Ohio State spring game takeaways: Ryan Day’s offense has a long way to go

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The excitement of college football’s first nationally televised spring game radiated through Ohio Stadium long before kickoff on Saturday afternoon. There were carefully curated tunes being spun by an on-field DJ and droves of recruits shaking hands with the Buckeyes’ coaches. There was a pep talk from FOX Sports analyst Joel Klatt on the video screens and scores of high-profile alumni roaming the sidelines.

More than 80,000 fans flocked to The Horseshoe for their first glimpse of a highly anticipated team in a highly anticipated season for head coach Ryan Day, who can’t afford many slip-ups — if any — after losing to Michigan three consecutive years. The message Day shared with Klatt during a pre-game interview was prescient: This season is all about “beating the team up north and winning a national championship.”

At first blush, the pieces might be there for the Buckeyes to make that kind of run. Saturday’s spring game, which pitted the offense against the defense and used a modified scoring system, became a showcase for Ohio State’s tremendous depth at the skill positions and overall talent on defense. That the first stringers couldn’t be tackled — a decision made by Day and his staff — did little to quell the excitement in Columbus.

The afternoon ended as a 34-33 victory for the Scarlet (offense) over the Gray (defense), but the final score was hardly an accurate reflection of what unfolded. This year’s spring game belonged to the defense as long as the first and second units were on the field. The offense still has a way to go and another quarterback competition to settle. 

Here are three takeaways from the game: 

Quarterback roulette 

Even as kickoff for Saturday’s spring game approached, there was a layer of uncertainty surrounding which quarterback Day and offensive coordinator Chip Kelly would select as the starter, albeit on a temporary basis. Would it be Will Howard, the high-profile transfer from Kansas State? Or would it be Devin Brown, the most experienced returner and the backup to Kyle McCord last season?

When the offense trotted onto the field for the opening possession, it was Howard who earned the nod, his 6-foot-4, 237-pound frame certainly looking the part of a mature and experienced signal-caller. Brown, sophomore Lincoln Kienholz and true freshman Julian Sayin also took reps with the first unit as Kelly rolled his personnel throughout the game. 

Ohio State football spring game highlights

Ohio State football spring game highlights

On an afternoon when the offense struggled, Brown produced the first touchdown on a pass to wide receiver Brennen Schramm with 1:33 remaining in the second quarter. The connection gave Ohio State’s offense a 1-point lead over the defense in a modified scoring format. Brown also added several nice gains with his legs on quarterback runs, an element of the offense Day says he plans to incorporate regardless of who wins the job, and gained 24 yards on the ground. 

Howard’s best moment came on a deep throw to wide receiver Emeka Egbuka, who punctuated his corner route with a beautiful one-handed grab that drew an audible gasp from the crowd. The completion gave Ohio State’s offense the ball near the 20-yard line, but three subsequent throws by Howard into the end zone fell incomplete: two to star freshman Jeremiah Smith, one to Egbuka. 

“I wouldn’t say that I’m gonna make any declarations right now,” Day said when asked about the starting job. “But we’ll look at the film and see what it looks like. And then, you know, decide where to go from there. But I don’t have much to say about it right now.”

Here’s how each quarterback performed: 

  • Howard — 9-of-13 for 77 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs
  • Brown — 5-of-7 for 66 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs
  • Kienholz — 10-of-17 for 71 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs
  • Sayin — 9-of-15 for 77 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT

Ohio State’s Will Howard links up with Emeka Egbuka who makes a RIDICULOUS one-handed grab

Ohio State's Will Howard links up with Emeka Egbuka who makes a RIDICULOUS one-handed grab

Dominant defense

One of the biggest storylines from Ohio State’s offseason was the tremendous player retention by Day and his staff, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The collective decisions by starters JT Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer, Denzel Burke, Tyleik Williams, Ty Hamilton and Lathan Ransom to return for another year after finishing the 2023 campaign ranked third nationally in total defense (265.4 yards per game) gave coordinator Jim Knowles a nucleus that is among the most talented in college football. It’s the reason the Buckeyes’ defense has reportedly outperformed the offense across the team’s 15 spring practices.

“When you look at our defense,” Day said, “when you look at the back end, you look at the front and then those linebackers, I mean, it’s a good-looking group. And you saw that all spring. They’re flying around, they’re getting it. And they all want to play more and show off in this game.”

That trend held true again on Saturday as the defense forced turnover after turnover and disrupted drive after drive when the Buckeyes’ leading quarterbacks and most experienced personnel were on the field. Knowles’ third-down blitz package proved particularly disruptive against an Ohio State offensive line that only lost one starter — right guard Matt Jones — but was underwhelming for most of last season. In Tuimoloau and Sawyer, the Buckeyes have two established Big Ten edge rushers. In linebackers Cody Simon, C.J. Hicks and Sonny Styles, who converted from safety, Knowles has more athleticism and speed in the middle of the field.

All of which made life easier for a secondary that snared three interceptions through the first three quarters — at which point all primary contributors were removed — and tallied six additional pass breakups. The highlight of the afternoon came from safety Jaylen McClain, who picked off Sayin and returned the interception for a touchdown with a lengthy run down the left sideline.  

“I think it’s become an expectation now,” Knowles said. “Our DBs (defensive backs), you know, are BIA: Best In America.”

It wasn’t until the back half of the third quarter that Ohio State’s offense finally chugged to life and took the lead. But by that point, the players on the field were mostly reserves and underclassmen.

Impact freshman

There was a reason why, during the early signing period, Day feigned a collapse while addressing the local media for his annual news conference to discuss the incoming recruits. In real time, Day had just been informed that wide receiver Jeremiah Smith, the No. 1 overall prospect in the 247Sports Composite Rankings, had committed to Ohio State after last-minute pushes from other suitors. 

At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, and with a combination of speed, agility and body control that would make some of the best receivers in college football jealous, Smith arrived at Ohio State with a reputation as arguably the best prospect at his position in nearly 20 years. The player most often mentioned as Smith’s competition for that honor is former Alabama star Julio Jones, a five-star prospect from the 2008 recruiting cycle.

The departures of wide receivers Marvin Harrison Jr. (NFL Draft) and Julian Fleming (Penn State) left plenty of reps available for the returners in a stacked receiving corps to claim. Egbuka should elevate to the No. 1 role after catching 41 passes for 515 yards and four touchdowns in an injury-shortened campaign last season, with rising sophomore Carnell Tate (18 catches, 264 yards, 1 TD) supporting him. And Smith doesn’t seem far behind. 

“I think that wide receiver room is really special,” Kelly said. “I think there’s a bunch of guys in there. And again, when you have to play multiple games after the regular season is over, you’re gonna need depth like that. And the fact that you feel a little bit comfortable right now, that we’ve got some guys that can make some plays on the perimeter, [is a good sign]. And that really dictates how people are going to defend you.”

Less than a quarter elapsed before Smith was taking reps with the first-string offense on Saturday, and the breadth of his skill set was readily apparent. He made a sure-handed catch with the defender in his air space and stretched the field vertically with quickness and aerial ability, even when the passes fell incomplete. He carried the ball on an end around and tried his hand returning punts. 

The hype, it seems, is real. 

 Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

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