Rapp Around: What Have We Learned?

By Jeff Rapp, April 15th, 2017

So much for not scoring any points.

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson put that to bed early and often by devising a Scarlet and Gray Game plan that featured lots of footballs crossing goal lines.

When last we saw the Buckeyes, that was not the case. Meyer suffered the first shutout loss of his head coaching career as OSU was skunked 31-0 by eventual national champion Clemson in the semifinals of the 2016 College Football Playoff.

Meyer, of course, wasn’t about to accept that showing. When co-offensive coordinators Tim Beck and Ed Warinner felt unwelcome and went elsewhere – Texas and Minnesota, respectively, to be precise – Meyer tabbed former Indiana head coach Wilson to run the offense and change the culture.

With Wilson under a headset on the west sideline of Ohio Stadium on Saturday afternoon, offensive players emerged. By the end of the first quarter, the score was 14-10 and three different players found pay dirt after catching passes from each of OSU’s top three quarterbacks.

It was almost as if it were ordered. In fact, in the second period when Terry McLaurin dragged his back foot and may or may not have had total control of a pass to the back of the end zone, officials simply signaled the touchdown. No need to review it and no way those six points were going to be taken off the board.

That impressive 22-yard scoring play and extra point made the score Scarlet 28, Gray 24 at halftime. It would end up 38-31 with the Scarlet on top after the defense held in the final minutes.

But forget about spring football drama, if there is such a thing. After all, this was a day when Meyer and others stood just yards behind the quarterbacks in the backfield and longtime starter J.T. Barrett was hamming it up with Cardale Jones and fans at halftime instead of talking about schemes in the locker room.

New assistants Ryan Day (left) and Kevin Wilson already are putting their stamp on the offense.

Let’s not get too over analytical about a scrimmage where QBs were off-limits and whistles stopped play in the first quarter so defenders could patty-cake ball carriers. We know this defense is going to be solid if not spectacular, but on this day we didn’t get a lot more insight into that unit’s outlook.

For example, we shouldn’t overplay Jonathon Cooper’s second-quarter sack of Joe Burrow given Burrow couldn’t find anyone open, didn’t really attempt to escape the pocket and basically walked into Cooper’s arms. Still, Cooper, who made five tackles on the afternoon, got to feel like part of the defense even if he appears to be third string at defensive end at the moment.

So what should we take from this “game?” Glad you asked.

Barrett’s backups can sling it. You knew No. 16 was going to look comfortable and return to his accurate ways in his last Spring Game and with many questioning his development. What was less clear was how the reserve QBs would fare. Talk about Dwayne Haskins was buzzing this spring, especially after he made several professional-looking throws in the Spring Game. Even though he’s athletic and likely able to hurt defenses with his feet, he didn’t look comfortable when throwing on the move. When set up in the pocket, however, No. 7 was a marvel with a strong-wristed release and beautiful touch. Meanwhile, Burrow underthrew an early TD to walk-on Ke’Von Huguely a bit but still showed his trademark accuracy and poise. He finished 14 of 22 for 262 yards and three scores. Haskins, who was a double-agent during the game, ended up 26 of 37 for 293 yards and three TDs of his own. This battle bears watching well into the fall.

Burrow sums up an outstanding day in the sun.

Meyer was quick to praise the play of all four QBs. That includes hotshot freshman Tate Martell: “All four quarterbacks in the last three weeks have been exceptional. They’ve done a very good job. I thought Dwayne and Joe Burrow played well. J.T., he threw a pick when he got hit, but I thought once again his accuracy was right on target, like it’s been most of the spring. So very good spring for our quarterbacks.”

A.J. Alexander could be a factor. We do this every year. We talk about tight ends being more involved. After all, they’re free to go out into patterns in practices. But with starter Marcus Baugh out because of an injured shoulder that required surgery, backup A.J. Alexander was matched with the ones on the Gray squad and performed well. He caught four balls including the first score of the day and appears to be a nice two-way option.

Demario McCall picked up where he left off and Johnnie Dixon is coming to life. One of these two speedsters will have to impersonate Curtis Samuel, especially if Parris Campbell isn’t well-suited for the H-back role. McCall is more of a running back and Dixon is developing into a weapon at receiver. Each had crowd-pleasing moments on Saturday and in other scrimmages. McCall led all runners in the Spring Game with 83 rushing yards including a 34-yard burst. Dixon was the standout of the day with six catches for 106 yards and two scores, including a 44-yarder.

Greg Schiano’s secondary looked lost. Again, it’s an intrasquad scrimmage and a lot of players were shuffled in and out. But even so, the defensive backfield was easily confused and out of position. The good news is they have months to figure out the issues. The bad news is that young corners such as Shaun Wade, Rodjay Burns and Kendall Sheffield were easily beat for TDs. Meyer noticed the early struggles but did point out that the group settled down and played better in the second half. Also, it should be noted that true freshman Jeffrey Okudah looks like the real deal, which means future stud at corner.

Sean Nuernberger could become important. Even if the Buckeyes do indeed get rolling again on offense, the kicking game will be needed again at some point. Think of last year’s Michigan game, for example, when Tyler Durbin missed a couple chippies then was able to match a clutch field goal to send the game to overtime. Durbin is gone and Nuernberger is healthy again and expected to have the job. Nuernberger easily made a 42-yarder and banged one through from even father out on a practice kick moments later. We’ll just have to see how this develops in a pressure situation.

Justin Hilliard may finally be ready to contribute. Even on a day when it was difficult for the defense to shine, linebacker Hilliard had a noteworthy performance with a game-high seven tackles including one for loss where he got into the backfield like a rocket. Once a five-star recruit out of Cincinnati, Hilliard’s career has been halted by injuries, especially a torn biceps. “He’s an extremely strong worker,” said senior defensive end Tyquan Lewis, who is a workout partner of Hilliard. To overcome that, it shows tremendous dedication in the rehab room for one. And just the heart to keep coming back.” Added Meyer, “He’s another guy like Johnnie Dixon. He’s been hurt since he got here. So you’re not aware what he can do. I think he’s had a very good spring. We certainly need him to be in the rotation at linebacker.”

Meyer closed his postgame comments admitting that he’s “very pleased” with the overall arc of this team.

“I would be disappointed if I said we’re awful right now,” he said. “But very pleased. Couple areas we’ve got to shore up, and I don’t think we’re nine strong, but I think we’re seven strong right now. And that’s pretty good in April to be that.”

Meyer is happy with the progress of the 2017 Buckeyes to this point.

Meyer wouldn’t say which two units of the team were lacking – “That’s between me and the two,” he said – but it’s safe to say one of the seven he likes is the defensive line, where the Buckeyes are loaded with quality and talent. After the game, defensive end Tyquan Lewis talked confidently not only about his position group but about the overall outlook of the team.

“Every year, we all have expectations, and my expectation is to be the best team in the country week-in and week-out, and like Coach Meyer said, be nine units strong,” he said. “That’s my expectation. If you do that, you’re bound to win every game. That’s just how I look at it. I don’t look at a national championship. It’s one game at a time, one practice at a time. But I can definitely say this team is on the rise.”

Other Highlights
— Honorary coach Lou Holtz received a warm ovation when announced to the crowd during the first half. Holtz, who was an OSU assistant on the 1968 national championship team and went on to a Hall of Fame career as a head coach, most notably at Notre Dame, tipped his cap and smiled with Meyer by his side at midfield. Holtz is an Ohio native who hails from east Liverpool.

— Similarly, former Buckeye standouts Joey Bosa and Ezekiel Elliott received roars as they waved to the crowd from the field during the first quarter. The videoboard showed a robust highlight package of their rookie seasons in San Diego and Dallas, respectively. Bosa was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year after racking up 41 tackles, 19 for loss, 10.5 sacks and 15 QB hits in just 12 games (a holdout delayed his NFL debut). Zeke, as he still answers to in Columbus, was the NFL Rookie of the Year after threatening and all-time single-season rushing record and logging a Cowboys’ rookie franchise record 1,631 yards rushing and an NFL rookie record 15 touchdowns. He added 363 yards and another TD as a receiver.

— The crowd was announced at 80,134 and ticket sales were cut off during the week despite a charge of $5 when the maximum 82,000 were sold. There was no seating in the upper deck on the east side of the stadium as those benches have been removed in preparation for a renovation project.

— With six seconds left in the game, teenage superfan Jacob Jarvis came onto the field and was handed the football on the game’s final play. Wheelchair-bound from muscular dystrophy, Jarvis scooted off left tackle and scored past diving defenders for a touchdown, although the points were not added to the score. Meyer said that the play was the brain child of team leaders and he approved once team officials figured out how to run it with complete safety. Jarvis has been closely connected to the program for years and has a special bond with several current and former Buckeyes, including Jeff Heuerman. Meyer said Jarvis is “family.” Added Lewis, “Jacob is one of us. Not everyone is fortunate enough to do what we do. For him to score a touchdown in the ’Shoe in front of 80,000, it does a lot for everybody in the stadium.”