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2020 Mid-American Conference Football Key Storylines: Ohio Bobcats

There’s a few big questions to answer if Ohio is going to make a title run in 2020, including who will fill the void of Nathan Rourke’s departure.

UNLV v Northwestern
Senior QB Armani Rogers transferred from UNLV in 2020 for a shot to win the starting job at Ohio
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Ohio returns a lot of the squad from 2019 that finished second in the MAC East but did lose a few key players, starting with quarterback Nathan Rourke. Rourke’s importance to the offense is well-documented and can found in our season preview, but in this piece, we’re looking forward to the future.

So, if Ohio is going to find a way to get to Detroit in December for the MAC Championship, the key storylines starts with the following question:

Who will be the quarterback?

Ohio was busy last year looking to shore up this group with the pending graduation of Nathan Rourke and I think they added some great prospects to the existing group that could do some exciting things here in 2020.

Ohio returns a talented, deep, set of skill players and a proven interior offensive line for 2020, so whoever gets the job will inherit some real riches.

Here are the players in the mix for Ohio’s QB job in 2020:

  • Armani Rogers

Rogers is an exciting dual-threat prospect. A highly-regarded west-coast prospect out of high school, he had offers from Utah, Cal, and UCLA, among others.

The redshirt senior transfer from UNLV was Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year in 2017 but has been hampered by injuries on and off over the course of the last three years. Despite injury, Rogers was able to appear in 20 games for UNLV from 2017-19 and put up some impressive numbers, with almost 2,500 yards passing and 1,500 yards rushing with 36 combined touchdowns (18 rushing, 18 passing).

From a physical and mental standpoint, Rogers reminds me in some ways of another former UNLV QB in Randall Cunningham. (If you haven’t seen Randall Cunningham play, treat yourself to some highlights by clicking here... and even if you have seen Cunningham play, still treat yourself; here is always time for great highlights.) Rogers checks all the boxes at about 6’5” and 225 pounds and should give MAC defenders all they can handle. He is most likely one of the fastest north-south runners in the MAC and has very good arm strength based on his highlights from UNLV.

I think Ohio was a great choice for Rogers, because he should be a great fit and there is an immediate opportunity with Nathan Rourke’s graduation. In 2019, Ohio liked to run the QB and throw deep, with Rourke rushing for 867 yards and finishing 19th in the FBS in passing yards per attempt (14.1.) Ohio would be able to run its offense with Rogers in a similar fashion to 2019 without many hitchesif it chooses to do so.

The main question I see with Rogers is accuracy. In 385 passing attempts at UNLV, Rogers completed only 50% of his passes. I think this will need improvement to get the consistency needed to win what are likely some close games, with Buffalo, Miami, and Kent State all in the mix for a MAC East Title. Rogers probably has the best supporting cast in his career with Ohio in 2020, which will help. And with one of the better scoring offenses in the MAC last year, Offensive Coordinator Tim Albin and company will be able to coach him up and play to his strengths.

  • Kurtis Rourke

Redshirt freshman Kurtis Rourke, brother of Nathan, is in the mix for the job in 2020. Like Rogers, Kurtis checks the boxes physically at about 6’3” and 215 pounds. What he brings to the table is different than Rogers though. Rourke is more of a passer than a runner looking at the high school highlights, though he did show the propensity to run when necessary, having rushed for over 700 yards in his high school career.

Looking at Rourke’s high school video from 2017 through an amateur’s lens, there is a lot to be excited about in terms of his passing skills. What stood out to me first is just a great pocket presence. He is calm in the pocket and moves around to avoid the rush while keeping his eyes down field with great success. A lot of his highlights show him sliding around in the pocket, eyes downfield, buying enough time to make big plays.

Rourke displayed good arm strength, nice touch, and excellent accuracy in high school. In 2017, Rourke threw for 2,500 yards and 38 TDs against only 5 interceptions while completing 65% of his passes. In his high school career, Kurtis Rourke finished with 63 touchdowns, completing 70 percent of his passes while being named league MVP twice.

And when you talk about completion percentage, watching his highlights, he was very accurate while throwing the ball downfield and not throwing a lot of screens or checkdowns with run after the catch.

Rourke would be a great option, especially if Ohio decides to put more emphasis on passing. And, again, the supporting cast and coaching gives Ohio the flexibility to emphasize the pass.

Under coaches Frank Solich and Albin, Ohio has a track record of success in tailoring offenses to fit personnel. QB Tyler Tettleton, who guided Ohio to its first ever bowl win in 2011, finished his career as Ohio’s leader in touchdown passes and passing yards while rushing for just 24 yards as a senior. In contrast, QB Nathan Rourke had 867 yards rushing last year, finishing his career tied for the all-time leader in rushing touchdowns in Ohio history (49). Ohio had great success with Nathan Rourke at QB, winning three straight bowl games.

The question here is college game experience: Kurtis Rourke appeared in just one game last season and hasn’t thrown a pass in college.

  • CJ Harris

Another physical specimen at 6’3” and 200 pounds, freshman dual-threat QB CJ Harris is also an exciting prospect. When you look at a successful MAC program, its never really about finding the most highly-ranked player as it is finding the right player.

I think CJ Harris could be the right player for Ohio.

When you look at CJ Harris’ high school highlights, it looks oftentimes like a version of the Ohio offense. What I mean is, you see CJ Harris doing a lot of the same types of things you saw Nathan Rourke do in 2019: QB draw in the red zone, various options, deep posts, etc. Having those high school reps give Harris an advantage in transition into the offense that Ohio operated last season and he has demonstrated at the high school level the skill-set needed to operate last year’s offense successfully.

The question though is inexperience at the college level.

I see Rogers and Rourke as the early leaders in the race at this point but I think Harris could be ready to step in too. In the past under Solich, Ohio sometimes alternated QBs at the beginning of the season before making a starter selection at the beginning of conference play, but I’m not sure what they will do with no non-conference games. I would think the starter week one is written in pencil and could be replaced in short order if the offense is not performing at a high level.

Will the Defense Start Faster and Play Better?

The second question for 2020 is how fast will the defense will start the season and will they play better? I see the answer to both of those questions as being yes, but there are some question marks. regardless

The 2019 defense got off to a slow start in non-conference, particularly against the run. In Weeks 3 and 4 of the non-conference schedule, Ohio surrendered 78 points and almost 600 yards rushing to Marshall and Louisiana.

Fortunately for Ohio fans, Ohio won’t see a team that can run the ball the caliber of 2019 Marshall and Louisiana in 2020, outside of division foe Buffalo. For that reason alone, I see Ohio getting off to a better start.

But, with run defense, there are some questions starting the season at defensive tackle. This is the third year in a row Ohio is replacing at least one DT starter. Cole Baker and Brian Arp are gone after 2019. Ohio has a talented group here, but a good amount of college inexperience.

Redshirt junior and 2020 Captain Kai Caesar returns and has the potential I think to be an all-MAC caliber player. How Caesar plays will be a key to the defensive line’s success in 2020. When you go back and look at Caesar even early on, say 2018 against Cincinnati, you see a player with potential to be a very good DT in the MAC. Even as a redshirt freshman and for a guy his size (300+ pounds), he flashes some quickness. Caesar also shows he can be tough to move off the ball, with good strength at the base.

Adding highly-rated Denzel Daxon to the mix this year may make a difference (second highest-ranked player in history for Ohio). Daxon is a massive player, listed at 335 pounds on his Bobcat profile, and it shows on his high school video. He played typically in the center of a three-man defensive line and was nearly impossible to move off the ball due to his size and strength. Even against double teams, he wasn’t pushed back on the highlights. Daxon will be an immediate issue for opposing offensive linemen, should he see the fireld in the upcoming season.

Behind Caesar and Daxon, there are some JUCO players and underclassmen that will have a chance to show what they can do. What they show will be an important factor in a title run.

The defensive ends feature experience in its top three players led by 2020 Captain Austin Conrad. Conrad, a converted TE, has improved every year and may up doing some special things in 2020. Senior Will Evans returns for his third season as a starter and Junior Amos Ogun-Semore figures to be heavily in the mix. I figure at least Evans or Austin to make All-MAC. Ohio likes to rotate defensive line players to keep them fresh, and Ohio lost some DE rotational players to graduation. There will be an opportunity and need for a few guys to step up here who haven’t had much college playing experience.

The linebackers are arguably the most talented, deepest, defensive group and if the defensive line can play solidly, I see the linebackers making some big plays in 2020. With 645 pounds combined between Caesar and Daxon, starting middle linebacker Jared Dorsa might have a field day.

The secondary will be solid for 2020, even with the loss of Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ practice squad player Javon Hagan and three-year starter Marlon Brooks (who opted-out due to COVID-19). The remaining group is experienced, with safety Jarren Hampton, CBs Jamal Hudson, Xavior Motley and Ilyaas Motley have appeared in a combined 126 games for Ohio (in the secondary and on special teams). Hampton and Hudson may make an All-MAC team this year.

Redshirt junior Alvin Floyd will probably get the first crack at the open safety spot. Floyd has appeared in 24 games for Ohio, most of the time on special teams. Floyd does have some game experience at safety with Ohio and had a big play in the win vs Western Michigan in 2018 with a 13-yard blocked punt returned for touchdown.

With Brooks out for 2020, players like CB Tariq Drake could see more opportunities. Drake has appeared in 22 games for the Bobcats, primarily on special teams.

How will special teams perform?

Speaking of special teams, the final storyline for 2020 is how that unit will look for the 2020 season, as it goes through a complete overhaul this offseason.

The good news is Ohio should be in good shape with the non-specialists: the people who block, return, and cover. Ohio did lose returner DL Knock and LB Eric Popp (a first-ballot all-Name hall-of-famer) but return deep groups at WR, RB, LB, TE, and DB who can man these teams competitively.

The question marks are how the new specialist will perform: Ohio is replacing its kicker, punter, and long snapper with folks with little or no college experience.

Redshirt Freshman Tristian Vandenberg will probably get the first crack at kicker and Australian freshman Jack Wilson at punter. Phil Steele has Vandenberg as the #38-ranked kicker prospect in 2019 coming out of high school and 247 Sports lists Vandenberg has a high two-star player. Phil Steele lists Wilson as the #42-ranked punter prospect in 2020.

We won’t have a great read on how those players will work out until they hit the field for game action, unfortunately, so there isn’t much to say until we’re a few games into the schedule.

Ohio plays their first game on Wednesday, Nov. 4, at 7 p.m. on the road vs. Central Michigan.