High hopes

Ohio State kicks off vs. In­di­ana, hop­ing to erase bad mem­o­ries of last sea­son’s fin­ish

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Paul Myer­berg

BLOOM­ING­TON, IND. Ohio State’s push for the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off be­gins Thurs­day night in Bloom­ing­ton, Ind., 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 coach 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 four as­pects to con­sider: the of­fense, the quar­ter­back, 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:

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

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

uCan 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 QUAR­TER­BACK

Speak­ing of Bar­rett, there’s no doubt­ing the drive, lead­er­ship skills and grasp of what Meyer de­mands from the po­si­tion. What might be up for de­bate is whether Bar­rett can re­claim his fresh­man year form, when he pi­loted Ohio State to the doorstep of the Play­off, and make a charge at the Heis­man Tro­phy.

That we’re even dis­cussing that pos­si­bil­ity speaks to Bar­rett’s po­ten­tial in this of­fense. Based on Wil­son’s his­tory, it’s ob­vi­ous that the se­nior will be put into can’tfail sit­u­a­tions, or at least into spots that take ad­van­tage of his pos­i­tives while shy­ing away from his po­ten­tial neg­a­tives.

But here’s one thing about Bar­rett: As much as any­one, if not more so, he was frus­trated by the way the Buck­eyes sys­tem sput­tered in 2016. For a stu­dent-ath­lete never lack­ing for mo­ti­va­tion, the chance to take cen­ter stage in one of col­lege foot­ball’s most quar­ter­back-friendly schemes gives Bar­rett an op­por­tu­nity to turn the page in time for one last push for a ti­tle.

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 top-tier 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.

J.T. BAR­RETT BY GREG BAR­TRAM, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

MIKE CARTER, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Quar­ter­back J.T. Bar­rett helped Ohio State win the 2014 na­tional ti­tle and would love to de­liver a sec­ond tro­phy.

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