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How Ohio State will replace departing NFL draft picks

The Buckeyes celebrate as redshirt junior cornerback Gareon Conley (8) intercepts the ball during the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31. Credit: Alexa Mavrogianis | Photo Editor

Last year, Ohio State was tasked with replacing 12 players – including five first-rounders – who were selected in the 2016 NFL draft. Though the Buckeyes won’t have to deal with the large quantity of losses this year, they will once again be forced to identify new starters at seven different positions.

Here is how Ohio State will replace its seven 2017 NFL draft picks.

Players Lost to NFL: Cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore (New Orleans Saints, first round) and Gareon Conley (Oakland Raiders, first round)

Candidate(s) to replace: Denzel Ward, Damon Arnette, Kendall Sheffield, Shaun Wade and Jeffrey Okudah

Situation: Ohio State’s recent track record of sending defensive backs to the NFL is unparalleled. Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley, who each had four interceptions in 2016, joined Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, Doran Grant and Bradley Roby, whom were all drafted in the last four years. The loss of Lattimore and Conley will hurt, but Ohio State has been in this position before. Last spring, Lattimore had to fight to win his job, and a season later he developed into a first-round draft pick.

Junior Denzel Ward will step into a starting role. Cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs, who believes Ward is due for a breakout season, repeatedly said in the spring  the Macedonia, Ohio, native played as much as Lattimore and Ward last season. Ward had 23 tackles and nine pass breakups in 2016.

An extremely skilled group of cornerbacks will battle to start opposite Ward. Redshirt junior Damon Arnette experienced some struggles last year, but he earned praise for his improvement in the spring. Junior-college transfer and former five-star prospect Kendall Sheffield’s elite physical tools make him a strong candidate to start. Freshmen five-star prospects Shaun Wade and Jeffrey Okudah will be in the mix as they were the No. 1 (Okudah) and No. 2 (Wade) cornerback prospects in the 2017 recruiting cycle, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings.

OSU redshirt sophomore safety Malik Hooker (24) returns an interception during the second half of the Buckeyes game against Nebraska on Nov. 5, 2016. The Buckeyes won 62-3. Credit: Alexa Mavrogianis | Photo Editor

Player Lost to NFL: Safety Malik Hooker (Indianapolis Colts, first round)

Candidate(s) to replace: Erick Smith and Jordan Fuller

Situation: Entering the 2016 season, no one expected former three-star recruit Malik Hooker to become a first-team All-American and first-round NFL draft pick in less than a year. But that’s exactly what the ball-hawking safety did. Hooker snagged seven interceptions, returning three for touchdowns, including one during the Buckeyes’ 30-27 double-overtime win against Michigan.

In Hooker’s place, either a veteran (senior Erick Smith) or a young up-and-comer (sophomore Jordan Fuller) with likely start next to senior safety Damon Webb, the only returning starting defensive back.

Fuller seems to have the edge on Smith as he played with the first-team defense during the spring game. Last season, the Old Tappan, New Jersey, product played 71 defensive snaps and finished with 11 tackles. Smith, who suffered a torn ACL in November 2015, has played in 33 career games while at Ohio State. Last season, the backup played in all 13 games and picked up 16 tackles, one tackle for loss and a pass break-up.

Player Lost to NFL: H-back Curtis Samuel (second round, Carolina Panthers)

Candidate(s) to replace: Parris Campbell, Demario McCall and K.J. Hill

Situation: The loss of the best and, at times last year, only playmaker on the Buckeyes in Curtis Samuel leaves a massive void that must be filled by relatively inexperienced players. In 2016, Samuel led Ohio State with 74 catches for 865 yards and seven touchdowns. On the ground, he gained 771 yards on 97 rushing attempts, an average of 7.9 yards per carry.

In 2017, Ohio State is relying on redshirt junior Parris Campbell, sophomore Demario McCall or redshirt sophomore K.J. Hill to shoulder the loss of Samuel and his production. The problem for the Buckeyes is that none of the three have been particularly impactful with the ball in their hands since arriving on campus.

Campbell was named to the Paul Hornung Award watch list in July since he’s expected to get the first shot as starting H-back. But last year, the speedy Akron St. Vincent St. Mary product reeled in just 13 passes for 121 yards and rushed the ball four times. McCall offers the best running ability of the trio as he took 49 carries for 273 yards as a freshman. Hill caught 18 passes following 262 yards, but he might be needed as an outside receiver.

OSU then-redshirt junior linebacker Chris Worley (35) quiets opposing fans after an interception in the first half during the Buckeyes game against the Wisconsin Badgers on Oct. 15, 2016 The Buckeyes won 30-23 in overtime. Credit: Alexa Mavrogianis | Former Photo Editor

Player Lost to NFL: Middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan (second round, Miami Dolphins)

Candidate(s) to replace: Chris Worley

Situation: A stalwart in the middle of Ohio State’s defense for the past two seasons, Raekwon McMillan’s loss as a leader and a defensive stopper will be felt. He led the Buckeyes in tackles last season, with 102, and he added seven tackles for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles. McMillan was twice named to the All-Big Ten first team.

In his place, redshirt senior Chris Worley will move from strongside outside linebacker to middle linebacker. In 2016, Worley finished with 70 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and four pass break-ups. The vocal linebacker must transition smoothly to quarterbacking the defense as McMillan set a high bar.

On the outside, redshirt junior Dante Booker will start at Worley’s former strongside linebacker position. Booker began the 2016 season as the starting weakside linebacker, but injured his knee and sat out the season, using a redshirt. Worley and Booker will be joined on the second level of the defense by junior Jerome Baker, who finished second on the team in tackles (83) and tackles for loss (9.5).

Player Lost to NFL: Center Pat Elflein (third round, Minnesota Vikings)

Candidate(s) to replace: Billy Price

Situation: Prior to the 2016 season, the Buckeyes decided to move Pat Elflein, who was playing right guard, to center. There, he won the Rimington Trophy – given to the best interior lineman in the nation – and was a first-team All-American. Redshirt senior Billy Price will follow in Elflein’s footsteps by sliding from right guard to center for his final season in scarlet and gray. Price,who was also named a first-team All-American in 2016, is a leading candidate to win the 2017 Rimington Trophy.

In his place at right guard, redshirt junior Malcolm Pridgeon, redshirt junior Demetrius Knox and redshirt sophomore Matthew Burrell will compete during fall camp to start next to Price and junior right tackle Isaiah Prince. Burrell exited the spring seemingly holding a slight lead in the position battle as he started the spring game with the first-team offense.

However, the competition is far from over. Pridgeon, who missed last season after a knee injury forced him to redshirt, and Knox, a former top recruit from Texas, will have an opportunity to win the job during fall camp. A fourth option to start at right guard, incoming freshman and five-star recruit Wyatt Davis, seems like an unlikely option, but the top guard in the 2017 recruiting cycle, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, shouldn’t be counted out.

OSU then-redshirt freshman wide receiver K.J. Hill (14) avoids a tackle during the second half of the Buckeyes game against Nebraska on Nov. 5, 2016. The Buckeyes won 62-3. Credit: Alexa Mavrogianis | Former Photo Editor

Player Lost to NFL: Wide receiver Noah Brown (seventh round, Dallas Cowboys)

Candidate(s) to replace: K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, Johnnie Dixon, Terry McLaurin, Austin Mack, Trevon Grimes and Jaylen Harris

Situation: Though Noah Brown was not the consistent threat as an outside receiver that he was expected to be, he played a key role in a certain game for the Buckeyes’ offense. Notably, Brown gathered four touchdown receptions in Ohio State’s 45-24 win over Oklahoma. He finished the season second on the team with 32 catches for 402 yards and tied with Samuel for team lead with seven touchdowns.

A large group of receivers, led by Hill, sophomore Binjimen Victor, redshirt junior Johnnie Dixon and redshirt junior Terry McLaurin, battled in the spring for starting reps.

Hill finished with the most receptions (18) of any starting receiver candidate. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Victor is the most physically gifted receiver on Ohio State’s roster, but his route-running is raw and he wasn’t able to break through in a relatively weak receiver group last year. Dixon exploded in the spring game, catching six passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns, but he as dealt with numerous knee and leg injuries since arriving in Columbus. McLaurin caught 11 passes for 114 yards last season. Sophomore Austin Mack and freshmen Trevon Grimes and Jaylen Harris could earn some playing time, but their youth hurts their potential to be relied upon in 2017.

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