Ranking the Top-Five Breakout Players of the Urban Meyer Era

By Kevin Harrish on July 30, 2017 at 7:15 am
Ezekiel Elliott is the top breakout star of the Urban Meyer era.

One of the many great things about college football is that everything is fluid. Every year, everything is different. While powerhouses and blue bloods tend to remain at the top, you never really know which individuals are going to steal the spotlight and own the late-night highlight reels.

Every year, there's a new crop of stars. Every season, players rise from obscurity in the fall to become household names by winter. Players who's names you've never even heard yet could be hoisting postseason awards in a few months.

That's been no different at Ohio State. Since Urban Meyer's arrival in Columbus, there have been a few Buckeyes who've seemingly come from nowhere to steal the national spotlight.

With another group of players hoping to do just that this coming season, we ranked the top-five breakout performances by Ohio State players in the Meyer era.

5. Marshon Lattimore — CB — 2016

You would think a player taken No. 11 overall in the NFL Draft after his first year starting would be higher than No. 5 on a list of breakout players, but Marshon Lattimore wasn't quite unknown before the 2016 season.

Lattimore was the top player in the state of Ohio coming out of high school and was the nation's No. 6 cornerback in the 2014 class. A freak athlete out of Glenville High School in Cleveland, almost everyone expected big things out of Lattimore.

Few ever doubted Lattimore's ability, but his health was certainly a question. Lattimore was plagued by injuries throughout his first two seasons at Ohio State, but in 2016, he was finally healthy.

In his first year as a starter, Lattimore quickly became one of the top cornerbacks in the country and was spectacular coverage cornerback with a knack for making big plays. He finished the season with four interceptions, including one pick-six, as well as nine pass deflections.

Lattimore was taken No. 11 overall in the 2017 NFL Draft – the first Buckeye taken out of what was perhaps the best secondary in the country.

4. Darron Lee — LB — 2014

There aren't many three-start dual-threat quarterbacks that end up as top-20 picks in the NFL Draft, and almost none of them end up there as an outside linebacker.

Except Darron Lee.

Lee came to Ohio State as a three-star athlete who played quarterback in high school. He once said on Twitter that he once wanted to play receiver at Ohio State, but ultimately Lee and the coaching staff decided he was best suited to play outside linebacker, which meant he needed to gain a lot of weight.

After redshirting his freshman season while he got his body in shape to play linebacker, Lee earned the starting outside linebacker spot in 2014 and quickly became one of the most dominant defensive players in the country.

In many ways, Lee was the first of his kind – an attacking linebacker that can run like a safety, pursue like a defensive end and tackle like a linebacker. He finished the 2014 season with 92 total tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble returned for a touchdown.

While other players had their niches, Lee was the best all-around defender on that 2014 squad just two years after playing quarterback in high school. And just one year after that, he was taken No. 20 overall by the New York Jets in the 2016 NFL Draft.

3. Cardale Jones — QB — 2014

There may not be a player in college football history who went from obscurity to fame faster than Cardale Jones.

Before the 2014 postseason, Jones' future did not look bright. He was a former three-star quarterback recruited by the former head coach who had already been passed by a younger player on the depth chart. The most notorious thing Jones ever did at Ohio State was send a bad tweet, and it seemed it was going to stay that way.

Then, J.T. Barrett injured his ankle in the final regular season game, Jones was thrust into the spotlight with everything on the line – and he delivered.

In his first three games as a starter, Jones quarterbacked the Buckeyes to three-straight postseason victories against No. 13 Wisconsin, No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon to win the first-ever College Football Playoff title.

Following the title, Jones stayed in the spotlight due in part to his hilarious Twitter antics but also to one of the most high-profile quarterback battles in college football history, which Jones initially won.

Though he lost the starting job to Barrett midway through the 2015 season, Jones left Ohio State undefeated as a starter and will be one of the most iconic players in Buckeye football history for quite a while.

2. Malik Hooker — S — 2016

You won't find very many three-star prospects on Ohio State's roster anymore, but that's what Malik Hooker was coming out of high school.

Hooker played just one year of high school football before the Buckeyes offered him a scholarship, which he of course accepted. Once at Ohio State though, the road got a little rocky.

After redshirting his freshman season, Hooker was ready to quit football the following winter to pursue a career in basketball. After talking it through with his mom, however, Hooker decided to remain at Ohio State and with the football team.

Hooker saw the field very sparingly his redshirt freshman year, finishing the season with 10 total tackles while playing primarily on special teams and behind starting safeties Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell.

Then, 2016 happened.

Hooker earned one of the starting safety spots before the season and wasted no time hogging the highlight reel. The former three-star athlete intercepted three passes and scored one touchdown in his first two games as a starter. He finished the season with seven interceptions – tied for third in the nation – and returned a school-record three of them for a touchdown.

His 2016 highlights were beyond impressive, and even though he started just 13 games in his entire college career, the Indianapolis Colts selected him No. 15 overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.

1. Ezekiel Elliott — RB — 2014

In 2014, the Buckeyes were just looking for somebody to replace Carlos Hyde. What they got was one of the best postseason performances in college football history by one of the top running backs ever to wear the Scarlet and Gray.

Elliott, a four-star running back in the 2013 class, came to Ohio State as the No. 5 all-purpose back in country and a top-100 prospect overall. He was highly rated, but there were definite concerns about the level of competition he played while in high school. Ultimately though, Ohio State signed Elliott over Derrick Green, who many regarded as the top running back in the class.

That seemed to work out for the Buckeyes.

With Hyde as the clear-cut starter and a few older running backs still on the roster, Elliott played sparingly in 2013, getting only 30 carries for 262 yards and two touchdowns throughout the season.

At the beginning of the 2014 season, Elliott was relatively unheard of around the college football world and wasn't even the clear-cut starter until a few games into the season. By season's end, however, Ezekiel Elliott was one of the most famous names in college football.

In the three biggest games of his collegiate career, Elliott rushed for a total of 696 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 232 yards and 2.6 scores a game against three of the nation's top defenses. His performance carried Ohio State through the post season and helped earn them the 2014 College Football Playoff title.

Elliott kept right on going in the 2015 season, proving the post season run was no fluke. He was then taken by the Dallas Cowboys at No. 4 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft and was just voted the NFL's top running back by his fellow NFL players.

And it all started in 2014.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Michael Thomas —WR —  2014
  • Vonn Bell — S — 2014
  • J.T. Barrett — QB — 2014
  • Joey Bosa — DE — 2013
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