Ohio State’s spring challenge: To sort and retain a loaded QB room


COLUMBUS, Ohio — As Ohio State‘s players progressed through warmups ahead of their spring game on Saturday afternoon, a camera crew meandered from one position group to another gathering B-roll for the national television broadcast. And somewhat predictably, no collection of players spent more time in focus than the quarterbacks.

A good chunk of that attention belonged to veterans Will Howard and Devin Brown, the frontrunners in this year’s quarterback competition and the first signal-callers to take reps with the starters over the weekend. The former was a highly coveted transfer from Kansas State. The latter was the Buckeyes‘ primary backup last season.

But as kickoff approached, there was a moment when the camera operator steadied his lens on true freshman Julian Sayin, one of the crown jewels from Ohio State’s efforts in the transfer portal over the winter. Sayin was a five-star prospect and the No. 1 quarterback in the 247Sports Composite for the 2024 recruiting cycle. He had just enrolled at Alabama for the spring semester when head coach Nick Saban made the surprising decision to retire, rocking the sport from one coast and conference to the other. That’s when Sayin jumped in the portal and landed in Columbus.

“This is a future star right here,” the cameraman said when a colleague raised his eyebrows about filming the quarterback adjacent to Howard in Ohio State’s throwing line. Overhearing the comment, Sayin tried and failed to hold back a smile.

For the second consecutive offseason, the Buckeyes navigated their spring game with a quarterback battle as the prevailing storyline — only this year’s version featured a decidedly modern twist for head coach Ryan Day: selection and retention intertwined.

Howard, Brown and Sayin are three of the five scholarship quarterbacks that Day and his staff would like to keep beyond the next two weeks, with sophomore Lincoln Kienholz and Air Noland, another five-star freshman, rounding out the list. That the Buckeyes could even assemble such a collection of talent speaks to the abundant resources and consolidation of power now fueling the sport’s elite. But maintaining such depth when the transfer portal reopens on Tuesday presents an entirely different set of challenges. If two’s company and three’s a crowd, then the quarterback room at Ohio State is a swarm.

“We’ll sit down as a staff and meet on it,” offensive coordinator Chip Kelly said. “Ryan, he does an unbelievable job of, I think, [getting] all our players [to] understand where they fit and what the picture is, and we’ll give them our assessment. We do it after every day. They know where they stand after practice one, after two, after three, after four. We grade everything. They’re getting constant feedback in terms of where we are.”

There was nothing from Saturday’s spring game to change the perception that Howard remains the presumptive starter. The 6-foot-4, 237-pound senior bypassed what he described as mid- to late-round interest from the NFL to use his final year of eligibility at Ohio State, which in and of itself suggests he expected to win the job. And when the first-string offense took the field at Ohio Stadium over the weekend, it was Howard who controlled the opening series. He finished the afternoon having completed 9 of 13 passes for 77 yards but failed to lead a touchdown drive.

Ohio State Football spring game highlights

The race between Howard and Brown is close enough through 15 spring practices that neither Day nor Kelly tipped their respective hands when asked about naming a starter during postgame news conferences. That alone might be enough to ensure Brown, a junior, remains with the Buckeyes through fall camp to continue challenging for the job. Brown produced the game’s first touchdown on a 14-yard pass to Brennen Schramm late in the second quarter and completed 5 of 7 throws for 66 yards overall. He also gained 24 rushing yards on three scrambles that highlighted an ability to make plays outside the pocket.

“When you have a quarterback who can run,” Day said, “it does change the numbers as we all know. You guys have seen that over the years. And it’s going to be a weapon for us this year because all of our quarterbacks are athletic enough to do that.”

Key takeaways from Ohio State’s spring game

With Howard and Brown seemingly atop the pack and Sayin making an early surge since arriving from Alabama, it’s Kienholz and Noland whose names are likely to be involved in transfer speculation until the portal closes on April 30. Kienholz was a four-star prospect and the No. 15 quarterback in the 2023 recruiting cycle. He flipped his commitment from Washington to Ohio State and played sparingly last season as the third-stringer. He completed 6 of 17 passes for 86 yards and no touchdowns in a bowl loss to Missouri after starter Kyle McCord entered the portal and Brown suffered an injury. What Kienholz showed on Saturday wasn’t much better: 10 of 17 for 71 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions.

Prior to Sayin’s arrival, Noland was the lone quarterback in Ohio State’s signing class. He was a four-star prospect and the No. 4 quarterback in the 2024 cycle whose stock continued to rise after an impressive showing at the Elite 11 Finals last summer. Noland remained loyal to the Buckeyes despite persistent rumors of a flip to Oregon and the unexpected commitment from Sayin over the winter. He completed 5 of 7 passes for 47 yards, no touchdowns and one interception during the spring game, but also added 42 rushing yards on five attempts. Sayin, who finished 10-for-17 for 85 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, is noticeably ahead in his development.

“Julian is a very fast processor, you know?” Kelly said. “He really thinks very, very quickly on his feet. He makes really quick decisions. He doesn’t stick in reads. He can progress and he sees things really well for a young player and not having been exposed to a lot of college defenses. And especially what [defensive coordinator] Jim [Knowles] does. Jim can make a young freshman quarterback cry with some of the stuff he does. But I never saw that with Julian.”

In some respects, what the Buckeyes have compiled in their quarterback room is the living embodiment of roster building in the current climate. There’s a high-level transfer (Howard) who’s eager to finish his career with a flourish. There’s an experienced upperclassman (Brown) who has patiently waited his turn. There’s a developmental youngster (Kienholz) who still needs time to grow. There’s a prized portal pickup (Sayin) whose decision to join the team couldn’t have been expected. There’s a traditional four-star freshman (Noland) who was the focal point of Day’s last recruiting class.

Ohio State has acquired its quarterbacks in seemingly every way imaginable ahead of the 2024 campaign. The real challenge is keeping them. 

“We’re going to give them feedback, for sure,” Day said. “And go from there.”

 Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.


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