For a championship contender, a freshman can often be the difference in winning a title.
Ohio State might not have been undefeated in the 2013 regular season without their dominant defensive front. At the same time, the line wouldn't have been the force it was without freshman Joey Bosa. Yet, with the major exception being Bosa, no incoming four or five-star recruits have made the kind of impact Urban Meyer expected in his first two years at Ohio State.
"I'm actually a little disappointed," Meyer said, in a press conference, Saturday. "Last year's class, we should've had more impacts. This year, I'm seeing a little more chance for that. But it’s not the players’ faults, I think we had to push them actually a little faster."
The lack of quality underclassmen force juniors and seniors into roles they weren't able to secure when they were younger. It proves how players progress at different rates and, while Ohio State's head coach may want more freshmen playmakers, the program is in solid shape when it comes to developing players.
Five Buckeyes, all of which Meyer mentioned by name, are finally ready to assume greater responsibilities on this team:
The fifth-year senior is another member of the offensive line who made the transition from another position. Now, much like Reid Fragel before him, Baldwin will be counted on to produce at a high level in his senior season.
"Darryl Baldwin is the starter at right tackle," Meyer said. "[He] is one of the most improved players on the team."
He's not entirely inexperienced at the position, having practiced with the offensive line since the spring of 2012. Baldwin also took 140 snaps from scrimmage in the 2013 season. For someone still so relatively new to the position, it takes a tremendous amount of rapid development to command a starting spot.
Although Meyer was referring to left tackle Taylor Decker, the cohesion on the line can also be attributed to Baldwin's improved play.
"I really give credit to Jack Mewhort and [Corey] Linsley, those guys in that room and Coach [Ed] Warinner," Meyer said. "It's a product of a culture and very obvious when you go spend time around those linemen."
Jamal Marcus' transfer and the remaining two games of Noah Spence's suspension give Steve Miller an opportunity to rise above "The Joker" quips.
"Miller and Rashad Frazier are the two that will fill [Spence's] spot, at this point," Meyer said. "Jalyn Holmes is really making a push."
When Spence returns, expect Miller to still be a part of the rotation. As defensive line coach Larry Johnson maintains, he wants to have 10 players capable of playing meaningful snaps. That might not be realistic once the season starts, but Miller has a chance to prove he should play in more than nine games in his senior year.
Ohio State fans might roll their eyes when hearing his name again, but, according to Meyer, Smith is finally putting in the work in practice. It might, finally, lead to more consistent carries.
"Both Bri'onte [Dunn] and Rod Smith have made every practice and done really well," Meyer said. "I give credit to Bri'onte and Rod Smith, every day they've showed up and worked their tails off. They're in the mix."
Smith has never drawn such effusive praise from anyone on the Ohio State staff, let alone the head coach. That's largely because, within the last year, Smith was suspended for a game and missed spring practices due to academic issues.
While he has more yards, carries and rushing touchdowns than any other back on the roster, Ezekiel Elliott and, to a certain extent, Curtis Samuel have higher expectations for this season. With Elliott missing a week of practice due to a wrist injury, it sounds as if Smith is taking advantage. Unfortunately for the fifth-year senior, he has little time left to do so.
No one on this list has more starting experience than Schutt, but that doesn't mean his development is idle.
"Tommy Schutt's the most improved player at Ohio State right now," Meyer said. "He's done a really, really good job."
In two seasons as a Buckeye, he's played in 17 games and has two starts – as a freshman against Central Florida and, last year, at Illinois. The staff expected more from him heading into last season, but Schutt missed a portion of fall camp and the first six games of 2013 due to a foot injury.
Once again, he's battling, arguably, more talented players in Adolphus Washington and Michael Bennett. Because of that, Schutt won't see a starter's share of snaps, but he's proving he can be a valuable reserve.
"You start seeing people like [Schutt] that step up, along with Darryl Baldwin," Meyer said. "They were non-factors a year ago and, now, they'll be deep into the mix, offensively and defensively. Those are the little things you need to see in camp and you are seeing."
Nagging injuries, such as the one that befell Schutt last season, can disrupt a player's progress and, potentially, derail their college career. On the other hand, they can open up an opportunity for someone else.
"That's when you know you have a decent program," Meyer said. "When someone, we say, 'drops the rifle,' someone's got to go. That's the positive about all of this."
In Vannett's case, he's stepping in for Jeff Heuerman. The incumbent starter at tight end had surgery on his left foot and missed most of spring practice. Heuerman is participating in fall practice and will be ready by the Navy game, but Vannett is impressing the Buckeye staff.
He only has 17 career receptions, but, if this mythical tight end position at Ohio State finally lives up to expectations, Vannett will see a few more passes thrown his way.
"It's one of the best parts of coaching to see Nick Vannett, right now," Meyer said. "Jeff is still dealing with his foot injury and has been in a limited role, so we're seeing [Vannett] step up and take it. He's going to play this year.