Tal­ented Ohio State be­gins ti­tle quest

Chicago Sun-Times - - FOOTBALL - @PaulMyer­berg USA TO­DAY Sports Paul Myer­berg

Ohio State’s push for the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off be­gins Thurs­day with a matchup against In­di­ana that has no short­age of story lines.

Right off the bat: The Buck­eyes’ new of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, Kevin Wil­son, re­signed as the head coach at In­di­ana in De­cem­ber amid al­le­ga­tions of player mis­treat­ment, adding a layer of in­trigue to this sea­son- open­ing pair­ing.

But there’s far more to keep in mind as No. 2 Ohio State takes aim at a re­turn trip to the Play­off, af­ter last sea­son’s hum­bling loss to Clem­son in the Fi­esta Bowl. That was a last- straw mo­ment for Urban Meyer, who quickly jet­ti­soned for­mer co­or­di­na­tor Tim Beck in fa­vor of Wil­son, the for­mer Ok­la­homa as­sis­tant with a rep­u­ta­tion as one of col­lege foot­ball’s top of­fen­sive minds.

The of­fense will be un­der the spot­light, po­ten­tially over­shad­ow­ing the fac­tors — known and un­known — that could ei­ther lift this pro­gram to its sec­ond na­tional cham­pi­onship un­der Meyer or lead OSU to cede the Big Ten Con­fer­ence East Divi­sion to Penn State or ri­val Michi­gan.

As the Buck­eyes pre­pare for the opener, here are three as­pects to con­sider: the of­fense, the de­fen­sive line and the sec­ondary.

THE OF­FENSE

The big­gest change to Ohio State’s at­tack is in pace and tempo, two fac­tors — along with elite quar­ter­back play and a var­ied list of skill tal­ent — that de­fined Wil­son’s scheme dur­ing an im­pres­sive stint with Ok­la­homa.

What might be slightly over­looked is how Wil­son’s phi­los­o­phy of at­tack­ing de­fenses en­tails shar­ing the wealth, which might rep­re­sent an equally pro­found change from the Buck­eyes’ 2016 sys­tem. A year ago, OSU was sim­ply too re­liant on all- pur­pose stand­out Cur­tis Sa­muel; that wasn’t ev­i­dent against most teams but painfully clear when fac­ing off against the elite op­po­nents on its sched­ule.

Thurs­day night’s kick­off will be­gin to an­swer three im­por­tant ques­tions fac­ing the of­fense:

u How fast can Ohio State move — or how many plays can this of­fense cram into 60 min­utes?

u Will the run­ning game find suc­cess along the in­te­rior, from one guard to the other?

u Can Wil­son find a way to get the ball out of quar­ter­back J. T. Bar­rett’s hands and into the arms of the Buck­eyes’ tal­ented crop of skill play­ers?

THE DE­FEN­SIVE LINE

The ar­gu­ment over which team brings the hardi­est de­fen­sive line into 2017 re­ally fo­cuses on two teams: Ohio State and Clem­son. While the Tigers’ front is down­right filthy — hav­ing Dex­ter Lawrence along­side Chris­tian Wilkins at tackle is just mean — no team can sniff the Buck­eyes’ depth.

How deep? Loaded enough at end, for ex­am­ple, that the Buck­eyes have tin­kered with an align­ment that puts five on the field si­mul­ta­ne­ously. In part, the abil­ity to trot out ex­otic for­ma­tions is a tes­ta­ment not only to the unit’s depth but in­di­vid­ual play­ers’ abil­ity to flex be­tween mul­ti­ple po­si­tions; se­nior Ja­lyn Holmes can play end, tackle or stand up as a rush line­backer, for in­stance.

That’s scary. But it doesn’t stop there. Tyquan Lewis. Nick Bosa. Sam Hub­bard. Holmes. Fresh­men Chase Young and Jonathon Cooper. And that’s just on the out­side. Tracy Sprin­kle and Dre’Mont Jones hold down the fort along the in­te­rior, giv­ing the Buck­eyes enough qual­ity bod­ies to roll out wave af­ter wave of top­tier tal­ent at op­pos­ing of­fenses.

THE SEC­ONDARY

One more ques­tion to con­sider: How ca­pa­bly can Ohio State re­build a de­fen­sive back­field that lost three starters to the first round of the NFL draft? ( Yes, three.) Ma­lik Hooker, Marshon Lat­ti­more and Gareon Con­ley leave big shoes to fill. But re­cent his­tory is on the Buck­eyes’ side.

Like, very re­cent his­tory. Don’t for­get that the sec­ondary was a po­ten­tial ques­tion mark head­ing into last sea­son, when the de­fense had to re­place three starters. The pass de­fense was even bet­ter. There’s no doubt that OSU’s de­fen­sive staff feels con­fi­dent in what the new cast brings to the ta­ble.

The lead­er­ship role falls to se­nior safety Da­mon Webb, the lone re­turn­ing starter. But the break­out star might be ju­nior cor­ner­back Den­zel Ward, who has next- level speed and has shown flashes of big- play po­ten­tial. Op­po­site Ward, the Buck­eyes will lean on sopho­mores Da­mon Ar­nette and Ken­dall Sh­effield, the lat­ter a five- star ju­nior col­lege trans­fer. Ex­pec­ta­tions are high for Sh­effield.

MIKE CARTER, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

J. T. Bar­rett helped Ohio State win the 2014 na­tional ti­tle and wants to add a sec­ond tro­phy.

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