By Pete Nakos
OhioBobcats.com Feature Writer
ATHENS — With Ohio football wrapping up spring practice Saturday with a short scrimmage, let's look at five takeaways of things we learned in spring camp:
1. Depth at running back won't be a problem:
A season after reaching the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career, running back A.J. Ouellette will return for his last season at Ohio. And he'll be joined by a solid stable of running backs, too.
"I think the offense we are clicking really well, better than we were at this time last year," he said. "Running the ball up the middle and outside, I know we're having a great time.
"When you have so many people back, especially in some really important positions, you can go over some things quickly and hit some advanced stuff. We've learned some stuff that I haven't learned the whole time I've been here and now we're getting into it. It's just making us better."
Julian Ross will return with a year of experience under his belt as he ran for three touchdowns as a freshman last season. The big addition to the Bobcats' backfield will come from Maleek Irons who sat out last season.
Now a redshirt senior, Irons will presumably fill the hole that Dorian Brown had last year — a flash of speed to complement Ouellette's style of running full-speed, shoulder down into opponents.
Running backs coach and offensive coordinator Tim Albin enters year 14 at Ohio with coach Frank Solich. Last year marked possibly the most explosive rushing attack the two have put together, but with a strong offensive line and continuity at quarterback, the backfield looks to be a strength yet again.
2. Nathan Rourke ready for season No. 2 at the helm of the offense:
Nathan Rourke oohed and ahhed crowds last year. This year, all signs point to him being the quarterback from day one in Athens, something that Bobcat fans haven't seen since Tyler Tettleton started consecutive years.
Solich has put together consistent teams since he started in 2005, but his best teams have been with a quarterback starting his second straight season.
"That's the No. 1 thing, wherever you are," Rourke said. "One of the things that they teach here is that we're a MAC Championship team. This is the way we're going to train, practice, play, all that stuff.
"I was put in that culture here, I was exposed to that right away. That's the standard. I thought we were very capable of doing that last year, and we're also very capable of doing it this year. I'm just doing my part to make that reality."
Rourke will be an early favorite for MAC Player of the Year after totaling 39 touchdowns last season, setting a program record for touchdowns in a single season. The elusiveness and knack of finding the end zone will partner well with the rushing attack and leaves the offense with the capability of putting up 40 points consistently.
3. Front seven growing every practice comes down to experience:
A year after holding opponents to just 110 rushing yards a game, the Bobcats' defensive front seven will have to rebuild this spring camp. It's at the top of the to-do list for defensive coordinator Jimmy Burrow.
"Well, our style of defense is organized to do that (stop the run)," Burrow said. "The better players you have the better it works. It's just a matter of attacking and reacting with the guys you have and keeping it simple."
Instead, the 2018 season will be focused on finding players to fill the gaps. Ohio returns one starting linebacker, Evan Croutch. He will presumably take over the role as the quarterback of the defense, which was held before by Quentin Poling, the all-time tackles leader in program history.
In its Bahamas Bowl win over UAB the Bobcats started a redshirt senior at each spot on the defensive line, which resulted in a 41-6 win. It's not just the vast amount of experience lost from graduation, but the senior leadership and how to react in situations that can't be practiced.
That's why Burrow says getting good practice time in during spring ball can be as useful as a scrimmage.
4. Frank Solich isn't going anywhere:
At 73 years old, Frank Solich will enter next season in his 14th year at Ohio. There's always the rumors that he may retire or not sign a contract extension, but that doesn't seem the case.
He's making assistants hit the recruiting trail harder than ever, he's always on the move to go out and see donors, and he's still in search of that Mid-American Conference Championship trophy.
This season will mark the 50th anniversary since that win. It's the longest drought in conference history and Solich isn't shying away from it.
"We've been good, but I don't think we're satisfied," he said. "It's a matter of having some goals and being able to talk about them.
"Being in the top 25 is a goal. Winning the MAC Championship, and doing it with some regularity, is a goal. That's what this program needs to strive for now."
5. Summer growth must happen:
Solich talked about it after the final scrimmage of the spring, and assistants have been talking about it since camp started: to be successful next year the Bobcats will need to grow as a team this summer.
That means in the weight room, but also mentally, which means breaking down film of opponents for 2018. Summer months are the true off-season for college football and Ohio wants to make sure it doesn't fall behind.
Solich was brief — if the same team shows up in the fall it won't make for a fun season. He may be referencing the number of injuries the Bobcats' faced in the spring, or that some maturity has to take place.
"We're looking for a lot of those younger guys to rise up and start proving themselves," he said. "We'll watch the film, and we'll watch individual play. But as a team, playing great team offense or great team defense? We're a way away from that."
Growth for Ohio football also means recruiting well and identifying players early. Assistants will hit the road as soon as Monday where the recruiting process is off to a much faster start due to the early signing period.
Fall camp will start in August and the new season will truly start. Solich and his team will try to break the 50-year drought.
"But we cannot be the same players and the same team that we are right now," he said. "We've got to use the summer to get stronger in some spots, get a little bigger in some spots, and maybe even get a little smaller in some spots."