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Football: Ohio State searches for leadership following key departures

Ohio State junior wide receiver Terry McLaurin (83) sets up prior to a play in the second 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

Many were taken somewhat aback by Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer naming nine players on his team to be captains for the 2017 season, a total that easily surpassed the previous program record of six.

Questions arose about the reason for having so many captains and whether it was necessary to have nine captains, especially with several coming from the same position groups.

However, that depth of leadership has thinned significantly before the start of the 2018 season. Seven of those nine captains — J.T. Barrett, Billy Price, Chris Worley, Tracy Sprinkle, Jalyn Holmes, Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis — left the team, leaving only wide receivers Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin as returning captains.

Meyer described the current leadership position as “average right now,” which he said was the result of losing so many fifth-year seniors and players who had been invested in the program for a long time.

“I see promise. I see there is some very good promise,” Meyer said Monday. “So today was a better day. But it’s day-to-day. We’ll know more after spring ball, but it’s nothing like it was last year.”

Part of the reason the lack of leadership is notable is because the team lacks clear captain candidates at key positions. Outside of receiver, there is no other position group that has a returning captain.

The obvious void to fill is at quarterback, but that is not the only significant loss the team has to move past. Ohio State also lacks a clear replacement at center for Price, a player who was a leader throughout his collegiate career. Meyer has expressed concern with the battle for center between Brady Taylor, Josh Myers, Joshua Alabi and Matt Burrell.

Despite losing three captains at defensive end, the team boasts an enviable trio of players at the position with junior Nick Bosa, sophomore Chase Young and redshirt sophomore Jonathon Cooper. However, only Bosa is a returning starter and he identified himself in January as a leader “by example,” and neither Young nor Cooper have started a game in their collegiate careers.

Last year, Meyer named several captains early in the spring to give certain position groups a leader to look to before fall camp. He said he has no immediate plans to do that this time.

“No, but Parris and Terry are elite leaders on the [offensive] side,” Meyer said. “Dre’Mont Jones is going to be a good leader for us, and Jordan Fuller has turned out. But I haven’t done that yet, no.”

In a situation in which no player immediately steps up to take on a leadership role, Meyer said it falls to the coaching staff to serve as a temporary leader during the spring until someone emerges.

“If you don’t have leaders, it’s your job as a position group or coordinator to develop them, and then you have to provide it until they grow up and become that leader,” Meyer said. “So I think there’s been great examples around here where maybe there wasn’t great leadership to start the season, and as it went forward, that developed because of the position group coach.”

Ohio State still has more than a week until its spring game and the Buckeyes do not necessarily need that leader just yet. There are plenty of position battles at quarterback, linebacker, cornerback, safety and the offensive line.

Answer the question marks at those positions, and Ohio State will likely find the leaders that it needs. However, the leadership on the team will often dictate how the rest of the season goes. For a team that could either compete for a national championship or once again fall short, it will be crucial to have players ready to lead the team into the new season.

“That’s a process, that’s evaluation. At the end of spring we’ll list our top 20 players in order on offense and defense, and that will be determined what kind of style offense and defense we are,” Meyer said. “There have been times we’ve been more of a downhill, there have been times we’ve been more of a perimeter-run game. That’s going to determine who our best players are.

“The good thing is we’re very flexible. You can’t name a play that we don’t have. It’s fitting that together with our personnel.”

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