One year ago, names like Dontre Wilson, Mike Mitchell and Vonn Bell were uttered with every breath. None of them made the immediate impact forecasted by a plethora of prognosticators. One didn’t even play at all – Mitchell, a linebacker, who redshirterd after an injury in fall camp set back his learning curve.
Aside from defensive end Joey Bosa, whose first-year performance verged on miraculous, contributions were few and far between from the Class of 2013. In all, 15 players from the 23-member class redshirted. Barring any unforeseen setbacks from now until late-August, Meyer believes the opposite effect will take hold for the newest crop of Buckeyes.
“If things work out, we’ll redshirt a minimal amount of this class,” Meyer said. “We wanted to play more last year. Gareon Conley should have played last year. That’s Gareon’s fault and our fault, and the position coach’s fault, if we’re going to sit here and blame, which I’m not doing. But we’re counting on these guys to go play.”
Addressed were major pitfalls from Meyer’s first two seasons at Ohio State – linebacker, offensive line and defensive backfield. The class is highlighted by a quartet of linebackers, quintet of offensive linemen and several cornerbacks and safeties. Athleticism, power and speed are three words most associated with the group.
Raekwon McMillan, Sam Hubbard, Kyle Berger and Dante Booker are all rated in the top five at their linebacker position. For Meyer, it screams instant depth. The unit’s been under fire for three years with criticism from Meyer never resulting in superior play. They were more consistent last year, but still didn’t approach the level experienced the four previous decades.
“The emphasis is on linebacker. There are some obvious strengths and weaknesses, but the linebacker position is one that’s going through an overall,” Meyer said. “Far too many mistakes have been made in either lack of development or [recruiting], and it’s just not where we need to be.
“There are four linebackers we recruited, four guys I’m putting pressure on, along with Coach Fickell and myself, to get ready for next year. They have to play for us, in addition to the players we have on our roster already. Everybody knows there’s no redshirt plans for those players at all.”
McMillan, who possesses a hulking 6-foot-2, 242-pound frame, is readymade for instant success. He was the rated as the nation’s top linebacker after a senior season that makes videogames seem mild. McMillian recorded 159 tackles, 35.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks en route to capturing the high school Butkus Award.
“Not only is he physically and mentally ready to play, he’s already in school,” ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill said. “I think that’s going to bode well for this defensive unit that sorely needs an upgrade in talent and certainly needs some bodies [at linebacker]. That’s one that stands out to me without question.”
“If things work out, we’ll redshirt a minimal amount of this class.” -Urban Meyer
In his first discussion with the media, McMillan didn’t shy away from the pressure. He took it head-on and completely embraced it. No starting linebacker spot is secure. There will be an open competition in the spring with the best three players earning the upper hand. Andy Katzenmoyer is the lone true freshman to ever start for the Buckeyes. But don’t think that will deter McMillan.
“Coach Meyer told me if I come here nothing was going to be given to me,” McMillan said. “I had to compete just like everybody else. Yes, I have a good chance to start, but it’s all going to go to waste if I don’t put in the work right now.”
More than half of Ohio State’s recruits come from out-of-state, and McMillian is one of those 13. The Georgian picked the Buckeyes over the likes of Alabama and Clemson because, he said, Ohio State felt like the right place.
“Everything about it was great,” McMillan said. “Coach Meyer, the coaching staff is one of the best in the nation and I really like working with these guys.”
In the backend is a group headlined by Damon Webb, Marshon Lattimore and Erick Smith. Webb plays an aggressive, hard-nosed style at cornerback that could endear himself to Chris Ash, Kerry Coombs and Meyer. The pass defense issues were discussed on Wednesday with a nod to the true freshmen.
“Damon Webb, I anticipate he’ll be on the depth next year,” Meyer said. “And Marshon Lattimore from Glennville is going to be in the mix as well. And Erick Smith, he’s a guy I’m really excited to get here. He played corner in the all-star game, but we plan on putting him at safety, and, once again, immediately on the depth chart.”
Three players on offense – Johnnie Dixon, Curtis Samuel and Parris Campbell – fit Meyer’s mold of being dynamic and having the ability to be a gamebreaker. Ohio State lost Philly Brown at wide receiver, but returns a bulk of its pass-catchers. However, that doesn’t mean first-year players can’t step in and be part of the rotation. At the top of that list is Dixon.
The West Palm Beach native is already enrolled and has flashed his big-play ability in one-on-one drills. Dixon, who’s 5-foot-11, makes up for his size with blazing speed and a knack for creating big plays. He’s credited with running a 4.37 40 and often played his best during Dwyer High School’s most important games.
“I think Johnnie Dixon on the offensive side of the football is adding to a need area of offensive skill, where Urban Meyer and the staff want to upgrade speed, athleticism and players who can create mismatches in space,” Luginbill said. “I think that’s very, very important.”
And just because Dixon’s from South Florida doesn’t mean he’ll disappear during games in October and November. He’s aware of what he signed up for, flashing a smile when he gazed outdoors at the snow falling in Columbus. Dixon said Meyer and Ohio State’s history of producing top-end wide receivers couldn’t be ignored. Frigid weather or not, the Buckeyes one-upped Alabama, Miami and others.
“Once you make it to the NFL, you play in all types of weather any way,” Dixon said.
Anytime the subject of speed was broached, which happens frequently with Meyer, the attention turned to Samuel, a hybrid player from Brooklyn. He’s enrolled and already wowing his teammates and coaches. Meyer referred to him as “electric.” He’s never been shy in his pursuit for speed and building the fastest team in college football. The commitments of Samuel and Campbell only fills the cupboard with more sugar.
At 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, Samuel has the appearance of the smallish player that thrives in an offense choreographed by Meyer. He can catch passes downfield, in the backfield or run the football. The common denominator once he tackled – or reaches the end zone – is that would-be tacklers generally miss before corralling him.
“Curtis Samuel, in my opinion, can serve the offense in a very similar fashion to what Dontre Wilson did a year ago as a true freshman,” Luginbill said. “Maybe he’s a true running back on certain downs, maybe he’s split out wide on other downs, maybe he’s in the slot and utilized in the jet sweep.
“Urban Meyer wants to have guys that can create that Percy Harvin effect, where every time the offense breaks, the defense has to know where everybody is lined up because you’re worried about a mismatch or a disadvantage. I think [Dixon, Samuel and Campbell] are fit to see some time early.”
Said Meyer: “I think we won today. That was a good class.”