DALLAS — When the Cotton Bowl trophy is given to the winner between Ohio State and USC Friday, the Buckeyes will watch nine senior starters head to the locker room dressed in Scarlet and Gray for the final time.
Leaders and key players like center Billy Price, quarterback J.T. Barrett, left tackle Jamarco Jones and defensive ends Tyquan Lewis and Jalyn Holmes will never again suit up for Ohio State, and their absence will leave major holes on the team’s roster.
Those players have practiced all week in Dallas with the hopes of bringing that trophy back with them into the locker room, but another part of practice has been to help prepare their successors for the years to come.
“It means a lot because you know it’s always the next man up and my time is coming to an end until the next season that I have, I’ll be with a different team,” Lewis said Wednesday. “I just try to show them like this is where hard work gets you and you know just the little things, little tidbits of things that they should work on. Things that I can help them get better at.”
Several position groups will survive the turnover to the next season. A majority of the wide receivers are expected to return, and freshman running back J.K. Dobbins will be coming back. Ohio State also will keep several key members of its secondary like sophomore safety Jordan Fuller and cornerbacks Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield.
Most other positions will be hurt by the departures. It is always challenging to replace a quarterback, particularly one who has been in the program as long as Barrett. The offensive line will lose both its top two players in Price and Jones.
The defensive line will return Nick Bosa, but the loss of Lewis and Holmes — along with Sam Hubbard’s likely departure to the NFL — will cost the team much-needed depth. Defensive ends freshman Chase Young and redshirt freshman Jonathon Cooper will both be required to step into key roles, as will many other current freshmen and sophomores on the team.
Holmes said for freshmen, this week of practice to receive extended time working with the veterans on the team who will be departing plays a critical role in the development of the players by helping rebuild lost confidence.
“A lot of freshmen lose confidence and some things when they first get here because when you first get here as a freshman, you’re probably that five-star, four-star guy, and then you notice, ‘Oh, I’m not the best on my team anymore,’” Holmes said. “Now through these times in the bowl practices you get that confidence back, you get that swagger back.”
All of the veteran players have been in that position. They all went through the bowl practices as freshmen hoping to carve out a future role on the team.
For Lewis, the veteran who helped him the most was now-Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Adolphus Washington, a sophomore during Lewis’ first year in the program.
“I mean he would definitely give me words of encouragement and just tell me like this is your time to become someone, break out your shell,” Lewis said. “He definitely helped me through all that spring ball period when I first earned my starting job.”
All these players at one point were the students, learning from the veteran players on the team. Now they are the teachers. Washington passed the torch on to Lewis, and Lewis is hoping to do the same for the freshmen like Young and Cooper.
On the offensive line, Jones said so far throughout the week of practice, freshman offensive tackle Thayer Munford has stepped up and played strong throughout the week. He added that with players like guards like Michael Jordan, Demetrius Knox and Branden Bowen — the latter of which could revert to his natural position of tackle — should provide the line with stability next season despite his and Price’s departures.
“They’ve been getting a lot of reps this postseason,” Jones said. “They’ve been playing really well. Just making sure they’re ready to kind of step into their new roles or take that next leap, whatever I can do in these last few weeks I have.”
The week of practice before the bowl game is all about looking toward the future. That future is both the upcoming matchup and preparing players for the years to come.
And though head coach Urban Meyer said preparing to win the game is the top priority of the practices, the players remember how important it was for them to work with the veterans just before the roster starts to flip.
“Rashad Frazier, Steve Miller, Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington, just a whole lot, Joey Bosa. They all tried to help me be the best player I am, the player I am today,” Holmes said. “They helped mold that from the beginning.”