With more than a dozen players from the two-deep having exhausted their eligibility or declared for the NFL Draft, including starting quarterback J.T. Barrett, Ohio State will once again have to rely on a number of highly recruited players to fill those roles this upcoming season.
Of course, it would be easy to peg whichever player — Dwayne Haskins, Joe Burrow or Tate Martell — wins the starting gig under center as a potential breakout candidate for the Buckeyes. But in order for the program to compete for a national championship this fall, players at several other positions must emerge to either fill the void left by their departed teammates or improve upon their lack of production.
With that said, we take a look at five players who look primed to have a breakout year in 2018.
Thanks to defensive line coach Larry Johnson’s ‘Rushmen’ package, the 6-foot-5 and 240-pound Young saw considerable playing time as a true freshman despite sitting fifth in the defensive end rotation. He finished the season with 18 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble in just nine games.
With Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes now off to the National Football League, Young will have even more opportunities to shine opposite of reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Nick Bosa, who’s bound to face constant double-teams throughout the season. Maybe he’ll even put up better numbers, too.
Okudah was limited mostly to special teams as a true freshman, and he recorded just 17 tackles on the season. But it was his effort during the Cotton Bowl against USC — when he was called upon to replace teammate Denzel Ward, who opted to sit out of the game to protect his draft stock — that has coaches and fans alike excited for his sophomore campaign.
Though the box score doesn’t reflect much of an impact, with just four tackles to his name, Okudah drew praise from his coaches and teammates in the weeks leading up to game and helped limit the Trojans’ high-powered offense to only one score. He’s been restricted in offseason workouts after he reportedly underwent surgery on his shoulder, but should be considered the frontrunner to replace Ward nonetheless.
Ohio State returns all six of it’s starting receivers, but it’s the ‘X’ position shared by Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor that should have a greater role within the offense moving forward — especially if the strong-armed Dwayne Haskins wins the quarterback battle this spring.
Mack finished last season last among the group with 343 yards and just two touchdowns, but became more involved as the season went on. In the aforementioned with over USC, he accounted for more than half of the Buckeyes’ receiving output. Mack also continues to show he’s the unit’s best downfield blocker, and that should be rewarded time and time again this fall.
While the above-mentioned quarterback battle will get all of the attention this spring, no position may be more up for grabs than tight end, where Ohio State lost three of its six scholarship players from last season.
Starter Marcus Baugh exhausted his eligibility, Kierre Hawkins transferred to Youngstown State and A.J. Alexander was placed on medical scholarship because of a knee injury, leaving Berry, Luke Ferrell, Jake Hausmann and incoming freshman Jeremy Ruckert to fight for playing time. Of those returning, Berry — a converted defensive end — has the most experience, though he caught just six passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns last season. He has the size and athleticism to create matchup problems for defenses, as well, so it’s seemingly just a matter of finding consistency in the passing game and as a blocker.
Ohio State’s linebacker unit was much maligned last season, as coverage issues in losses to Oklahoma and Iowa played a large part in the Buckeyes missing out on the College Football Playoff. The departure of starters Chris Worley and Jerome Baker — the team’s leading tackler — would suggest another step back at the position this fall.
Harrison’s play in the 48-3 win over Michigan State would argue otherwise. The defense was dominant in that game, and he recorded six tackles, one sack and one pass break up while starting in place of an injured Baker. Now, let’s see if that holds up over the length of a full season.