After a long two months, Ohio will step out of the weight room and onto the turf in Walter Fieldhouse for its first of 15 spring practices.
For the first time in three years, the Bobcats will enter the spring period without their star quarterback Nathan Rourke, who ended his career in a 30-21 win over Nevada in the 2020 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
That open spot on the depth chart highlights the opening of spring for Ohio, and with the failure to reach last season’s expectations of a Mid-American Conference championship, there are plenty of storylines to dive into ahead of the spring period.
What does the quarterback room look like?
With Rourke’s departure leaves a void that coach Frank Solich and his offensive staff haven’t had to worry about for three seasons.
There are five potential replacements, but the clear front runner is Kurtis Rourke, the younger brother of Nathan.
Kurtis, a redshirt freshman, saw minimal game time last year with a brief appearance in Ohio’s 66-24 road win over Bowling Green.
After the Bowling Green victory, his 2019 season was shut down because of a season-ending shoulder surgery. While the surgery was in November, his current participation status for the beginning of spring is unknown.
As the front runner, he’ll be competing against Drew Keszei, Naylan Yates, K.J. Minter and C.J. Harris.
How important are the reps for the new-look special teams unit?
Always the most under-looked units, Ohio’s special teams unit is faced with replacing all of its key components.
Long snapper Devin King, punter and holder Michael Farkas and kicker Louie Zervos all have graduated, leaving an open race for three spots.
Not only is that trio gone, but so is former special teams coordinator Brian Haines, who left for the same position at Appalachian State.
Justin Holloway is set to replace King, while true freshman Jack Wilson and Tristian Vandenberg will replace Farkas and Zervos respectively.
Has there been growth in Shane Hooks, Tyler Walton and other young receivers?
These 15 spring practices are critical for all of Ohio’s players, but none more than its young, but not experienced, core of wide receivers.
Glimpse of potential flashed from Hooks and Walton last season. Hooks, a redshirt sophomore, had 515 yards on 26 receptions with five touchdowns. His impressive catching ability was seen against Bowling Green where, on a sideline fade, he caught the pass with one hand in tight coverage. At 6-foot-4, Hooks is the Bobcats’ tallest receiver and will benefit from another spring session to work on outside releases and goal-line situations.
Walton increasingly got more involved with the offense as the season went on. Offensive coordinator Tim Albin kept finding ways to get the redshirt sophomore in the game with various plays including jet sweeps and mid-to-intermediate routes of the middle of the defense.
Can an up-and-down defensive season be avoided?
Last season Ohio’s defense dealt with a slew of issues that proved to be difference makers in games. Missed tackles happened in critical moments against Marshall, Northern Illinois and Miami. Ohio’s normal defensive philosophies never strayed under the direction of first-year defensive coordinator Ron Collins last season, but the experience of former 15-year coordinator Jimmy Burrow showed.
For the Bobcats, however, they have good reason to believe last season’s issues won’t return. They return nine out of 11 starters from the defense, including all three linebackers and both defensive ends.
Ohio’s most noticeable departure on the defensive end is free safety Javon Hagan, whose impact will be missed. His ability to fill running lanes from 15 yards away and his ball tracking skills prevented losses in his four seasons at Ohio.
Is it too early to predict how the season will go?
Yes, of course it is.
The pressures and expectations for Solich and the Bobcats to win a MAC Championship never end, and as another season passes without the trophy in Peden, they only grow more and more.
That said, it would be too much to see what the success of this team could be given all of the changes that have occurred in the last two months.