There have been times when I’ve mentioned incoming recruits who might be able to make an impact from day one of Ohio State’s 2020 season.
Thirteen 2019 class members have played in a game this season, and five freshmen saw action last Saturday during the Buckeyes’ 38-7 win over Wisconsin.
So in honor of those five, today I want to take a closer look at five current 2020 commits who could see instant playing time, listed in order of the best bets to make an impact right away.
Football is probably the hardest sport to advance from one level to the next in and excel quickly, so it’s possible none of these guys does much until their second year of eligibility.
There are so many things to consider: How quickly their bodies can adjust to the strength/nutrition program and learning the system/playbook, chief among them.
But Ryan Day loves having freshmen who are able to play right away:
"I actually brought that up. We talked about it ... with Mark Pantoni," Day said. "I do think guys are more and more ready to come play. I think maybe physically they’re more ready, more exposure to different things, but I do think now more than ever, guys are more ready to play.
"And with the new four-game rule, it’s kind of forcing guys in there to play a little bit. They have this opportunity to get out there and prove themselves, and then they can kind of grow from there and build from there, and I guess it’s giving them an opportunity to prove that they can play right away and that they do deserve reps. I think it’s a combination of those two things."
This class has the chance to be special, as do many of the players in it, so we absolutely cannot rule out some of these guys instantly contributing, starting with the two players I think are primed to break out at Oregon in Week 2 in 2020:
Because of the vacancies and the opportunities that will be there, we have to start this piece with the position that will see the most attrition/turnover in 2020, with the entire starting secondary most likely gone to the NFL Draft.
Replacing Jeff Okudah, Shaun Wade, Damon Arnette and Jordan Fuller will be the most difficult task for the Buckeyes' coaching staff next season and should be the most intriguing storyline of the offseason.
Though the entire starting defensive line will be gone – so no more monster games from Chase Young – returning will be Zach Harrison, Javontae Jean-Baptiste, Tyreke Smith and Tommy Togiai, to name a few. Plus, assuming Larry Johnson returns (there have been rumors of his retirement) and the improvement of graduate assistant Kenny Anunike (a future defensive line coach), there shouldn't be issues in terms of those guys' developments.
Plus, t's typically easier to scheme up different ways for the pass rush to get to the quarterback than it is to scheme coverage.
So that brings us back to cornerback, where the danger of listing a true freshman as the best possible candidate to make an instant impact comes in the fact that it's probably the hardest position in football to transition in from one level to the next. It's just incredibly difficult, and that's something Jeff Hafley pointed out in a press conference last month.
“I mean, you’d like them to be game ready,” Hafley said on Oct. 21. “I just think that’s hard, especially if you just use corner for example. I think it’s a hard position to come in and be ready to play. There are exceptions, but it’s a big jump from high school to college. You’d like every guy you recruit to be ready. I just think when you get them and you see how are they gonna react to the speed of the game, how are they gonna react to the rule changes and some of the different coverages. I think there’s so much unknown.
“It’s like in the NFL, is a rookie really ready to step in and cover Julio Jones? Not everyone is. Even when you draft a guy in the first round, he may not be able to play right away and some of those guys get forced to play right away too early. Every situation is different, but we’ll see when those guys get here.”
Cam Brown and Sevyn Banks have had an advantage this season, racking up snaps in the second halves of games, but they will have to show they are deserving of a starting spot.
And just like the guys he'll be starting in the secondary next season, Hafley is unproven at Ohio State in terms of developing brand-new guys. He's done an awesome job developing his four main DBs on defense this season, but a new challenge awaits as he helps the 2020 guys to become consistent, solid defensive backs.
Despite the difficulties of the transition both for Hafley himself and his incoming talents, Hafley believes all the defensive backs he and the Buckeyes have recruited have the chance to be special and I believe Phillips – who could finish as a five-star prospect by the time he graduates – is primed to be special. He's a future lockdown corner.
Fleming is already in elite company. Say what you will about ESPN's recruiting rankings system, but Fleming has a shot at making history if he stays ranked No. 1 overall. Julio Jones and Percy Harvin are the highest-ranked receivers in the history of the ESPN rankings, each finishing No. 2.
Fleming's reputation will already be high when he gets to Columbus, and he'll have a shot at starting alongside Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave next season. I believe he'll firmly be the WR3 by the second half of the season.
Phillips and Fleming seem to perfectly fit the type of player Day describes here as guys who can fill a void right off the bat:
"I think when you’re looking to recruit somebody, typically you look at them like, hey, this is a guy that we project that can come in and make a difference right away," Day said. "He’s further along in his process, and so we have those conversations. You’ve got to come in here ready to play."
I believe Phillips and Fleming to be the two most ready to play from Week 1 and on. Wouldn't mind being a fly on the wall to see those two battle one-on-one in practice.
Initially, I wanted to leave Johnson off this list, despite his five-star rating and my opinion that he's going to be an absolute monster for three seasons before an early NFL departure.
Offensive line is the prime developmental position where it's best to sit guys for a year to let them grow and get adjusted to the physicality and speed of the game.
But the nation's No. 1-ranked offensive tackle and No. 7 overall recruit is already built better than most incoming freshmen.
With starting left tackle Thayer Munford potentially moving on to the NFL and Branden Bowen in his last year of eligibility, Nicholas Petit-Frere will start at one tackle spot next season so Johnson's got a shot at making a difference early.
He has a host of other offensive tackles already on campus to beat out in Dawand Jones, Max Wray, Ryan Jacoby and Enokk Vimahi.
Back to the cornerback spot.
While I believe Phillips to be an elite-level corner and the prime candidate to start right away, conversely I believe Watts to be a developmental guy set up to be a starter in year two.
However, he could be a pleasant surprise and certainly has the length and skillset to be used as a true freshman, though I think he fits more of this type of player that Day has discussed:
"Then there’s other guys that you look at that are maybe a little bit more developmental, for whatever reason that is, and they’re going to take a couple years, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be great players, and everybody has this journey along the way," Day said. "I talk to our players about that all the time, is that just because one person is playing earlier doesn’t mean you need to be playing earlier.
"Everybody has their own journey along the way, and we’ve all heard unbelievable stories about guys in their fifth year playing, guys who play right away, guys who play in their second year. Everybody has their own way. That doesn’t mean one player is better than the next. It’s just sometimes it takes a little bit longer, but certainly we try to figure out where they’re at in recruiting and then plan accordingly."
Why not have fun with the last one? Yes, Lathan Ransom is the best option to fill a big need at safety as the secondary turns over, but Josh Proctor or Marcus Hooker still seemed primed to duke it out in camp for that spot.
So ... I present to you the guy who I believe is going to be a star and who could save the Buckeyes' bacon if Justin Fields goes down with an injury ... whether that's for one series, one quarter or one year.
Ohio State will not be a College Football Playoff favorite without Fields. But I do believe in two things:
- Miller's arm talent, footwork and incredibly fun ability to throw on the run.
- Day's ability to mentor and grow a quarterback thrust into the starting role at a young age just like he was more than two decades ago.
"New Hampshire's pretty damn different than Ohio State, Zack."
I hear ya, loyal reader and make-believe commenter. But if Fields starts catching cramps on the first drive of the fourth quarter at Autzen Stadium and the Buckeyes are trailing 34-30 – as the potentially nine new starters on a new-look defense get acclimated early in the season and the offense hums along from the start – I'll be the one standing on that hill saying "I told you so" when Miller comes in and leads a comeback victory with a back-shoulder touchdown fade to Fleming and a jump-ball touchdown pass to Wilson.
How's that for a super-specific prediction?
(As a disclaimer, I do have to say I could see C.J. Stroud filling this spot as well, if he were to commit to Ohio State.)
Just one final snippet about guys potentially being thrust into big-time roles early in their careers.
Day was prompted about what he tells his younger players, specifically the freshmen and sophomore cornerbacks already on this year's roster, about being ready to hit the field and contribute at any time. It's a good line of thinking, and I think it's one reason the second-stringers and incoming 2020 commits can be successful:
"In conversations it’s – first off, you’re one or two snaps away from being in the game and being a starter full-time, and then secondly, your time is now," Day said. "You have to start having that mentality. You can’t wait until guys leave the program. You’ve got to have the approach that I’m here right now because you might be out there in the second play of the game. Or not."