COLUMBUS — Pay no mind to your iced-over thermometer.
Today, the calendar in Ohio unofficially flips to a time of renewal, blooming Magnolias and songbirds, and ... teeth-rattling hits.
Spring football is here.
Ohio State begins spring practice earlier than ever — and yet not a day too soon for a team in transition looking to scrub its hands of last season’s bitter end.
Expectations are a dash lower this year. Coming off back-to-back losses to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and Clemson in the Orange Bowl, the Buckeyes must fix their defense and replenish their record-setting offense. Gone are four starting offensive linemen and their leading rusher (Carlos Hyde), receiver (Corey Brown), and folk hero bail-out plan (Kenny Guiton).
Star quarterback Braxton Miller, too, will be missing for a couple months. An OSU spokesman said Monday the two-time Big Ten MVP is unlikely to take a snap this spring as he recovers from minor surgery on his throwing shoulder.
Yet Miller’s return and the talent surplus yielded by three straight top-five recruiting classes again makes no aim off limits — including a place in the first four-team playoff.
As for which pieces will go where, here are four spring storylines to watch:
BACKUP QB DERBY: Fans will get an extended preview of the Buckeyes’ future at quarterback.
The battle to back up Miller — and possibly succeed him next season — appears a competition between sophomore Cardale Jones and redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, with offensive coordinator Tom Herman giving Jones the early edge based on experience.
Not that either has much. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Jones, who attended prep school in 2011, has three games of mop-up duty to his name as he enters his fourth year out of Cleveland Glenville. Barrett, a former four-star dual-threat recruit lauded by coaches as a preternatural leader, has not taken a snap since tearing his ACL midway through his senior year of high school in Texas.
You may recall Jones from his viral Twitter post in 2012, which said he did not come to OSU to “play school” and argued “classes are pointless.” But Herman said “he’s a lot smarter than you think.”
“He’s kind of the class clown, but I think he’s grown up a lot and continues to grow up,” he said. “Now all the things we’ve seen in the offseason and off the field have to start translating onto the field.”
Third in line is freshman Stephen Collier, a three-star early enrollee from Georgia.
SECONDARY: New co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash has what coach Urban Meyer calls a “serious responsibility.”
“And that’s to improve our pass defense,” he said. “He’ll be in charge of the entire [secondary].”
A year after the Buckeyes ranked 110th nationally in passing yards allowed, the former Arkansas and Wisconsin coordinator wants a more aggressive, cohesive secondary — and will have a near-clean slate to implement the changes. Junior cornerback Doran Grant is the only full-time returning starter,
Returners in the mix include junior cornerback Armani Reeves, sophomore nickel back Tyvis Powell, and sophomore safety Vonn Bell — all of whom have at least one start — along with cornerback Eli Apple and safeties Cam Burrows, Ron Tanner, and Jayme Thompson.
Thompson, a Central Catholic graduate, is back after missing his freshman season with a severe high-ankle sprain.
REBUILDING THE LINE: An offensive line that stood as OSU’s biggest strength is now its biggest question mark.
Junior Taylor Decker — the Buckeyes’ lone returning starter on the line — will shift from right to left tackle while the other four vacancies are there for the taking. Leading candidates include junior center Jacoby Boren, sophomore guard Pat Elflein, and senior tackle Daryl Baldwin.
Senior Joel Hale is another player to watch as he shifts from defensive tackle to the offensive line.
As for who will run behind these titans, Ezekiel Elliott will get the first crack to replace Hyde. The electric 6-foot, 210-pound sophomore ran for 262 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries last season.
WHO’S GOT NEXT?: Ohio State finished last season with 56 active scholarship players, in part because 15 freshmen redshirted.
Meyer said that won’t happen again with an incoming class he calls his best yet at OSU. Look for seven of those 23 prospects this spring, with the early enrollees including receiver Johnnie Dixon, hybrid run-catch threat Curtis Samuel, and linebacker Raekwon McMillan.
Expect McMillan — a five-star Georgia native billed as the nation’s top linebacker recruit — to make the strongest play for early time.
Meyer has surgery
OSU coach Urban Meyer is doing well after undergoing a brief procedure to drain fluid from a cyst on his brain last weekend, a school spokesman said. He will be on the field for today’s practice.
Doctors first discovered Meyer’s cyst in 1998 when he was an assistant coach at Notre Dame. The latest procedure was to ease pressure that had caused him headaches the past few weeks.