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Tennessee Head Coach Butch Jones Talks QB Battle, Jalen Hurd and Explosive WRs

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones is entering his second season at the helm on Rocky Top, and with that comes a jump in expectations.

Jones already did something that his predecessor Derek Dooley was unable to do, when he notched a signature win over No. 11 South Carolina, 23-21, last season in Knoxville.

His rebuilding effort will continue in 2014 with a boat load of talented skill players. But with no quarterback set in stone and, perhaps more importantly, no returning starters on either the offensive or defensive line, it will be a difficult task.

What are Jones' impressions of his team as spring practice winds down? He sat down with B/R's Barrett Sallee to discuss the Vols:

 

Bleacher Report: The biggest storyline from the outside this spring is your quarterback battle between Justin Worley, Joshua Dobbs, Nathan Peterman and Riley Ferguson. Where does that stand right now?

Butch Jones: I've been very, very encouraged from that position from what I've seen this spring. Justin Worley has really improved greatly, from leadership to his ability to make all of the throws, particularly the deep balls. Dobbs continues to develop, as well as Peterman, and it's been great to get Riley Ferguson getting a volume of repetition. You know, Riley has an innate ability to create plays. I've been very encouraged. We've tried to simulate as many game-speed repetitions as possible.

Their play as a unit has been elevated because of the players around them. Adding Von Pearson and Josh Malone to the receiving corps, Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf to the tight end crew and then Jalen Hurd in the backfield has really changed the speed of our offense. Even though they're young, that's why we're getting more consistent quarterback play. 

We're going to be extremely patient, take our time and do our due diligence. We'll probably name a starter in [fall] training camp. All of the individuals have progressed, and monumental strides can be taken during the summer months. We're going to be patient, coach, teach and critique, but I've been encouraged.

 

B/R: Last year, the four-man competition went down to game week, even though Worley was getting a heavier load of first-team reps. Do you want to narrow it down to two a little sooner?

Jones: We do. We'll start to narrow it down. It's extremely challenging with four quarterbacks. We will start to narrow it down probably at the end of this week or so.

 

B/R: A lot of people were interested in what 5-star running back Jalen Hurd was going to do this spring coming off a shoulder injury which cost him his senior season in high school. So far, it appears that he's adapting quickly. What pieces of the puzzle have to fall into place in order for him to get first-team carries this fall?

Jones: When you look a Jalen, the first thing you have to keep in mind is that: here's a young man who basically didn't play football last year. He has a lot of growth and maturation to do in terms of his overall development, his body, his strengths and the ability to take the pounding every week in the SEC. It's the mental capacity as well as the physical capacity. With the 14 newcomers we had this spring and the 18 others that will be joining us, they're really changing from kids to adults.

He's still nowhere where he needs to be in terms of overall volume, work capacity and just overall knowledge—knowledge of the offense, understanding defenses, understanding run reads and playing behind pads. What we found in a very short period of time is that he's extremely instinctual, he's a competitor, he's smart and he takes coaching. We're very excited about what he's been able to do. Every time we give him the football, he has a knack of making plays, but there's so much more that has to be developed from the rest of spring all the way through summer and training camp.

 

B/R: How good can wide receiver Marquez North be now that he has some complimentary pieces like Josh Malone and Von Pearson around him?

Jones: It's really aided him in a number of ways. Now teams can't roll coverage to him or double cover him because of the presence of Malone and Pearson. Competition creates growth and development, and he's an extremely competitive player. He's benefitted from a competitive standpoint by having those others here with him.

We've challenged him to really learn the nuances that it takes to be a great receiver. The big thing for him is breaking points. He was really a high school running back and didn't understand playing receiver full-time out on the perimeter. It's the small details. It's the press releases. It's the breaking points in and out of his breaks. It's the overall consistency that we expect him to play with.

 

B/R: With no starters returning on the offensive line, how challenging has that been for you, and are you where you thought you needed to be at this point in spring?

Jones: Well, it's a great challenge. We're still in the overall development of our program, and those are development positions along the offensive line.

We're going to probably end up starting a true freshman at right tackle in Coleman Thomas. Mack Crowder has sort of been the consistent leader up front at center. We made a decision as a football program to redshirt Marcus Jackson last year at left guard. We're going to rely on them. Kyler Kerbyson is an individual who I think has been a pleasant surprise so far during spring football. He's played with an edge, is very competitive, and I've liked what I've seen.

We're going to have to rely on some freshman playing, like Thomas, and I think it'll be a work-in-progress from now all the way through the end of the season.

(Click here to check out the Tennessee Spring Practice Position Battle Tracker.)

 

B/R: There is sort of the same issue along the defensive line, with no returning starters, although there is a little bit more experience there. How is that unit shaping up, and who has stepped this spring?

Jones: Well, right now, there isn't anyone. They continue to be a work-in-progress. Every practice is a teaching opportunity. [Defensive end] Corey Vereen continues to show signs, but his whole deal is consistency and performance—the ability to rush the passer not only in the first quarter, but the fourth quarter. It's a relentless approach that we want our defensive line to play with.

[Defensive end/linebacker] Curt Maggitt, having him back just as a presence on our defense has helped us take tremendous strides in moving forward. Getting him in some different situations has benefitted our defense. We're asking a lot of senior Jordan Williams, moving him around inside. You'll see him play a lot more inside than he ever has, but we are going to move him around. 

The individuals we have along the defensive front are very prideful, eager and want to learn. Every day they come with a workman-like mentality to get better, and I like that. I like that mentality. But it's a situation where we have seven individuals joining us for fall camp in June, so those guys are going to be ready to play, because we don't have much depth there.

I like the progress Vereen is making, and I like the progress Williams is making. I really like the progress Curt Maggitt is making as well.

 

B/R: You mentioned Maggitt's role and what he means, and that sort of leads me into my next question: how important are him and linebacker A.J. Johnson to the development of the new-look front seven?

Jones: We're going to have to rely on their leadership and A.J.'s experience. A.J. is an individual where you know what you're getting with consistency, day in and day out, his preparation, the way he practices and the effort he gives. We're going to demand and expect a lot out of him and Maggitt because, really, they're the individuals in the front seven who have the most experience, have played the most football, and they're the leaders of our defense.

 

B/R: Where did you expect your program to be heading into Year 2 when you got the job at Tennessee, and do you think you can accomplish your goals?

Jones: In one year's time, I think we've taken monumental steps—nowhere where we need to be and nowhere where we expect, but we've come a long way in a year.

You start off the field. We were on course to be the first team in college football to suffer the Academic Progress Rate (APR) penalty. Now, and I've said this is the greatest victory in Tennessee football history, we've crossed that bridge, and we're going to have 96 percent graduation of our seniors. We had a 1,000 on the APR this semester. We've made monumental strides off the field, and that's where it starts.

On the field, our strength numbers last year at this time, even with a veteran front on both sides of the ball, we had zero guys who could squat 600 pounds or more. Right now, we have nine.

I think the foundation has been laid. The standard and expectation has been made, but we only have 13 seniors right now in our football program. Fifty percent of our team is going through spring ball for the first time. Even though the standard and expectations are in place, we still have to go back and define them and continue to work on them just because of the newness and new faces. We've taken great strides from where we started, but we still have a long way to go. 

 

B/R: Do you have any thoughts on the push by Northwestern players to unionize, and what are your thoughts on player compensation?

Jones: I haven't had much time to pay attention to the unionization story and have kind of been in a bunker here trying to make our football team better. In terms of payment of student athletes, the thing I'd like to see explored is the full cost of attendance. I think that's very realistic and would like to see that explored more. As we continue to move our game forward and help the well-being of the athlete, I think that's an element of that in terms of covering the total cost of attendance.

 

* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. All recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports, and all college statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com.

 


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FSU TE Nick O'Leary in Another Motorcycle Accident, out for Spring

Less than a year after surviving a motorcycle crash that could have easily taken his life, Florida State tight end Nick O'Leary has been involved in another motorcycle accident—this one seemingly less horrifying but serious enough to sideline him for the rest of spring practice with cuts and minor injuries.

"He’s fine, just skinned up," said Seminoles head coach Jimbo Fisher, according to Brendan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel. "He just wrecked a motorcycle again. Skin and a swollen ankle. He can’t practice but he’ll be fine."

Per Sonnone, O'Leary's crash in 2013 occurred when he was cut off and hit by a black Lexus, which sent him hurtling some 75 feet from his bike and into the windshield of a bus. Though he miraculously walked away from the accident with nothing but minor injuries, it was hoped he had at least learned a lesson about auto safety and mortality.

Apparently, he didn't.

"I can be frustrated, he needs to be frustrated. It’s not important if I’m frustrated," Fisher said after this most recent crash. "What’s important is that he’s frustrated with it and learns his lesson."

O'Leary, the grandson of legendary golfer and 18-time major champion Jack Nicklaus, was one of Jameis Winston's most reliable weapons last season, finishing the year with 33 catches for 557 yards and seven touchdowns. In the Seminoles' 51-14 rout of Clemson—the signature win of a signature season—he delivered a hit on safety Travis Blanks that served as a microcosm for the game as a whole:

Unlike last season, Florida State has fostered nice depth behind O'Leary at the tight end position in 2014. Senior Kevin Haplea is back after missing 2013 with a knee injury, and freshman Jeremy Kerr has shown flashes of game-readiness this spring. As long as O'Leary stays safe and recovers as expected this summer, his absence this spring shouldn't much affect the team's fall performance.

But at this point, that's kind of a big if.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT

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Pac-12 Football: Updating Every Team's Quarterback Situation

Every position on the football field is important to a team's overall success, but there's virtually zero chance of becoming elite without an effective signal-caller. In the Pac-12, those special players can be found in nearly every nook and cranny.

As we enter spring practice (or exit, for some), we enter a time when position battles are often decided and the team begins to hone in on exactly what it wants to be throughout the 2014 season.

Quarterback battles typically grab the most headlines, so we're going to update each Pac-12 team's status in regard to the starting signal-caller. Recent years have seen plenty of turnover and numerous battles for the starting gig in the offseason.

But 2014 is a little different, as just two starting seniors—Arizona's B.J. Denker and Washington's Keith Price—are gone from the 2013 campaign.

Still, several teams have wide-open competitions, while others have yet to completely decide on who will start at quarterback when the beginning of the season rolls around. And finally, a few teams have zero doubt as to who will start at signal-caller, and it doesn't take a football depth chart guru to figure out which squads we might be referring to.

Take an updated look now at where each Pac-12 team stands at the quarterback position.

Begin Slideshow

Pac-12 Football: Updating Every Team's Quarterback Situation

Every position on the football field is important to a team's overall success, but there's virtually zero chance of becoming elite without an effective signal-caller. In the Pac-12, those special players can be found in nearly every nook and cranny...

Begin Slideshow

SEC Football: Updating Every Team's Quarterback Situation

It's, to quote a cliche, out with old and in with the new for Southeastern Conference quarterbacks in 2014. Much of the league's most proven talent at the position is now awaiting the NFL draft or has their diploma, leaving a relative hole at quarterback.

The cupboard isn't completely empty, though. A couple of all-stars in Mississippi return, as well as an injured signal-caller for one of the conference's most elite programs, and a massive amount of talent will step onto SEC campuses for the first time this fall.

With spring practice underway and guys now jockeying for starting roles, let's take a look at each squad's quarterback situation and project who will be taking the first snaps of the teams' first games.

Begin Slideshow

Notre Dame Football: Matt LaFleur Breaks Down QB Position, Golson, Zaire

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A new quarterbacks coach, a new offensive coordinator, a quarterback returning from suspension and another coming off a freshman season he spent redshirting. From the meeting room to the practice field, it all combines to create a blank slate among the quarterbacks, according to position coach Matt LaFleur.

LaFleur met with the media Wednesday for the first time since his introductory press conference in late January and touched on a variety of subjects.

The Irish are 10 practices into their spring schedule, and the Blue-Gold Spring Game is 10 days away. Let’s take a look at the quarterback position as it stands now through the eyes of LaFleur.

 

*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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Jerry Sandusky's Criminal Appeal Won't Be Heard by State's Supreme Court

An appeal effort made by former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky regarding his sexual abuse conviction was denied on Wednesday by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

An order was issued to deny Sandusky's motion after he disputed his 2012 trial, implying that his lawyers didn't have adequate time to review the information at their disposal, per a report by Mark Scolforo of the Associated Press, via StarTribune.com:

Sandusky asked the court to take up his 45-count conviction, arguing his lawyers were rushed too quickly to trial in 2012 and that prosecutors improperly made reference to his decision not to testify.

He also said the trial judge should have issued a jury instruction about how long it took his victims to report the abuse and that jurors should not have been told to weigh evidence of his good character against all other evidence.

The state attorney general's office had countered that Sandusky did not provide sufficient basis for the Supreme Court to take up the matter, and that decisions made by the trial judge did not violate his rights.

NBC News Investigations reporter Tom Winter weighed in on the latest legal development, which may mark the conclusion of the appeals process for Sandusky:

This futile attempt at exoneration should see Sandusky, 70, continue to serve his 30 to 60 years in prison without any further inquiries in the courts. However, the controversy surrounding him should not end anytime soon, since some involved in the administration are facing allegations that they covered up complaints about Sandusky.    

Although the Nittany Lions have done their best to put this disturbing issue behind them, the latest news has allowed it to resurface for the Penn State football program.

Sandusky's wife, Dottie Sandusky, recently spoke about how she trusted her husband. Her testimony may give at least some credence to the issue of Jerry Sandusky not testifying, which was part of his appeal, per a March 29 report by Scolforo:

I know who he is, and I know what he is, and people need to look into some of the other situations...I trust my husband. That's what the world is about today. People don't trust anybody. And all these young kids, all they think about is sex...(His lawyers) felt the trial was going well enough that he did not need to testify. Jerry wanted to testify, but they felt he didn't need to testify.

For those who were outspoken victims of Sandusky's abuse, these remarks will only cause further pain. Perhaps his wife's public support was part of the final push Sandusky was hoping to make, but whatever the story may be, his conviction and prison sentence remain the same.

The sanctions that slammed the Nittany Lions in the aftermath of Sandusky's scandal have since been reduced by the NCAA, but the perception of Penn State unfortunately may never be quite the same.

Hopefully this is the last Sandusky will be heard from in the media so that the Nittany Lions and the victims of the case can have official closure and continue moving forward in a positive direction.   

 

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Virginia 5-Star Early Enrollee Andrew Brown to Miss Rest of Spring with Injury

Virginia early enrollee Andrew Brown, a 5-star defensive tackle who was the top-rated interior lineman and No. 11 overall player on the 247Sports composite, has sustained a turf toe injury and will be sidelined for the rest of spring camp.

Cavs Journal tweeted the report from head coach Mike London:

Brown and fellow 5-star defender Quin Blanding, the top-ranked safety in the class, both played high school football in Virginia—Brown at Oscar Smith, Blanding at Bayside—and made the atypical decision to stay in-state with the Cavs and not the Virginia Tech Hokies.

Blanding was the No. 6 overall player in the class, but did not enroll early. He will instead join the team in the summer.

Although the top-ranked player from Virginia, 5-star defensive end Da'Shawn Hand (Woodbridge), committed to Alabama over the Cavs and the Hokies, the 2013 class was a seminal one for London and his staff in terms of recruiting kids from in-state.

Among the other notable Virginia commits are 4-star athlete Jamil Kamara (Bishop Sullivan), 4-star offensive guard Steven Moss (Chancellor) and top-rated prep school quarterback Corwin Cutler (Ocean Lakes).

Brown is expected to step into the lineup and give UVA a formidable presence at defensive tackle as soon as next season—if not by the end of fall camp, then not long after. Turf toe injuries are pesky, but it shouldn't affect Brown's status at the end of the summer.

He is still the most physically impressive front-four player on the roster and, barring continued poor health, he will not be kept off the field for long.

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No. 1 WR Damarkus Lodge Reveals a Surprising Top 3

Damarkus Lodge is arguably the top 2015 prospect in Texas but doesn't appear intent on staying in the Lone Star State during his college career. The 5-star wide receiver told 247Sports reporter Ryan Bartow he views three options to the east as preferred destinations.

Lodge named Ole Miss, LSU and Clemson as favorites, leaving in-state institutions to fight an uphill battle for his services. 

Texas and Baylor offered the Cedar Hill High School standout last April, during the final stretch of his sophomore year. Texas A&M and Texas Tech followed with scholarships in May.

The 6'2.5", 190-pound playmaker is one of the hottest commodities of his class. Lodge is listed as the nation's No. 1 receiver in 247Sports' composite rankings after a dominant junior season.

He helped lead Cedar Hill to a state championship, electrifying the offensive attack with big-play ability. Lodge caught 72 passes for 1,255 yards and 22 touchdowns in 16 games.

His wide range of skills has warranted understandable national interest. Lodge carries offers from dozens of programs, including Alabama, Cal, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Florida.

He identified LSU as his clear favorite at this stage, citing the program's success rate at his position as an alluring element.

"They are putting out great receivers," Lodge told 247Sports. "LSU is looking pretty good with me right now. ... They need some deep receivers like myself to come in and do good things.”

Lodge plans to take advantage of multiple official visits later this year, so it's probably safe to pencil him in for a trip to Baton Rouge. The Tigers extended an offer in February and have already made up enough ground in the race to be considered a front-runner.

SEC rival Ole Miss is also strongly in the mix.

Lodge, who lived in Mississippi through middle school, appreciates the proximity to his old stomping grounds and is greatly enthused by the Rebels passing game.

"I think they are going to dominate the SEC," he told 247Sports. "Especially (wide receivers) Quincy Adeboyejo and Laquon Treadwell. I’m picking them to win it.”

Adeboyejo is a 2013 Cedar Hill graduate. He didn't receive as much notoriety during his recruitment process as a 3-star prospect but saw the field in Oxford last fall as a true freshman.

Lodge told 247Sports he plans to spent time at Ole Miss this summer. He is also set to attend the team's Oct. 4 matchup against Alabama, representing the only concrete plans of his official visit slate, per the report.

Lodge hasn't traveled to Clemson yet, but the Tigers are still in his top three. The team has established an outstanding track record at receiver under head coach Dabo Swinney, producing first-round NFL talents in consecutive drafts.

The Houston Texans selected former Clemson star DeAndre Hopkins with the 27th overall pick in 2013. Orange Bowl MVP Sammy Watkins is the consensus No. 1 receiver this year.

Their success undoubtedly helped put the Tigers in position to round out Lodge's list.

“If LSU is one, who would be two and three?" Lodge said. “I’d have to say Ole Miss two and Clemson three.”

Although Lodge's top three choices are sensible opportunities for any premier pass target, the glaring lack of a Texas team in his favored group is certainly a surprising development.

247Sports' Crystal Ball lists Baylor as a heavy favorite, with Texas and Texas A&M as the next likely contenders. He attended an Aggies junior day in February and remains a top offensive target for Charlie Strong's new regime in Austin after Mack Brown laid the groundwork for his recruitment.

An early commitment from Lodge appears unlikely, so there's still time for an in-state program to push its way to the top of his pack before a decision is made. For now, news of this freshly revealed surprise trio of favorites will resonate quite differently at LSU, Clemson and Ole Miss.

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Penn State Football: Why DEs Are Poised to Be Heart of Defense in 2014

The Penn State coaches are doing their best this spring to fit guys into different spots on the defensive side of the ball, looking for the best combinations and skill sets for the jobs. 

Newcomers Antoine White and Tarow Barney are in the mix at tackle, whereas Anthony Zettel hopes to solidify himself as a starter.

The linebacker combinations are constantly in motion while Jordan Lucas and Adrian Amos are the lone sure things in the secondary—although where Amos will play may not be such a sure thing.

The lone area on the defense where depth is an asset and the starters are both written in pen is defensive end, where bookends C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes return for what should be another productive season.

As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Barnes' production demanded playing time and the rangy Philadelphia native was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year while earning an All-Conference Honorable Mention.

His five sacks and 10 tackles for loss were both tops on the squad.

Back for his third year as a starter, Barnes has gained some weight in his upper body and has All-Big Ten ability.

Olaniyan became a full-time starter for the first time last season and had a stellar year, outperforming his counterpart in Barnes.

As an every-down player, Olaniyan recorded 11 tackles for loss and led the team with five sacks, including two-and-a-half against Michigan.

His 33-yard interception return against Wisconsin proved vital in helping Penn State hold on to a winning record in 2013.

Barnes and Olaniyan are a dynamic pair of ends that will prove to be among the top in the conference.

And they're just the tip of the iceberg.

After having an impact in the rotation as an end last season, Zettel was able to bulk up and move to tackle—partly because of the lack of depth inside, but also because of the strength at end.

Former walk-on Carl Nassib and redshirt freshman Evan Schwan each recorded tackles for loss last season, but they'll have to fight to see the field in 2014.

High school All-American Garrett Sickels is fresh off his redshirt campaign and has been turning heads in spring camp. After gaining the weight required to play the position, he has trimmed down and is going to be in the rotation.

Also a member of the 2013 recruiting class, redshirt freshman Curtis Cothran has put on some weight and drastically improved his explosiveness.

Similarly to Barnes, Cothran is longer than he is big, so it will be interesting to see if he can hold his ground at the point of attack.

With at least five more-than-capable defensive ends at his disposal, new defensive line coach Sean Spencer should always have fresh bodies on the edges.

With most of the defense undetermined at this point, the one thing that's certain is Penn State will be as good at defensive end as it's been in some time.

 

All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.

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Ohio State's Spring Injury Problem Isn't as Bad as It Seems

Ohio State has had a tough stretch of injuries this spring, dating back to their Orange Bowl loss to Clemson. Injuries are an unfortunate part of the game and it happens to just about every team at one point or another. 

This time, the football gods' roulette wheel just happened to land on Columbus, Ohio. 

Via Bill Rabinowitz of The Columbus Disptach, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer confirmed Tuesday that tight end Jeff Heuerman will miss the rest of spring practice after having foot surgery for a sprain on Monday. 

"It’s six weeks in a cast (and then) boot, and we should have him ready to go full-speed in June," Meyer said (via The Dispatch). 

In a text message to The Dispatch, Heuerman—who finished third on the team last year with 26 receptions and 466 receiving yards—said the procedure was "just minor surgery" and that he would be "back in no time."

In addition to Heuerman, Ohio State is without quarterback Braxton Miller (shoulder), receiver Evan Spencer (leg) and defensive back Vonn Bell (knee). There are other injuries, of course, but those are the biggest losses. 

So how big of a deal is this really? It's not ideal, that's for sure. It's also not as bad as it could be. 

Bell, Heuerman, Miller and Spencer should all be back in time for fall practice. Bell could really have used the reps during spring considering the youth in the secondary, but Heuerman, Miller and Spencer are all veteran players. This isn't their first go-around in spring drills. While every practice is an opportunity to get better—an opportunity these players are missing—no one is doubting Miller's or Heuerman's ability. 

It's not like these jobs are largely up for grabs. 

In other words, the Buckeyes' offense shouldn't miss too much of a beat in 2014 because some parts were missing in the spring. As B/R's Michael Felder previously pointed out, Miller can still grow in the mental aspect of the game, even if he's not physically taking part in drills. 

According to Meyer, Heuerman will still play a prominent role in developing other players.  “He’ll be a captain of our team and a guy who leads our team,” Meyer said, courtesy of Kyle Rowland of ElevenWarriors.com

You have to feel a little for Ohio State. Injuries are the worst. However, Meyer doesn't seem too concerned about them since the numbers are about the same as in previous years. 

Until Meyer expresses more anxiousness, there's not much for Buckeye fans to worry about. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. 

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