Ohio State Football: Projecting Who Will Win Buckeyes' Open Starting Positions
The Ohio State Buckeyes are less than three months away from kicking off the 2014 season, and when they take the field against Navy in Baltimore, there will be a host of new faces in the starting lineup.
Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes must replace 10 starters from last year's team (six on offense, four on defense). On top of that, a few returning starters are being pushed by some very talented, yet unproven, underclassmen.
Fall camp will provide the coaching staff with an opportunity to see who's ready to step up and contribute. Who will emerge this fall and help Braxton Miller make a push at major college football's first-ever playoff?
Carlos Hyde's shoes will be nearly impossible to fill this year, but Ezekiel Elliott is primed to step into the starting role.
As a freshman last season, Elliott made the most of his limited opportunities. The former 4-star stud from St. Louis ran for 262 yards on just 30 carries—averaging 8.7 yards per carry—to complement 23 receiving yards and three total touchdowns.
His best game came against lowly Florida A&M, when he ran for 162 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. He played in just half of Ohio State's 14 games last year, but that will change in a big way this fall.
Elliott was the most consistent ball-carrier this spring, but offensive coordinator Tom Herman said he played like a freshman occasionally, according to Ari Wasserman of The Plain Dealer.
That opened the door for running backs Bri'onte Dunn, Warren Ball and even true freshman Curtis Samuel. Senior Rod Smith was Elliott's top contender this spring, but his run at the starting spot was derailed when he had to bail out of practice to catch up on academics.
It won't take Elliott long to solidify his status as Ohio State's top running back this fall.
Even though Ohio State has two multiyear senior starters at wide receiver, Urban Meyer doesn't know what the group will look like this year.
Neither senior—Devin Smith or Evan Spencer—is guaranteed his spot in the starting rotation. That development came after an uninspiring spring camp (Spencer didn't play as he recovered from offseason surgery) in addition to the emergence of some younger players.
Dontre Wilson locked up the starting H-back spot and will replace Corey Brown, who led Ohio State in receiving in each of the last two years. Smith and Spencer will battle Michael Thomas and Corey Smith for the other two spots.
Spencer will have the hardest time regaining his starting spot. After coming back from injury, he'll struggle to hold off Thomas, who will surge past him this fall. Devin Smith will thrive, though, and lock up the other outside receiver position before the season opener.
Ohio State's most depleted unit is its offensive line.
After the O-line anchoring the team for two straight years, Urban Meyer must find replacements for four senior starters. The lone returner—Taylor Decker—has flipped from right tackle to the left side in order to protect Braxton Miller's blind side.
Only one of the four vacancies was filled during spring practice. Pat Elflein secured the right guard spot, much like he did late last season when he filled in for the suspended Marcus Hall.
That leaves the left guard, center and right tackle positions.
At left guard, Antonio Underwood and Joel Hale are battling. Underwood is coming off a torn ACL, but his strong play didn't reflect that this spring. Hale is adjusting to life on offense after flipping from the defensive line, but his incredible strength is an added bonus on the interior of the line.
While Hale is surging, it's safe to bet on Underwood closing out the competition.
The center position featured two candidates this spring in Jacoby Boren and Billy Price, both of whom showed they have what it takes to anchor Ohio State's offensive line. Neither, unfortunately, will get the opportunity to do so. Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay, who will be eligible to play this season, will come in and win the job this fall.
Darryl Baldwin is in a great position to lock down the right tackle spot.
He battled Evan Lisle this spring, and that fight should extend through the summer and into fall camp. Baldwin has the ideal build and athleticism for the right tackle spot—he's 6'6" and moves incredibly well at 307 pounds—and this year, he'll finally shed his backup label.
Two freshmen are on the verge of stealing the show at linebacker.
With Joshua Perry firmly entrenched in Ryan Shazier's vacated spot, redshirt freshman Darron Lee surged to become the surprise of spring practice.
Lee, who played quarterback and defensive back as a 3-star prospect in high school, blew past Trey Johnson and Chris Worley to take most of the first-team reps for Ohio State's other outside linebacker spot.
He will hold everyone off and lock down a starting role early in fall camp.
The other freshman who really impressed this spring was Raekwon McMillan, the 5-star middle linebacker who enrolled early to take part in spring drills.
He came to Columbus with the physical maturity of a junior, and when spring practice kicked off, he played like one. McMillan pushed senior Curtis Grant for the starting middle linebacker spot, and when fall drills start up, the position will be up for grabs.
McMillan will earn a lot of playing time, but Grant's experience will be too much for him to overcome.
Ohio State's secondary was the team's Achilles' heel last season. The Buckeyes allowed 268 passing yards per game, which ranked No. 110 in the country.
Three starters from that group—cornerback Bradley Roby and both safeties—need to be replaced.
The Buckeyes have identified their second cornerback for the base 4-3 defense. Armani Reeves, who filled in when Roby missed time last year, will start opposite Doran Grant. Eli Apple and Gareon Conley, however, will be firmly in the rotation, especially when Ohio State goes to its nickel or dime packages.
Tyvis Powell locked up one of the safety spots very early in the spring. Vonn Bell was expected to do the same, but a knee injury on the first day of spring drills sidelined him for the entire camp.
That opened the door for Cameron Burrows, and the sophomore capitalized. Bell is finally healthy and "100 percent," according to Ari Wasserman of The Plain Dealer, which is great news for the Buckeyes.
Bell and Burrows will battle for the last open spot in the secondary. Despite Burrows' solid spring, Bell will thrive this fall and win the job.
David Regimbal is the lead Ohio State football writer for Bleacher Report.