4 things to watch in Ohio State’s season opener at Minnesota

Sports

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — It’s the moment Buckeye fans have waited for since January 12 — Ohio State is playing football again. The Buckeyes begin their 2021 football season Thursday night at 8:00 against Minnesota and below are four things to watch for in OSU’s first game.

How will C.J. Stroud perform?

COLUMBUS, OH – APRIL 17: Quarterback C.J. Stroud #7 of the Ohio State Buckeyes passes during the Spring Game at Ohio Stadium on April 17, 2021 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

C.J. Stroud was named Ohio State’s starting quarterback two weeks ago but has had ample time to prepare for the 2021 season thanks to a full fall and spring camp, something OSU didn’t have last year due to COVID.

Despite all the practice, the fact remains that the redshirt freshman has never thrown a pass in a game. It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes for Stroud to get comfortable in the pocket and get into a rhythm. Ohio State’s wide receivers said Stroud is more of a pocket passer than his predecessor, Justin Fields, so keep an eye out for whether Stroud stays in the pocket or scrambles around too much, which could be a sign of nervousness.

Can Ohio State establish the run?

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – JANUARY 11: Master Teague III #33 of the Ohio State Buckeyes rushes for an eight yard touchdown during the first quarter of the College Football Playoff National Championship game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Hard Rock Stadium on January 11, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Getting Stroud comfortable starts with an obvious necessity — running the ball. It sounds simple enough but OSU struggled to do so early last season before eventually becoming the only team to throw and run for more than 250 yards a game. Ohio State has shaken up its offensive line but the changes should be for the better with Thayer Munford moving to left guard, Dawand Jones moving to right tackle, Harry Miller playing center and Paris Johnson Jr. sliding in to right guard and Nicholas Petit-Frere at left tackle.

The question isn’t so much can the Buckeyes offensive line but rather can Ohio State’s running backs take advantage of the holes created by the o-line? Master Teague returns after splitting carries with Trey Sermon through the first five games until Teague suffered a concussion, which allowed Sermon to become the feature back starting with his record-breaking performance in the Big Ten Championship. Teague’s area of weakness at time last year was a lack of vision at the line of scrimmage, which is something the senior says he’s worked on improving throughout the offseason. Sharing carries with Sermon will be Miyan Williams redshirt freshman Miyan Williams who has practiced with the first team on several occasions during fall camp. Sharing carries can prevent any one running back from finding a groove but it’s what the Buckeyes will do in week one along with rotating in true freshman TreVeyon Henderson who’s play is similar to that of J.K. Dobbins. Henderson has the ability to become the best newcomer to this Buckeyes team, so seeing what he can do against Minnesota will be fun to watch.

Is the Buckeyes secondary better?

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – JANUARY 01: Sevyn Banks #7 and Josh Proctor #41 of the Ohio State Buckeyes react they recovered a fumble against the Clemson Tigers in the second half during the College Football Playoff semifinal game at the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 01, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

No position group struggled as much as Ohio State’s secondary in 2020. The Buckeyes were stacked at all the other positions on defense, so the secondary’s flaws weren’t enough to be detrimental. But those flaws were still glaring. The Buckeyes ranked 122nd in the country in passing yards allowed per game (304).

In all fairness to then first-year defensive coordinator and DB coach Kerry Coombs, OSU didn’t have spring or fall practices to figure out how they would replace Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette and Jordan Fuller who were all drafted in 2020.

This season the Buckeyes return several veteran defensive backs, including two outside cornerbacks in Sevyn Banks and Cam Brown who should be able to help turn the unit around from a season ago.

Another returning starter will be Josh Proctor at free safety backed up by Marcus Hooker who has plenty of game experience having played in seven of eight games last year and played in all 14 in games in 2019.

The Buckeyes cover safety, also known as the slot corner, will be a combination of veteran Marcus Williamson and Lathan Ransom. Williamson is a native of Westerville and was one of only three defensive players to start all eight games last season. He’ll be backed up by Ransom who impressed Coombs with his performance in the CFP semifinal win against Clemson. Former quarterback turned defensive back Cameron Martinez will have chances as well after having a full offseason to adjust to the position.

Will lack of linebacker experience hurt the Buckeyes?

Ohio State linebacker Teradja Mitchell (3) rushes the quarterback against Penn State during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. Ohio State defeated Penn State 38-25. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Ohio State lost an alarming amount of talented linebackers from last season. Veterans Baron Browning, Pete Werner, Justin Hilliard and Tuf Borland played in more than 150 games combined. All of them were either drafted or signed to an NFL roster.

Teradja Mitchell, Dallas Gant and K’Vaughan Pope will be the senior leaders in this group and the players who return with the most game experience, but that experience pails in comparison to what the group above had entering last year. Despite that, linebacker coach Al Washington is confident in his unit.

“I’m very comfortable with the group, comfortable with their character, their talent,” linebackers coach Al Washington said. “They’ve put themselves in position to do everything up to this point, so I’m very confident in each of those guys.”

Anchoring the defense at inside linebacker will be a pair of sophomores in Cody Simon and Tommy Eichenberg, who have played in four games combined. There will be growing pains in the middle of OSU’s defense, but the talent upfront should help them ease into the starting role.

Another linebacker to keep an eye out for is USC transfer Palaie Gaoteote who is still awaiting an eligibility ruling from the NCAA as he continues to pay his own way at Ohio State.

Lastly, the Buckeyes will not use a traditional three-linebacker set. Instead, OSU will utilize a bullet safety, which serves as a hybrid between linebacker and defensive back. That role will be filled by junior Ronnie Hickman, sophomore Craig Young, and freshman Kourt Williams II. Who plays that position will depend on down and distance as well as what look the opposing offense presents to the defense throughout a game.

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