- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The wait is over. The season might not be here yet, but football is officially returning with the start of training camp on Sunday.
So after an offseason filled with questions about issues away from the field, the focus is once again back on the game itself. And these five topics will be worth monitoring as Ohio State reports for practice with the great expectations that come with being ranked No. 2 in the preseason poll.
Who is ready to lead?
The Buckeyes don't take the captaincy lightly, and the value coach Urban Meyer has put on leadership has never been in doubt, particularly given how much credit the senior class received for the unbeaten season a year ago.
That makes identifying the right group of veterans to take that torch incredibly important for Meyer as he tries to light a path to the national championship, and while a couple of clear choices have emerged to be the face of the program, August will be critical in finding a few more veterans to set the tone.
Left tackle Jack Mewhort and safety Christian Bryant both have emerged as respected voices in the locker room, and Braxton Miller is also starting to find his footing as a more vocal presence. But a couple of other guys who had high hopes of being in that mix are currently or will be facing discipline for issues last month, which will make it pretty unlikely cornerback Bradley Roby or running back Carlos Hyde will be tabbed for a captaincy. Seniors like Philly Brown, Corey Linsley and C.J. Barnett could fill that void, and junior linebacker Ryan Shazier will need to set an example on defense as well.
What's the state of the passing attack?
Miller will always go under the microscope first, and the quarterback is usually the safest place to start in breaking down a passing game. But he certainly wasn't the only one responsible for some numbers through the air that weren't up to Meyer's standards last season.
Miller has worked hard on his footwork and should be much more at ease with the playbook entering his second year in the spread, but he could also use some better route-running, fewer drops and a bit more depth at wide receiver as Meyer looks for more diversity in his attack. Brown should provide some reliability after a productive junior season, and if he builds on the end of it where he consistently looked like a threat to explode after the catch, that alone will make the Buckeyes more dangerous. But he needs some help from freakishly athletic counterpart Devin Smith, rising sophomore Michael Thomas, veterans Chris Fields and Evan Spencer and a handful of newcomers to help keep the coverage honest.
Are the youngsters ready up front?
The spring game only dumped more gasoline on what was already a bonfire of hype, with Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington stealing the show by combining for seven sacks. But that was only an exhibition, and the Buckeyes are counting on production from those sophomores when it matters.
All four starters are gone from the defensive line a year ago, and while the interior spots are obviously more unsettled than the starting jobs at end, the pressure to perform and the attention will weigh more heavily on Spence and Washington. Both showed flashes of what they could do when given a chance as true freshmen a year ago, but they'll be expected to play like seniors now that John Simon and Nathan Williams are gone.
Can Taylor Decker keep the offensive line at the top of the Big Ten?
Ohio State has fewer concerns about its offensive line than just about any program in the country, and a unit with four returning starters who are all seniors might be more than any other staff would even think to wish for. But that didn't stop Meyer from doing a bit of hand-wringing in the spring about filling the fifth spot at right tackle, and he didn't leave practice in April officially settled on who that guy would be.
It's clear now that Decker will get the nod, and the oversized sophomore will have eyes on him throughout camp to ensure that he's capable of seamlessly replacing Reid Fragel for a unit that was a significant factor in the perfect season last year. Chase Farris shared some of the reps with Decker in the spring and his potential continues to excite the coaching staff, but for now Decker has the advantage. But he'll have to prove over and over in August that the edge is real, and if he does, the Buckeyes could pick up right where they left off.
9hBrian Bennett and Austin Ward