We’ll start with the running backs (Here’s the quarterbacks eval, in case you missed it): What a loaded position. I feel comfortable with all five of the scholarship tailbacks on the roster dotting the ‘i’ in a power formation this fall (and I bet we see that formation a lot).
Boom Herron outperformed most expectations last season as he turned in an All-Big Ten season, but he will not be available for the first five weeks of his senior campaign, so who is next in line?
Well the second guy off the bench in spring was often Jordan Hall. I like what he brings to the table – short and quick, he runs with some savvy. His low center of gravity makes him hard to tackle, and he has good hands. Carlos Hyde is a big back with surprising agility, and he runs with a sort of violence that is admirable. I still like Jaamal Berry better than both of them, but it remains to be seen if he can earn the coaches’ trust. He has great acceleration and runs hard behind his pads with surprising strength for a back his size. He can make tacklers miss, too, but can he stay healthy and hang onto the ball? Then there’s Rod Smith, who showed exactly why his teammates raved about him during bowl practice. He is a smooth, glider with long legs who really does have a little bit of Eddie George in him (though he doesn’t look as big as Eddie). The No. 1 thing you notice about Smith is how he can plant his foot, cut and get back up to speed quickly and effortlessly. He doesn’t seem to waste much motion. He’s more graceful and a less violent runner than Beanie Wells.
So who will emerge from this group? Hard to say. The coaches did not rush Smith to the top of the depth chart (that was consistent with pretty much all the younger players out there), but they gave him a lot of reps nonetheless during the scrimmages we were allowed to watch. Not knowing how reliable he is at the non-running back things, it is hard to speculate what kind of chance he has to jump to the front of the line, but it seems foolish to rule that out. Something tells me he may be the guy to beat when all is said and done.
Adding intrigue to the situation is the possibility Hall could be destined for some time in the slot. They put him there (Herron and Berry, too) regularly during spring ball, and he seems like he could be dangerous. Having a second year to work on that and the added benefit of a guy like Stan Drayton, the new wide receivers coach who had to work on teaching his running backs to play out of the slot while part of Urban Meyer’s staff at Florida, could make a difference. Perhaps young Mr. Hall could reprise some of Brandon Saine’s hybrid role of the past couple of seasons, although Hall is smaller than Saine, not to mention far quicker and shiftier.
Fullback remains in good hands, of course, as Zach Boren returns with Adam Homan and now David Durham behind him. I like the all-around skills of Boren and Homan, and Durham seems to have the right combination of size and speed to handle fullback if he puts his mind to it. All three are good athletes, not just battering rams.
Tight end looks outstanding as Jake Stoneburner and Reid Fragel return. Stoneburner was a nice safety valve for Terrelle Pryor early last season before spraining an ankle, and he continues to develop in all facets of the game. Stoneburner is a willing blocker whose skill in that area has improved, but Fragel can be a real difference maker in the running game. Fragel is big and has big hands and long arms he can get onto a guy and turn whichever way he wants. He’s a solid option in the passing game, too, although he’s not as quick or elusive as Stoneburner. Then you add freshman Jeff Heuerman to the group (along with returning senior walk-on Spencer Smith) and you’ve really got something. Heuerman is a big dude the quarterbacks were already looking for in seven-on-seven drills and scrimmage action. He looks like he has a lot of potential with room to add good weight.
The offensive line seemed to answer all the questions that were answerable this spring (that is to say, there was nothing that could be done about depth until reinforcements arrive during the summer). I wondered who would take that left tackle spot that Mike Adams won’t be able to fill for the first five games, and while there is still not a particular name, that’s not really a bad thing. Andrew Norwell was the player center Mike Brewster identified as the most impressive youngster among the offensive linemen, and that is important because he figures to be relied upon. Big, athletic and possessing a bit of a nasty streak, the sky seems the limit for Norwell. He practiced some at guard, but I still think he’s one of the top two options at tackle (joining returning starter J.B. Shugarts, who had a positive spring himself as his long-time foot problems seemed to subside). Marcus Hall looked to be in the mix at tackle or guard, and I think he’s better suited to play inside because the strength of his upper body and legs is greater than the lateral quickness of his feet. He could survive on the perimeter, but I think he fits better inside as long as someone else proves capable of handling tackle.
Determining separation at guard between sophomores Jack Mewhort and Corey Linsley was difficult, but both look like they can help this fall, and that’s good because one will have to. Both have experience at center, so either seems suited to either a full-time role or that of a utility player, although Linsley seemed to be responsible for most of the of center-quarterback exchanges we saw during sprain gall.
Brewster, of course, was Brewster, as he handled line calls and dealt with one talented nose guard after another. He bulked up in order to deal with some of the big boys inside this season. He got a lot of work with a multitude of groups because of the lack of numbers up front. (Have to wonder if the door is open for freshman Brian Bobek to slide in as the backup center this fall)
Lastly, I don’t think I’m alone in being unsure what to make of the receivers. While DeVier Posey looked excellent most of the time, he is not available for the start of the season. Behind him, Corey “Philly” Brown is obviously gifted with great speed, but he could stand to catch the ball more consistently and adding some strength to avoid getting knocked off routes seems like a good idea. No one else stepped up until the last week of spring ball, at which point Verlon Reed and T.Y. Williams both had a couple of notable plays. I like what Reed, a former quarterback, can do with the ball in his hands and have since seeing him at the Ohio North-South Allstar game last spring. He’s agile and quick and can break arm tackles. Williams is impossible to miss because of his raw size, and he showed he can run pretty well when he snagged that Taylor Graham pass while streaking down the sideline for a long touchdown, but he needs to toughen up, too. In one scrimmage, he had several balls thrown his way that were a bit off target but still close enough to him he could get his hands on, yet he did not bring in any of them.
Chris Fields, a third-year sophomore whose time would seem to need to be nearing, still looks like a candidate to help this fall. He has been compared to Santonio Holmes in the past, and he does have a similar build (not necessarily a good thing) and agility but probably not the top-end explosion that makes Holmes truly special. Still, Fields can run after the catch and showed nice open-field running ability on a kickoff return and a couple of jailbreak screens.
James Louis, who came here from Florida amid high expectations prior to last season, had one catch in the three scrimmages we watched (including the spring game) and seems to have fallen behind classmates Reed and Williams. He’ll need to have a good summer and get off to a good start this fall with four-star prospects Devin Smith and Evan Spencer set to arrive. Smith in particular was impressive during this year’s North-South Allstar Game and practices. He’s a long-strider and a great athlete who also seems to have a great attitude.