Final Ohio State spring game thoughts: The QB battle, RB upside, defensive talent and more

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State’s offense beat the defense 34-33 in Saturday’s spring game, but in the moment it was still clear just how good the defense was.

In rewatching the scrimmage, there were even more answers to be found than originally thought — on both sides of the ball. Ohio State still has some questions, but the Buckeyes had a productive spring heading into a season in which they have national championship aspirations. It’s a goal I believe is attainable, given the talent on the roster.

After posting my initial thoughts Saturday, here are some final thoughts on what we learned from the spring finale:

Where the QB competition stands

It is a two-quarterback race between Will Howard and Devin Brown, in my opinion.

Both got two drives in the game. Though Brown is the only one who accounted for a touchdown, both showed good command of the offense and kept things on schedule for the most part. (Howard was the only one who got sacked.)

All in all, I thought Howard had the better day. To me, it’s less about the throws, although both made some spectacular ones.

This one by Brown to David Adolph was a great one and set up a touchdown pass to Brennen Schramm a few plays later.

Howard had his fair share of good throws, as well.

This one to Emeka Egbuka was fantastic, though it was an even better catch from Ohio State’s veteran receiver:

What I most wanted to highlight with Howard is his pocket awareness. If you look back at his Kansas State film, you’ll notice how good he was at keeping his eyes downfield in the face of pressure. This was another example, as JT Tuimoloau runs at him, and Howard doesn’t panic, calmly steps into open space and delivers a good ball to Egbuka.

Howard did take one sack in the game, which I’m not sure was completely his fault. There’s no doubt pocket awareness is a strength of his.

I thought Brown could’ve been a little bit better in this area. Both of these quarterbacks can use their legs, but Brown bailed on the pocket a little early. It’s hard to know exactly what Brown is seeing on this play, for example:

The coverage downfield looks strong, as it was for most of the day, but Brown goes through a few reads and just takes off, even with a spy on him. Maybe this was a focus from Ryan Day — make your reads and if one and two aren’t there, go make a play. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and maybe it’s a nitpick. Still, I want to see Brown’s arm because the arm talent is real.

For now, it’s too early to make a decision on which quarterback is in front. It was just two weeks ago when I left an open practice thinking Brown got the better of Howard. This competition should carry over into preseason camp. If I had to guess, I’d go with Howard as the eventual starter, but Brown will make it hard for Howard as long he can stay healthy.

Up-and-down day for young QBs

I thought both Lincoln Kienholz and freshman Julian Sayin were pretty good on Saturday. They were given the tough task of throwing the ball in a lot of wind against an elite secondary.

Despite those challenges, I thought they showed an ability to make quick reads. They looked to where the ball was supposed to go, based on the coverage, and if it wasn’t there they checked the ball down. Those won’t be the eye-popping throws, but it’s good to see young quarterbacks do that.

Their struggles came in situational football. Both got a shot at the final drive before halftime. Sayin got the ball first with under two minutes left but threw an interception to Jaylen McClain.

The wind definitely got a hold of the ball, as it hung in the air for a long time, but the throw was also late. I think that was just an example of Sayin getting used to the speed of the game, especially in that type of weather. If he throws that earlier, Ohio State is moving into the red zone.

Instead, Kienholz got the ball back and made a mistake too. Ohio State was in scoring territory with under 30 seconds to play in the half. The redshirt freshman didn’t throw an interception, but he took a bad sack, credited to Jason Moore. Kienholz had time to throw the ball away before Moore got there, but he took a sack, heard about it from Day in the huddle and then had a high pass on the next play that fell incomplete. Ohio State missed a field goal just before halftime.

These are just situational things that show the inexperience of both quarterbacks, even if you can see the talent. Sayin, especially, is going to be special. He gets rid of the ball quickly and moves in the pocket well for somebody who should still be in high school. Give him a year to gain experience and bulk up, and then give him the reins to the offense.

Fellow freshman Air Noland didn’t get in until the third quarter but immediately led a touchdown drive, mixing in his legs and arm. There’s no doubt that Ohio State has a crowded quarterback depth chart, but I think he could benefit from a year under Chip Kelly.


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How much better is the offensive line?

I remember leaving last year’s spring game and thinking, “Wow, this offensive line is horrible.”

Honestly, I only had confidence in Matt Jones and Donovan Jackson. I didn’t think Ohio State had a center or tackle on the roster, which I thought would also hurt Jackson and Jones. That’s not the case this year.

Seth McLaughlin can be a great center, Jackson can be an All-American at left guard and Josh Simmons continues to improve at left tackle. Simmons played well on Saturday. He had some issues and got away with a hold against Mitchell Melton early, but his future is bright.

The right side of the line is the question mark, though Josh Fryar had a good spring game, too. Watch this rep against Jack Sawyer:

Fryar does a good job of getting hands on Sawyer early and not losing the speed battle. He gets some help from the running back but pushes Sawyer outside and keeps him in front.

Fryar wasn’t perfect, but the starters gave up one sack on Saturday and it wasn’t his fault. There was clear progress.

The problem is that I don’t think Ohio State has its answer at right guard. The Buckeyes began the day with Carson Hinzman at guard, and this happened on the first drive:

This is a tough spot for Hinzman. On one hand it’s Sawyer, one of the best defensive ends in the country. But this can’t happen. Hinzman gets thrown into Howard’s lap. Maybe Howard could’ve done more to avoid the sack, but this is a concern.

Ohio State also tried Tegra Tshabola at guard, but he struggled too.

Hero Kanu makes a great play here pushing Tshabola into James Peoples’ running lane. Again, Tshabola has to do a better job of winning off the ball here.

Luke Montgomery struggled at times too, though he didn’t get any first-team reps.

I’m not sure what Ohio State does to fix this problem other than go to the portal, but it has to find a solution at right guard. Or, if it finds a tackle, it can move Fryar inside.

Running backs show off talent

Quinshon Judkins has the most rushing attempts in the country over the past two seasons, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from the explosiveness in his legs. His ability to cut through this hole is different.

Ohio State has had trouble stopping gap run schemes in the past, and that’s what this is, but the holes are filled well. Judkins just makes a good read and it’s blocked perfectly across the board. Jayden Bonsu makes a good play to stop Judkins because he could’ve been gone the distance.

TreVeyon Henderson had a potential big run himself a few plays later.

This really should’ve been a touchdown, but the way he explodes into the second level is vintage Henderson.

Judkins and Henderson is going to be a fun combo to watch this year, and as I wrote Saturday, the depth with freshmen James Peoples and Sam Williams-Dixon is intriguing as well.

The secondary was glued to the receivers

Ohio State is going to have one of the best receiving corps in the country, but the secondary impressed and held its own.

Davison Igbinosun was everywhere and made it especially hard for the receivers in the red zone. So did sophomore Jermaine Mathews Jr.

This is a great play by Mathews against freshman Jeremiah Smith:

We’ve seen Smith make contested catches look easy all spring, but he’s not able to bring this one down because of a textbook play from Mathews. If you watched the broadcast, you heard Day say that the ball needed to be released earlier. Mathews does a great job regardless. This was what the defense looked like all game long.

Ohio State has four potential draft picks at cornerback. Mathews is just a sophomore but is clearly an NFL player when his time comes.

At safety, Ohio State is starting two more NFL Draft picks with Caleb Downs and Lathan Ransom. Ohio State also played great coverage with Ransom on the bench, as Bonsu held up well too.

There’s a lot of depth that can help make this the best secondary in the country.



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Defensive line continues to impress

Let’s look at three plays from the same drive to talk about the defensive line, starting the third play of the drive, on third-and-6, from Tywone Malone:

He beats Montgomery right away and forces Kienholz to scramble out of the pocket to make a play. I do wonder if this is a sack if the game is live, but regardless, I like this move from Malone.

Later in the drive, Kayden McDonald shows up. If you aren’t on the McDonald hype train now, you should grab a seat while you can. He’s going to be really good.

All spring, we’ve heard about how strong he is. On this play, McDonald makes a tackle with one arm. He’s being blocked by Montgomery but is strong enough to keep leverage, work his way into the play and stop it.

With the College Football Playoff expanding and depth on the line becoming even more vital, I think McDonald is one of the key players on the roster. He’s going to play a big role in a few games this year and could be a difference-maker.

Lastly, we saw a lot of a healthy Mitchell Melton on Saturday. This was a nice play against Tshabola:

On one hand, this is the exact reason why I’m worried about Tshabola. But if Melton can be this guy consistently, the Buckeyes are going to be so good up front.

(Photo of Quinshon Judkins: Jason Mowry / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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