By MITCH STACY, AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Despite losing a big chunk of the starting defensive backfield and two top receivers to the NFL draft, Ohio State is in a far better place this spring than last.
Going into spring practice last year, just six starters were returning from a talented team whose best players were lured into the draft, including the top three receivers, three defensive backs and star running back. But coach Urban Meyer’s young team coalesced and made a run all the way to the semifinals of the College Football Playoff, where the Buckeyes were routed by Clemson. They finished 11-2.
Meyer walked onto the indoor practice field at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on Tuesday with far fewer questions about where all the pieces are going to fit.
He has in camp 18 players who either started or saw significant playing time last season, and 10 early enrollees from one of the top recruiting classes in the nation.
“This is as strong a group of leaders as we’ve had, and there’s a bundle of them,” Meyer said.
“We’re very strong at the top, we’re very strong at the bottom (with new recruits),” he said. “Now we got to squeeze it to make sure everybody is productive and everybody provides value. You do that, you’ll have a very fine team. If you don’t, you won’t.”
Here’s a look:
Start with J.T. Barrett, the much-decorated and also much-maligned starting quarterback who chose to return for his fifth year of eligibility rather than go pro. Meyer loves Barrett, who will be given much leeway.
Joe Burrow is the clear No. 2 QB right now, despite Dwayne Haskins and true freshman phenom Tate Martell waiting in the wings.
Mike Weber, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year as a freshman, returns at tailback. Guard Billy Price will slide over from guard to center to fill the All-American shoes of Pat Elfelin. Starters Michael Jordan, Jamarco Jones and Isaiah Prince also return to an offensive line that struggled at times last season and put the passing game in the muck.
Malcolm Pridgeon returns from an injury, returnees Demetrius Knox and Mathew Burrell will compete for the other guard spot, and 5-star recruits Josh Myers and Wyatt Davis could help provide some depth.
“There’s a lot of competition for that spot,” Meyer said.
With H-back Curtis Samuel and wide receiver Noah Brown gone, returning receivers Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin, Binjimin Victor and K.J. Hill, among others, will be expected to pick up the slack. Eric Glover-Williams has made the move from safety to wide receiver and will compete there, too. Demario McCall, who was in the running-back stable, could slide into the H-back slot.
The biggest holes were left by All-American safety Malik Hooker and cornerbacks Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore.
Returning are cornerbacks Damon Arnette and Denzel Ward and safeties Damon Webb and Erick Smith. Ohio State also expects incoming 5-star freshmen Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade, as well as junior college transfer Kendall Sheffield, to compete for spots in that rotation.
The linebacker corps lost star and team captain Raekwon McMillan but should be in good shape. Chris Worley takes over the middle, and Dante Booker, who was injured early last year, and Jerome Baker will flank him.
“Worley’s got the mentality, now we’ve just got to find out if his body can hang in there at the (middle) linebacker spot, because he’s got it all,” Meyer said.
The Buckeyes’ D-line is an embarrassment of riches.
Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Tyquan Lewis decided to come back, as did defensive end Sam Hubbard. Nick Bosa and Jalyn Holmes also are in the rotation at end. Dre’Mont Jones, Tracy Sprinkle, Michael Hill and Robert Landers are among the experienced interior linemen returning.
Former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson takes over as offensive coordinator/tight ends coach, replacing Ed Warinner, who left amid a coaching shakeup following struggles in the passing game and the poor offensive performance against Clemson. Quarterbacks coach Tim Beck also is gone, replaced by Ryan Day.
“The term we use around here is we’re not changing, we’re enhancing what we do. If it was broken we’d have to change it,” Meyer said.
“This year there are things we have to work on and (Wilson is) the perfect guy, him and Ryan Day and our offensive staff, to get them fixed,” he said.
Also, Bill Davis is the new linebackers coach, replacing Luke Fickell, who took the head coaching job at Cincinnati.
Follow Mitch Stacy at http://twitter.com/mitchstacy
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