ATHENS, Ohio -- The Ohio football team held the first of 15 spring practices this morning inside Walter Fieldhouse, signaling the unofficial beginning of the 2019 season.
After starting the day with position meetings, the Bobcats took the field in shorts for individual, positional and team drills.
Head coach Frank Solich, who is entering his 15th season at the helm at Ohio in 2019, said that development is his main focus for the team during the spring sessions.
"We've got a fair number of talented young players in the system that we need to make sure get reps," said Solich. "How far we come, how well we develop with guys that will either be backups or will be pressing starters, how far they come this spring, I think that will help determine exactly how good we're going to be, certainly early on in the season."
Position battles begin taking shape in spring ball, and running back is the one that figures to receive the most attention from the fans and media.
Gone are A.J. Ouellette and Maleek Irons, who helped the Ohio rushing attack rank eighth in the nation with a conference-high 3,358 rushing yards (third-most in program history) and 10th in the nation with a conference-high 258.3 rushing yards per game (sixth-highest average in program history) in 2018. Ouellette earned All-MAC First Team honors for the first time in his career after being named to the Second Team in 2016. He became the first Ohio running back to be named to the All-MAC First Team since Kalvin McRae achieved the feat for the third year in a row in 2007. Ouellette ranked 12th in the country with a career-high 1,306 yards (fourth-most in program history) to lead the MAC. His career-high 12 rushing touchdowns ranked second on the team and tied for the ninth-most in a single season in program history while his career-high 14 total touchdowns scored tied him for the sixth-most in a single season in program history. Irons finished the year ranked second on the team with a career-high 831 rushing yards. His 75.5 rushing yards per game ranked as the third-highest average in the MAC. Irons also ranked third on the team with a career-high eight rushing touchdowns.
"It's completely open," said Solich of the position battle at running back. Jake's (redshirt sophomore Jake Neatherton) got probably the most experience coming back, so, in that regard, he's the front runner. We're talking about a lot of, I think, pretty good young running backs. It's going to be interesting to see how that plays out for those guys, because it's going to be a heck of a battle. It's going to be one of the most contested spots on the field."
Redshirt sophomore running back Julian Ross (Kansas City, Mo.) is continuing to work his way back from an injury and will be limited in the spring. Ross played in eight games as a true freshman in 2017 and ran from 250 yards and three touchdowns on 60 carries.
"He won't be able to get much done," said Solich. "He'll be healthier as the summer goes along, and we should have him full go for fall camp."
One position that will not require a battle to determine a starter is quarterback, where senior Nathan Rourke (Oakville, Ontario, Canada) is firmly entrenched as the team's leader.
Rourke is coming off of a 2018 campaign in which he earned All-MAC honors for the second year in a row and ranked third among MAC quarterbacks in passing touchdowns (career-high 23; second-most in program history) and fourth in passing yards (career-high 2,434; fourth-most in program history). He also ran for 860 yards to rank second on the team and led the squad with 15 rushing touchdowns, with the latter tying him for the third-most in a single season in program history. In all, Rourke accounted for 3,294 yards of total offense (second-most in program history), with his 253.4 yards per game of total offense ranking as the third-highest average in program history and his 8.07 yards per play ranking as the highest average in program history. He was responsible for 38 total touchdowns in 2018, which is tied for the second-most in program history.
"The good thing about him is he's competitive within himself, so you don't have to worry about him slacking off a little bit or not competing because he feels like he's got the job won," said Solich. "That's not how he operates."
On the other side of the ball, Solich is expecting to continue to see improvement out of a young, but talented defense that is led by redshirt senior defensive back Javon Hagan (Jacksonville, Fla.), who garnered All-MAC First Team honors in 2018. The Bobcats led the nation in turnovers gained with 32 and finished the season with an impressive 27-0 shutout of San Diego State in the DXL Frisco Bowl.
"If you look at last year, we started slow," said Solich of his defense. "We didn't just dominate people at the beginning of the year. As the year went on, we just got better and better and better. We need to get off to a little faster start this year but keep that same energy and that same leadership."
Over the last 14 years under the leadership of Solich, Ohio has recorded 106 wins, captured four MAC East Division titles, appeared in 10 bowl games and tallied four bowl victories. The Bobcats recorded their second-straight nine-win season in 2018, capping the year off with the win over San Diego State in the 2018 DXL Frisco Bowl to record their second-straight bowl win. Ohio is set to return three All-MAC selections from the 2018 squad, including Hagan, Rourke and punter Michael Farkas (Mishawaka, Ind.).
Ohio kicks off the 2019 regular season on Saturday, Aug. 31, with a matchup against Rhode Island at Peden Stadium.