Around the Big Ten: Ohio State remains the league’s elite

Rick Brown

You know things are going well when the biggest concern heading into the season is who will be your deep-threat receiver. And Braxton Miller just might be the answer.

That’s life these days at Ohio State, where Urban Meyer’s team has a legitimate shot at winning back-to-back national championships. Meyer, 24-0 in Big Ten regular-season games in his three years at Columbus, will make that 32-0 unless there’s an upset along the way.

He enters the season with an embarrassment of riches at quarterback. There’s two-time first-team all-Big Ten signal caller and league MVP Braxton Miller, coming back from a shoulder injury that knocked him out of the 2014 season. Miller disclosed last week that he’s taken most of his practice reps at wide receiver.

That leaves J.T. Barrett, who earned first-team all-Big Ten honors before injuring an ankle on the first play of the fourth quarter against Michigan in the final regular-season game. And then there’s Cardale Jones. All he did was lead Ohio State to a 59-0 whitewashing of Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game and victories over Alabama and Oregon in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Ohio State returns 16 starters — nine on offense. One of those losses was last season’s deep threat, wide receiver Devin Smith (33 receptions, 931 yards, 12 TDs).

But the overriding storyline at Ohio State heading into the season is who will emerge as the starting quarterback.

“I’ll come up with some kind of system throughout training camp that we’re going to chart everything that everyone does,” Meyer said. “And we’ve kind of done it, but not to the degree that we’re going to do it this year. Because you have to be right on now. This can’t be, ‘well, I’m going with him because it’s my gut feeling.’ It’s got to be statistical analysis and data.”

Spring buzz

Jones got all the reps at quarterback this spring, because Miller (32 career rushing TDs) and Barrett (34 TDs to 10 interceptions, 2,834 yards) were held out.

The ground game is in good shape, with four offensive linemen and running back Ezekiel Elliott returning. Elliott finished the season with 1,878 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns. He ran downhill in the postseason, averaging 232 yards (9.2 yards per carry) against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon.

Still to be settled

The run defense will need some shoring up, with tackle Michael Bennett, end Steve Miller and linebacker Curtis Grant gone. But end Joey Bosa was a first-team all-Big Ten pick last season after recording 131/2 sacks.

Wide receiver Michael Thomas (54 receptions, 799 yards, 9 TDs), looks to be the heir apparent to Smith, who averaged 28.2 yards per catch in 2014.

Wide receiver Evan Spencer (15 catches, 149 yards, 3 TDs) and tight end Jeff Heuerman (17 catches, 207 yards, 2 TDs) must also be replaced.

The only loss from a secondary that allowed 201 passing yards per game is first-team all-Big Ten cornerback Doran Grant. Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell are a dynamite combination at safety.

Our take

At some point, Meyer is going to have to pick a starter at quarterback.

“There’s going to be a lot of people interested,” Meyer said.

But playing the shell game doesn’t feel like a gamble, with three proven players to choose from. Getting the team focused on the job at hand after reaching the mountaintop last season seems like a bigger challenge.

Meyer hinted at that when he after spring practice that players got better individually, but Ohio State didn’t improve as a team. So that will be an area of focus.

That, and finding a deep threat.