First-Year Players Set to Make Impact for Buckeyes

By Kyle Rowland on May 2, 2014 at 8:30a

Dontre Wilson. Mike Mitchell. Vonn Bell. All three names were mentioned last season in any conversation about impact freshmen for Ohio State. Only one – Wilson – played regularly, and his influence was minimal.

Instead, defensive end Joey Bosa grabbed headlines with one of the most successful freshman campaigns ever for a Buckeye defender. It ended with freshman All-American honors. But his performance wasn’t the norm in 2013 for first-year players. In all, 15 members of the 23-man recruiting class redshirted.

Urban Meyer doesn’t want a repeat in 2014. On National Signing Day, he all but nixed the possibility of heavy redshirt numbers.

“If things work out, we’ll redshirt a minimal amount of this class,” Meyer said. “We wanted to play more last year. We’re counting on these guys to go play.”

This season’s class addressed serious needs – linebacker, offensive line, secondary, kicking – which makes it more likely for freshmen to contribute immediately. Raekwon McMillan, the nation’s highest-rated middle linebacker, was the spring’s most-talked about newcomer, and the hype machine should only intensify as the season approaches.

Sam Hubbard, Kyle Berger and Dante Booker round out the quartet of linebackers signed by the Buckeyes to rid them of their nightmares. The class is heavy on athleticism, power and speed.

“The emphasis is on linebacker,” Meyer said. “There are some obvious strengths and weaknesses, but the linebacker position is one that’s going through an overall. 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.”

Names such as Johnnie Dixon, Curtis Samuel, Erick Smith and even Sean Nuernberger also will be talked about. 

Raekwon McMillan

He might not start the season opener or a single game in 2014, but Raekwon McMillan solidified his position on the depth chart with a strong showing in spring practice. The possibility of not playing this season is nearly zero percent. A five-tackle performance in the spring game provided a snapshot of the production McMillan can deliver.

At 6-foot-2 and 242 pounds, he already possesses the size and power of a college linebacker. But it might be speed and lateral quickness that separates him from other linebackers on the team. McMillan accumulated outlandish stats his senior season – 159 tackles, 35.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks, leading to the high school Butkus Award. 

ESPN national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said McMillan is the most physically and mentally ready freshman on the team.

“That’s going to bode well for this defensive unit that sorely needs an upgrade in talent and certainly needs some bodies [at linebacker],” he said. “That’s one that stands out to me without question.”

There’s been no backing away from expectations and pressure for McMillan. He’s embraced everything that comes with college football in a bubble. Columbus, Ohio presents special circumstances for football players. Recognition comes with pitfalls.

So does being anointed without earning credit. From the day McMillan arrived on campus, he’s taken a blue-collar approach, vowing to not be outworked.

“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.”

Johnnie Dixon

Dixon was another early enrollee, and it wasn’t a waste of time for the wide receiver from South Florida. He will enter fall camp on the two-deep roster and be firmly entrenched into the offensive rotation. Dixon displayed big-play ability even with a 5-foot-11 frame.

If there are any drawbacks to his size, he more than makes up for it with speed and sure-hands. Dixon has been clocked at sub-4.4 in the 40. His skills are a nice complement to Devin Smith, Evan Spencer, Michael Thomas and other wideouts.   

“I like electric guys that are going to take the football and put it across the endline,” wide receivers coach Zach Smith said. “That’s it, I want it in the end zone. I don’t care how big you are. It doesn’t matter, just get it in the end zone. It’s nice to have size, but I like playmakers.”

Said Dixon: “I wanted to be a great receiver and under Coach Meyer and Coach Smith, I can make that happen and they can make that happen. I feel like if I work hard enough, I can hit the field and I can make an impact.” 

Curtis Samuel

Remember all that chatter last summer about defensive players missing tackles because a blur – Wilson – passed them by? Samuel could create the same talk. He’s a smallish running back that, like Wilson and Dixon, relies on his speed to make his presence felt.

Just ask Michael Bennett, Curtis Grant and the like about his ability to be dynamic. No introduction was needed in spring practice, when jukes and long runs were an every-day occurrence. Samuel is part of a deep group running backs, but he’s going to see plenty of playing time.

One of Meyer’s favorite words to describe the Brooklyn native is “electric.”

“The guy that really, really excites me is No. 4, Curtis Samuel,” Meyer said. “We just have to figure out if he’s got enough size and strength to take the pounding running back’s take. He’s legitimate running the ball. Unless there’s something up, he’ll play.”

Samuel uses a skill set Meyer’s coveted since he had Cole Magner at Bowling Green – someone who can run behind the offensive line and catch balls in space, making defenders miss all the way down the field with game-changing speed and elusiveness.

Said Luginbill: “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.”

Erick Smith

It’s difficult to earn significant playing time if you don’t participate in spring practice. Yet, there was Meyer mentioning Erick Smith on multiple occasions. The Glenville product, a safety, plays a position that’s screaming for depth.

The most likely landing spot is in the nickel or dime defense. He’s versatile and plays an aggressive style, which should endear him to Chris Ash and Kerry Coombs. Meyer’s already the adoring coach.

“Erick Smith, he’s a guy I’m really excited to get here,” Meyer said. “He played corner in the all-star game, but we plan on putting him at safety. And, once again, immediately on the depth chart.”

Sean Nuernberger

For 14 practices, it looked and sounded like Sean Nuernberger and senior walk-on Kyle Clinton could take their competition into the fall. But then practice No. 15 took place, with Nuernberger slamming the door shut on any mystery surrounding the place-kicking position.

Nuernberger only missed one kick in the spring game and drilled a 52-yarder, while Clinton missed badly on both long-range attempts. Kickers are some of the most underappreciated members of a football team. Then they miss a critical kick.

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