Pat Elflein.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer likes to say spring practice is when the depth chart should be made and preseason practice in August should be for preparing for the season.
Judging by the number of positions for which he named probable starters last week, he must have found answers to many of the questions facing the Buckeyes for 2017.
But there are still questions. Here are 10 questions Ohio State will still be trying to answer on Saturday and which might still be unanswered when fall practice begins.
1. Can it lose players to the NFL early year after year after year and still remain part of college football’s elite? Or could that catch up with the Buckeyes this year or sometime in the future?
2. Will quarterback J.T. Barrett be the J.T. Barrett of 2014? Will he be the J.T. Barrett of 2016? Or will he silence his critics with his best season yet?
3. Will Ohio State find a deep threat receiver because it certainly didn’t have one last year except for one night at Oklahoma when Noah Brown caught four touchdown passes.
4. Will there be a Kevin Wilson effect? The former Indiana head coach, who made the Hoosiers one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous offenses with talent that was not nearly as good as Ohio State’s, is now OSU’s offensive coordinator.
Last year’s offensive coordinator, Ed Warinner, and quarterbacks coach Tim Beck are both gone, which is a pretty strong indicator Meyer didn’t like what he saw on offense in 2016.
5. Can someone be this year’s Malik Hooker or Jerome Baker? Neither of those guys had played enough before last year to lead anyone outside of the coaching staff and their teammates to think they would turn into the stars they became.
6. Will the quarterback of the future separate himself from the competition?
For now, last year’s back-up, Joe Burrow, remains the No. 2 QB behind Barrett, who is in his final college season.
Redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins and true freshman Tate Martell will also be making a case that they should be the heir apparent to Barrett.
7. Will the offensive line be more consistent than it was last year? It did a respectable job of run blocking, which helped the Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in rushing. But its pass blocking left something to be desired.
OSU was sixth in the Big Ten in passing yardage and seventh in the conference in sacks allowed.
8. Will the defensive line, arguably one of the best in the country, put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks than it did last season when it ranked seventh in the Big Ten in that category?
9. Will two-first year starters at cornerback, probably Denzel Ward and Damon Arnette, be able to play close to the level Conley and Lattimore reached last year at that crucial position?
10. Who is the kicker? Who is the punter? Both those jobs will be filled by first-year starters.