Ohio State failed to make the College Football Playoff in 2017, but Urban Meyer's sixth year as the Buckeyes' head coach saw multiple players take steps forward in their personal development.
A number of first-year starters moved their way up the ranks on the Ohio State depth chart, while other Buckeyes became staples of the success the Scarlet and Gray experienced on the field in 2017.
With just one game left in the 2017-18 campaign, we take a look at which Buckeyes took the biggest step forward on the gridiron during Ohio State's Big Ten title season.
5. Tracy Sprinkle – Senior Defensive Tackle
Sprinkle was nearly forced to give up football due to a knee injury suffered in the 2016 season opener against Bowling Green, but returned to become a starter for the Buckeyes in 2017.
The interior defensive tackle's play was consistent all season, although his stats don't jump off the page. Through 13 games, Sprinkle finished with 16 tackles, three of which were for loss. He started the last 11 games of the season for the Buckeyes and was a staple of Ohio State's run-stopping defensive line.
Considering where Sprinkle's career started at Ohio State and where it is finishing, it is safe to say Sprinkle is one of the Buckeyes' most improved players on the roster.
4. Demetrius Knox – Junior Offensive Guard
Knox got his first real action of his career in last season's CFP semifinal against Clemson after Michael Jordan went down with an injury, and let's just say things could have gone better.
To start Ohio State's 2017 season, Knox was beaten out by Branden Bowen for the starting right guard position, left vacant after Billy Price slid down to play center. After Bowen went down with a season-ending leg injury against Maryland, Knox wasn't even the first player called on to replace him, as Matthew Burrell played the rest of the game in Bowen's place.
Knox, however, won the starting right guard job during the ensuing week of practice and never looked back, giving Ohio State reliable play on the interior of an offensive line that dominated the line of scrimmage down the stretch.
3. K.J. Hill – Redshirt Sophomore Wide Receiver
After catching just 18 passes a season ago, Hill became Ohio State's most reliable receiver in 2017, leading the team with 55 receptions and accounting for 546 yards and three scores. He also put an end to Ohio State's struggles in punt returns (or at least catching them), following the multiple heart attacks Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson gave Ohio State fans and coaches over the last three years.
While multiple Buckeye receivers struggled with drops this season, Hill always seemed to be the most reliable receiver in Zach Smith's wide receiver room, and was the only true wide receiver to catch at least one pass in every game Ohio State played this season (Marcus Baugh also caught at least one pass in all 13 games).
Hill doesn't give Ohio State much of a deep threat offensively, but he presents the Buckeyes with a pair of reliable hands and has shown excellent ability to make plays with the ball in his hands, landing him at third on our list.
2. Denzel Ward – Junior Cornerback
Ward spent the entire 2016 season playing behind a pair of first-round NFL draft picks, yet still earned a significant amount of playing time between Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore.
The Nordonia, Ohio native got his chance to shine in 2017, and made the most of it. Ward finished third in the Big Ten with 15 pass deflections and corralled a crucial interception in Ohio State's Big Ten Championship Game victory over Wisconsin on Dec. 2. He also ranked in the top 10 on the team in tackles with 37, including three for loss.
Assuming he enters the upcoming NFL Draft following Ohio State's matchup with USC in the Cotton Bowl, Ward will likely be among the first cornerbacks taken. On a team that struggled to find consistency all season, Ward was arguably the most consistent player the Buckeyes had in 2017.
1. Isaiah Prince – Junior Offensive Tackle
If I would have told you a year ago that Prince was a candidate to leave early for the NFL Draft, you probably would have laughed in my face. Heck, I would have laughed in my own face.
Yet, here we are, and Prince is a candidate to bolt early after making tremendous strides from 2016 to 2017. A season ago, Prince struggled so much in pass protection that Ohio State was forced to play Bowen as a tight end just to help with edge rushers in a win over Northwestern. This year, Prince was one of Ohio State's most consistent offensive linemen in pass protection.
Ohio State RT Isaiah Prince generated a Pass Block Efficiency Rating in the 1.1 percentile last year. This year, he's up to the 90th percentile. pic.twitter.com/hTO2xfYXMg
— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) December 7, 2017
Prince could probably benefit from another season in college, but after the way he bounced back in 2017, not many could blame him for getting paid to play football next season.
Honorable Mentions: WR Johnnie Dixon, WR Binjimen Victor, CB Damon Arnette