Ohio State is about to open up a whole new can of worms.
OK, maybe not that crazy. It's not like Urban Meyer's program will reinvent the wheel or play an entirely different sport when spring practice opens Tuesday, but a host of faces we haven't seen do much on the field in an Ohio State uniform are set to be the main focus at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
Meyer and his staff graduated 18 players from a 2015 team that finished the season 12-1 on the heels of a 44-28 victory against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Nine other players chose to leave the program for the NFL even though they had college eligibility remaining. In all, the Buckeyes must replace 19 out of 24 starters (if you count longsnapper Bryce Haynes and kicker Jack Willoughby and defensive tackles Joel Hale and Tommy Schutt, who were listed as co-starters) before they host Bowling Green Sept. 3 at Ohio Stadium.
Last year at this time, the Buckeyes returned 15 starters and knew Raekwon McMillan was set to be the middle linebacker between Joshua Perry and Darron Lee. Quarterback #takes ruled the Ohio State portion of the Internet ahead of spring ball, even though Cardale Jones was the only guy opposite J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller healthy enough to lace up and get reps.
How things have changed.
Jones is on to the NFL, as is Miller at an entirely new position of wide receiver. As it stood last March, the two-time Big Ten Player of the Year planned to come back and compete for the starting quarterback job he only lost because of a pair of shoulder injuries.
Offensive line stalwarts left tackle Taylor Decker and center Jacoby Boren are also gone, just like top receiving threat Michael Thomas and 2015 Silver Football winner Ezekiel Elliott. Barrett is back and set to take snaps from Pat Elflein, who moved to center after two all-Big Ten seasons at right guard. Jalin Marshall and Nick Vannett are gone too, as well as one-year starter at right tackle Chase Farris.
And that's just the offense.
Perry, Lee, Schutt, Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington, Tyvis Powell, Vonn Bell and Eli Apple are all no longer in the program. That is 465 tackles, 19.5 sacks, nine interceptions and five forced fumbles from a year ago out the door and not coming back.
"We're a team and that's what NFL people are looking for. We had a lot of people graduate. Had the highest graduation rate in Ohio State football history," Meyer said Jan. 7. "Just set a national record for 50 wins and probably have some kind of record for most guys going to the draft."
Meyer is 50-4 in his first four seasons at the football boss of Columbus, with the 2014 Big Ten and College Football Playoff National Championships resting in his back pocket. Fourteen members of last year's team took part in the NFL Combine last week in Indianapolis, more than any school this year (the record is 15 from one school, set by Ohio State in 2004).
He built that string of success with excellent recruiting classes, but now turns his attention to the 45 true or redshirt freshman on roster littered among the 85 available scholarships. The 2016 haul of talent is among the best in the country (again) and it frankly needed to be with the numbers that left.
Seven players enrolled at the beginning of spring semester in January and 18 more signed Feb. 3.
"I hope 18 of them play," Meyer said on Signing Day. "I kind of went through that, special teams and I'm going to force to that issue with our position coaches. Sometimes position coaches, they protect themselves by saying the kid doesn't know what he's doing so I'm not going to give him those reps, so I'm not going to allow that this year."
Meyer and Ohio State could afford to do that last year, even though Elliott sat out the bulk of spring drills nursing his surgically repaired left wrist. Only four true freshmen played in 2015 — Jerome Baker, Isaiah Prince, Eric Glover-Williams and Denzel Ward — mostly on special teams. Meyer is confident there will be more than that this fall, but we get our first look on how involved the seven already on campus will be starting Tuesday.
"Last year was so hard because we were very loaded or older team," Meyer said. "And this year we're pushing them out there. I'm going to make sure we're pushing our guys out there, let them go play."
Outside of Barrett, Elflein and McMillan (the three guys already named team captains) and a few other seniors, youth is everywhere at Ohio State. That wasn't the case when the 2015 team opened spring drills with complacency questions hovered above like a black cloud even despite a muddy quarterback situation.
"It's going to be the winter of development," Meyer said.
That's nearly over. Practice is right around the corner. And it's going to be much, much more compelling this time around.