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Football: Ohio State will rely on first-year starters to make substantial impacts — again

Ohio State then-redshirt sophomore tight end Rashod Berry (13) shakes off a defender while running the ball in the third quarter of the Ohio State-UNLV game on Sep. 23. Ohio State won 54- 21. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

Ohio State doesn’t have much room to complain about the year-to-year cycle of losing and replacing players. Massive turnover is just part of the cycle as a college football program — and given their recruiting prowess, the Buckeyes have it easy.

That does not mean things always run smoothly.

A large base of high-level talent means the program loses players to the NFL every year. The coaches have pressure to turn first-year starters into NFL-caliber players. And while coaching and developing those athletes, the staff must prepare for the future by recruiting against the nation’s top teams.

The cycle often changes. Last year, the Buckeyes had several second-year players at key positions. They entered the season returning its starting quarterback, an All-American center, a bookend left tackle, the deepest defensive end group in the country and an experienced group of linebackers.

But as spring wraps up, Ohio State once again is in the position of relying on a smattering of first-year players to step up into roles in which they are relied to be major contributors.

That, of course, begins at the quarterback position, but extends elsewhere.

Out went J.T. Barrett, Rimington Trophy winning center Billy Price, first-team All-Big Ten left tackle Jamarco Jones and tight end Marcus Baugh, a two-year starter.

Ohio State then-freshman defensive end Chase Young (2) attempts to take down Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke (10) in the second half of the Ohio State-Michigan State game on Nov. 11. Ohio State won 48-3. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

Defensive ends Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes, along with defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle, are gone. Behind them, the defense lost its leader in linebacker Chris Worley and two-year starting linebacker Jerome Baker. Safety Damon Webb and cornerback Denzel Ward also have left the team.

The Buckeyes will likely have first-year starters at tight end, center, right tackle, defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker, safety and cornerback.

The large amount of new starters is not necessarily a bad thing to head coach Urban Meyer, who preaches competition — even at quarterback.

“There’s zero stress, minimal stress when you have great players that are competing,” Meyer said on March 5.

Despite the anticipation that Ohio State will rely heavily on unproven players, optimism about the situation is not hard to find. Because the Buckeyes have recruited better than ever before, the expectation exists that former five-star recruits and four-star prospects will step into primary roles in the fall.

Several former five-star prospects — sophomores defensive end Chase Young, linebacker Baron Browning and cornerbacks Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade — will compete for open spots, along with many four-stars and a few three-stars.

Even when a former three-star prospect — like sophomore Thayer Munford, who is penciled in as the starting right tackle — grabs a spot, he is seen as a worthy starter because he beat out highly regarded recruits for the role.

The expectation also differs by position. Not only are Okudah and Wade former five-stars, but they play a position at which Ohio State has had immense success.

Whoever wins the starting center role — Brady Taylor, Josh Myers or Matt Burrell — will feel massive pressure in replacing Ohio State’s second consecutive Rimington winner. That is especially true on the defensive line, historically a position group of strength that does not just hope to have a major impact, but views that as a necessity.

Ohio State freshman cornerback Jeffrey Okudah (29) breaks up a pass in the fourth quarter of the 2017 Cotton Bowl against University of Southern California on Dec. 29 in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. Ohio State won 24-7. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

“I think the standard’s been set,” Meyer said. “We just can’t drop below that.”

But not everyone pans out, which often gets forgotten.

Redshirt junior cornerbacks Kendall Sheffield and Damon Arnette, junior wideouts Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor and redshirt senior linebacker Dante Booker slid into starting roles with opportunities to take advantage with big seasons. Though none completely failed in their roles, none significantly broke through.

So while Ohio State should be confident in redshirt junior tight end Rashod Berry, sophomore safety Isaiah Pryor and redshirt sophomore defensive end Jonathon Cooper taking a step forward, a cautiously optimistic attitude might be the best approach.

This situation is not new for Ohio State. Nor is it unfamiliar to Meyer. And sometimes, despite the lack of experience, a fresh group of talent works well.

In 2014, the last time Meyer returned to Columbus with a national-championship trophy, the Buckeyes’ core consisted of first-year players in key positions. In his first season as the starter, Barrett tossed passes to first-year starter Michael Thomas and handed the ball off to first-year starter Ezekiel Elliott. A bevy of first-year starters — Darron Lee, Vonn Bell, Tyvis Powell, Steve Miller and Eli Apple — helped turn the defense into a feared unit.

In a sport with more than 130 teams at the Division I level, it might seem insane to see a national championship berth — or, at the very least, a College Football Playoff appearance — as an expectation.

But Meyer did not just earn a $1.2 million raise to view a New Year’s Six bowl game as a success. Ohio State did not make offensive coordinator Ryan Day and defensive coordinator Greg Schiano the first two million-dollar assistant coaches in program history with the goal of anything other than a national championship.

In order to raise the level of play to that level, the Buckeyes must ensure a high level of play from their first-year starters.