A Program Rocked By Early NFL Departures, Ohio State Will Rely Heavily On Fifth-Year Seniors in 2017

By Tim Shoemaker on July 24, 2017 at 8:20 pm
Fifth-year senior defensive end Tyquan Lewis.

CHICAGO — It took Urban Meyer fewer than 30 seconds Monday during his opening statement at Big Ten Media Days to mention it.

“Last year, we were the youngest team in college football,” Ohio State’s head coach said.

Meyer then quickly finished his thought.

“This year, we’re not,” he said.

A large reason for that is the seven fifth-year seniors on the Buckeyes’ roster for the 2017 campaign. Meyer was joined in Chicago by three of them — offensive lineman Billy Price, defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis and linebacker Chris Worley — and there are four more who figure to play key roles on the field in the fall: quarterback J.T. Barrett, tight end Marcus Baugh and defensive linemen Michael Hill and Tracy Sprinkle.

If that sounds crazy, it kind of should. Ohio State, a program that has sent 15 players early to the NFL Draft over the last two years, isn’t exactly known for keeping guys around for five years. If you’re good enough, you go pro and often that opportunity comes with eligibility remaining.

“I was thinking about we have three fifth-year seniors here representing Ohio State at Media Day, and I don't know if I've had that before,” Meyer said. “Nowadays, fifth-year seniors at Ohio State are hard to find.”

Ohio State’s 2013 class is already widely regarded as one of the best in modern recruiting history. Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa, Eli Apple, Darron Lee and Gareon Conley have already been first-round NFL Draft picks. Vonn Bell was a second-round selection. All six were vital in the recent run of success by the program.

Seven of them still remain with a chance to further cement that class’ legacy. In a world filled with early NFL Draft entrees, that’s pretty unusual. Especially at a place like Ohio State.

“Everyone has their own journey and there’s no right or wrong answer to how someone’s journey should be,” Worley said. “It’s all about how that person is. It’s crazy like J.T. was starting his redshirt freshman year and tearing it up and then he got hurt and it was just the way it was. He’s a better player and a better person from that experience. I changed positions a few times.

“Everyone has their own journey but everyone’s journey is unique to themselves. There’s a reason for everything and all the fifth-year seniors, we’re more than excited.”

To be clear, Ohio State had experience last season. Barrett, Worley, Lewis, Price and others all played plenty of football. So too had players like Pat Elflein, Raekwon McMillan and Curtis Samuel.

And while some of those names mentioned left, the ones who returned offer this year’s Buckeyes a unique perspective.

“With that age and experience comes wisdom and things that I would love to tell my freshman self or my sophomore self. It is kind of weird being the old guy in the room but again it is kind of a comforting feeling,” Price said. “I’ve been through a lot. I’ve been through a lot of different things at Ohio State. I’ve been through different coaches, different position coaches, different cultures, what we’re trying to focus on.

“It’s a very humbling aspect to be a part of it and be able to say, ‘Hey, I’ve been through these changes and I’ve been through the ups and the downs. I’ve been through the highest of the highs winning a national championship to the lowest of the lows being embarrassed,’” he continued. “I think that aspect alone, I think there’s seven of us left, we have a bond that can’t be broken throughout time.”

Ohio State reached the College Football Playoff in 2016 despite massive roster turnover. Truth be told, the Buckeyes were probably a year away.

A year older now, led by a rare group of fifth-year seniors, Ohio State hopes to get back to where it was at the end of last season — and go a couple steps beyond.

“I feel extremely strong about the top tier leadership of our team,” Meyer said, “and history shows that usually indicates a good, solid team.”

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