Note: This story appears in the Thursday, Aug. 1 newspaper on Page A6.
The Bobcats begin the 124th season of Ohio Football, officially, on Thursday when players report for the start of the 2019 fall camp.
Ohio’s first practice is scheduled for Friday, at 9 a.m., and will be the first step in another championship-hopeful season. The Bobcats begin August as the heavy preseason favorites to win the Mid-American Conference East Division, and are thought to be a serious contender for their first MAC overall title since 1968.
But Ohio, like every team in the country, will start the preseason with questions and concerns to address. The Bobcats will try to come up with all the answers prior to the season opener on Aug. 31 against Rhode Island inside Peden Stadium.
Ohio returns 14 starters and 43 letter winners from a 9-4 team in 2018. But where are the Bobcats the thinnest? Where are new starters needed?
Here’s a run through of the five biggest questions for Ohio as the grind of preseason camp begins.
1 — Ohio has a clear starter at QB, but who catches all those throws?
The Bobcats have the league’s best returning quarterback and probably the most visible player in the conference in senior QB Nathan Rourke. He’ll be Ohio’s go-to option for a third-straight year, and has a real shot to rewrite most of the records set by the other three-year starter under Frank Solich — Tyler Tettleton.
But Ohio will have to restock the weapons on the outside. The Bobcats lost their top two wide receivers, and their top tight end, from a year ago.
And the replacements, for the most part will be young. Junior Cameron Odom will be starting for a third straight year, but has never been the No. 1 option — like he will have to be this season — in the offense.
After Odom, sophomore Isiah Cox and redshirt freshmen Shane Hooks and Jerome Buckner are expected to fill the bulk of the reps in the wide receiver group. All have talent, and potential, but short resumes in terms of experience at this level.
“We’re high on those guys,” Solich said, referring to the young receivers. “They have talent. They can be explosive.
“They just need to show it now.”
Junior tight ends Adam and Ryan Luehrman are expected to fill most of the duties, but behind them are highly touted recruits with no collegiate experience.
Rourke could help smooth some of the transition, and said it’s on him if the offense — coming off the two best productive seasons in program history — takes a step back in 2019.
“My job is to get the ball to those guys, to get them involved,” Rourke said. “If Shane Hooks isn’t getting catches, or Buckner isn’t getting touches, or Isiah, or anybody, then that’s on me.”
2 — Without the traditional hammers, will Ohio still ground-and-pound?
The Bobcats graduated three all-conference offensive linemen, and two strong running backs. The group was an essential part of Ohio’s identity in each of the past two seasons.
Ohio was, proudly, a run-first team in both 2017 and ’18, and plied that strength into explosive plays in the passing game.
With a new set of backs, can that approach still work?
Ohio will give it a go. Solich’s teams have always been run-first in their general approach, and Rourke’s multi-faceted skillset will allow the option elements of the ground game to remain firmly in place.
But Ohio doesn’t have an established lead back as camp begins. Sophomore Julian Ross has the most game-day experience, but up to five different backs are expected to get a chance to show they can do the job in fall camp.
Ohio won’t need one back to claim 25-30 carries a game, in fact Offensive Coordinator Tim Albin would prefer to have two guys split reps evenly, but the Bobcats are expected to work the run game heavily in camp to figure out exactly what they have in the backfield.
3 — Will the strength inside remain?
Since the onset of spring camp, Solich has continually expressed his belief that the depth on the interior of the defensive line and across the offensive line will be a key facet of Ohio’s success in 2019.
The Bobcats returned two experience defensive tackles, but are anxious to develop a second and third wave of options.
On the offensive line, Ohio feels good about its first five — which includes four players with starting experience — but backup depth is not where anyone wants it to be.
There are options in both spots, but Solich clearly would like both units shored up before the season begins. Defensively, third-year players Marcus Coleman and Kaieem Caesar could be impactful if both clearly earn backup spots during August.
On the offensive line, Ohio may be banking on one or two players from the 2019 signing class — particularly junior college transfer Gary Hoover — to provide that needed depth.
4 — Just how differently will the defense play without Jimmy Burrow?
For 14 years, Burrow was the only defensive coordinator that Solich had employed in Athens. With his retirement in February, Ron Collins — another long-time assistant with a wealth of experience — took over the role.
Throughout the spring, Collins and various defensive players talked about the changes being minor. The skeleton of the scheme — a 4-3 front with cover 4 principles — would remain the same.
But Collins is expected to tweak and adjust things according to his own tastes — as he should. With a secondary that returns three starters and up to 10 players who saw playing time in 2018, Collins could alter more than expected.
5 — Can Ohio figure out how to finish?
For most of the last two seasons, the Bobcats have played at a level that indicated they were the best team in
But in each year, Ohio also lost the one conference road game it couldn’t afford to (at Miami, 2018, and at Akron, 2017).
Finishing will be a major theme in camp and I’m interested to see how, and in what ways, the Bobcats try to change in order to avoid a perceived ‘slip’ in a road game they were expected to win.
Winning a MAC title remains the one thing that Solich hasn’t punched out during his 14 years with the Bobcats. With as much talent as any team in the East — and far more continuity — Ohio should be back in Detroit