Daily Focus: What to make of Ohio State’s offense
Every week day in “Daily Focus,” Pro Football Focus looks at the top college football storylines and explains what they mean from a PFF perspective.
What to make of Ohio State’s offense: Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer didn’t shy away from big expectations at Big Ten Media Days Tuesday, answering questions about the team’s overall youth by citing their talent as a way to overcome it.
We have written previously about the next Buckeyes in line to step up on a defense that is replacing a ton of production from 2015, but what can we expect out of their offense this season?
Starting up front, the Buckeyes return a very good offensive line. Center Pat Elflein, who earned the third-best run-blocking among returning guards last season, forms a strong interior duo with left guard Billy Price, and left tackle Jamarco Jones has also graded well as a run-blocker in his limited snaps. Tight end Marcus Baugh ranks second among all returning tight ends in run-blocking grade, giving them the foundation for a strong running game.
That brings us to J.T. Barrett, who we recently ranked as the second-best running quarterback in college football behind only Houston’s Greg Ward. His raw totals took a hit last season as he shared the starting job with Cardale Jones, but in 2014 he was PFF’s top-graded rusher among QBs, doing most of his damage on designed running plays and forcing a very impressive 39 missed tackles. The Buckeyes have to replace Ezekiel Elliott with some unproven players at running back, but it’s a safe bet that the OSU running game will once again be strong this season.
The passing game is much more of a question mark, as Barrett has not had nearly the same success through the air as he has on the ground. He earned an average passing grade last season after performing marginally better than that in 2014, and he struggled the most on intermediate throws: On passes thrown 10 to 19 yards downfield, Barrett was just 12 of 25 for 211 yards, 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, earning a negative grade in that area of the field.
Moreover, the Buckeyes aren’t returning a single pass-catcher who earned an above-average or better receiving grade last season, and Elflein is the only lineman they return who had an above-average or better pass-blocking grade.
That doesn’t mean all is lost for the OSU offense, but that it could be a one-dimensional unit this season unless Barrett can take some significant strides as a passer.
James Conner’s grades were unbelievable in 2014: Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi said earlier this week that running back James Conner would be a full-go when fall practices start for the Panthers on August 8.
This is shaping up as one of the feel-good sports stories of the year, as Conner was recently declared cancer-free after going through chemotherapy treatments for Hodgkin Lymphoma last year, as he missed almost all of the 2015 season.
Just how good was he in 2014, when we were last able to grade his play? One of the very best backs in the entire country.
Conner ranked third in PFF’s 2014 running back grades, behind only Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott (both of whom have gone on to become first-round NFL draft picks), during his 1758-yard, 26-touchdown season. What stood out the most was just how difficult the power-running Conner was to bring down: He forced 88 missed tackles as a runner that year, 14 more than any other back (Gordon and Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine tied for second with 74) and three more than 2015’s leader, LSU’s Heisman Trophy contender Leonard Fournette.
It’s far too early to say how much of Conner’s 2014 form he’ll be able to recapture this season, but it will be nice to see him back out on the field.
Impact of Shy Tuttle on the Tennessee defense: ESPN’s David Ching wrote earlier this week about the importance of defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, who suffered a season-ending injury last season versus Georgia, will have for the Tennessee defense this season.
As we wrote previously, the Tennessee defensive front is one of the best units in the SEC, and the defense as a whole could have a very good season in 2015. The second and third levels have some standouts, including linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton, and up front, defensive end Derek Barnett is our fourth-ranked overall player entering the season. He was very good versus the run in 2015 and a ferocious rusher off the edge, earning the highest returning pass-rush grade in the nation.
But having a strong presence in the middle of the defensive line will be critical, and while we haven’t seen Tuttle on the field a ton just yet, his small-sample from 2015 indicated he can be an impact performer. His pass-rush performance was forgettable, generating just two hurries on 77 pass-rush snaps, but he graded very well on his 76 run snaps, including strong performances against Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas and Georgia (before he left with his injury).
If Tuttle can translate that level of performance against the run to a more increased role in 2016, it could make a big difference for this talented Vols defense.