With one of the most talented rosters in the nation once again, it’s no surprise that Ohio State was well-represented on the bevy of college football award watch lists that were released over the past two weeks.
In total, 10 Ohio State players made preseason award watch lists – and there’s a few other Buckeyes who could certainly emerge as award candidates, as well. While preseason watch lists tend to favor established players with at least a year of starting experience, there are always players who enter the season as less proven players – including last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray – but emerge among college football’s biggest stars by the end of the year.
As the Buckeyes get ready to open fall camp later this week and begin their pursuit of some team trophies, we take a look at each of Ohio State’s award candidates and what they would need to do this fall to take home some individual hardware.
Justin Fields, QB
Watch Lists: Maxwell Award
Even though he has yet to play a single snap for Ohio State or start a college football game, Fields was named to the preseason watch list for the Maxwell Award, which honors college football’s best player.
That’s indicative of Fields’ upside – he was ranked as the No. 2 overall prospect in the recruiting class of 2018, and has the tools to be a star playmaker as both a passer and a runner – and the value of being the likely starting quarterback on what should be one of the nation’s best teams. Since 2000, 16 out of 19 Maxwell Awards have been won by quarterbacks.
For the same reason, Fields also has the potential to be a candidate for the Heisman Trophy, which does not have a watch list. At some sportsbooks, Fields has the third-best betting odds to win the Heisman behind only Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Betting on Fields to win the Heisman or any major award this season after just arriving at Ohio State in January would be a bold bet, but it’s become increasingly common for talented first-year starting quarterbacks to make runs at those awards; in fact, all three Heisman finalists last year (Murray, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa) were first-year starting quarterbacks. He’s probably more likely to make a run at those awards in 2020, when he’ll have a season at Ohio State under his belt, but he has the talent to already be one of college football’s best quarterbacks this year if he can master Ryan Day’s offense quickly.
J.K. Dobbins, RB
Watch Lists: Maxwell Award, Doak Walker Award
Having already rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons at Ohio State, Dobbins should have his best shot at an award-winning season this year. Now that Mike Weber is in the NFL, Dobbins is the Buckeyes’ clear-cut No. 1 running back and should take the majority of handoffs in Ohio State’s backfield this year.
Whether that will be enough for Dobbins to make a run at the Doak Walker Award as college football’s best running back, however, will depend on how much the Buckeyes rely on him and whether he can regain his freshman-year efficiency – when he averaged 7.2 yards per carry – after averaging only 4.6 yards per carry last season. That will be at least partially dependent on the overall effectiveness of the Buckeyes’ running game – having another running threat in the backfield in Fields should help – since 620 of his 1,053 rushing yards came after contact last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Ohio State’s offense isn’t designed for Dobbins to take as many carries as running backs in some other offenses – like Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, who won the Doak Walker Award last year – but it’s not out of the question that he could make a run at major awards if he can play at his best this season.
K.J. Hill, WR
Watch Lists: Biletnikoff Award
Ohio State hasn’t had a Biletnikoff Award winner since Terry Glenn in 1995, and with a wide receiver rotation that’s built on getting a multitude of pass-catchers involved in the offense, that might not change any time soon.
If any Buckeye is going to make a run at the award this year, it’s Hill, who enters this season as the clear leader of Ohio State’s receiving corps after ranking among the team’s top two pass-catchers in each of the past two seasons. With an inexperienced starting quarterback, Hill could emerge as Fields' security blanket and the team’s go-to receiver, which puts him in a position to put up big numbers.
Still, it’s likely that the Buckeyes will spread the ball around enough to their many other talented pass-catchers – including Austin Mack, Binjimen Victor, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, among others – that Hill will have a difficult time racking up the individual numbers to make a serious run at the Biletnikoff.
Luke Farrell, TE
Watch List: John Mackey Award
Unless there’s a massive uptick in passes thrown to tight ends in Ohio State’s offense, it’s unlikely that Farrell or any other Buckeye tight end will win the Mackey Award.
Farrell has established himself as the Buckeyes’ most complete tight end, earning him a spot on this year’s Mackey Award watch list as a result, but still had only 20 catches for 205 yards last season and will need to post significantly bigger numbers this year to garner serious consideration from award voters. Plus, he’ll have plenty of competition for catches in Ohio State’s offense from not only the Buckeyes’ bevy of talented wide receivers, but also fellow tight ends Rashod Berry and Jeremy Ruckert.
Thayer Munford, LT
Watch List: Outland Trophy
Munford performed well in his first season as Ohio State’s starting left tackle last year, so it’s well within the realm of possibility that he could establish himself as one of college football’s best offensive linemen this season. He enters this season as the only returning starter on the Buckeyes’ offensive line, and is expected to lead the unit in turn.
Still, he’ll have to elevate his play to a truly dominant level to have a chance to win the Outland Trophy. The last two trophies have been won by defensive tackles over offensive linemen, so to have a chance to win the award as a left tackle, Munford will need to make both highlight-reel run blocks and lock down opposing pass-rushers with enough consistency to capture the nation’s attention.
Chase Young, DE
Watch List: Bednarik Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy
Young is perhaps Ohio State’s strongest candidate to make a real run at a national individual award this season. Already one of college football’s most feared pass-rushers, Young is more than capable of emerging as one of the nation’s most dominant defensive players in 2019.
That’s why he’s on the preseason watch lists for both the Bednarik Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy, each of which honor college football’s best defensive player. He’ll have to be consistently excellent as a pass-rusher and also stand out as a run stopper in order to win either of those awards, but he’s one of the most talented defensive ends in the country – and a projected top pick in the 2020 NFL draft – so he’ll certainly have the attention of voters everywhere if he can rack up sacks and tackles.
Malik Harrison and Tuf Borland, LB
Watch List: Butkus Award
It’s been a few years since Ohio State has had a linebacker play at a level worthy of Butkus Award consideration, but Harrison is the Buckeyes’ strongest candidate this year. While Ohio State’s linebackers struggled as a whole last season, Harrison was the best of the bunch – tying for the team lead with 81 total tackles – and he has the physical tools to emerge as a star playmaker in the Buckeyes’ new defensive scheme with new defensive coaches this year.
Borland also made the Butkus Award watch list by virtue of being Ohio State’s starting middle linebacker for the better part of the past two seasons, but he’d need to play at an exponentially improved level to be seriously considered as one of college football’s best linebackers. Though he was hampered by an Achilles injury, Borland was a weak link on Ohio State’s defense last season and is still being pushed for the starting middle linebacker job by Teradja Mitchell and Baron Browning entering preseason camp.
Jordan Fuller, S
Watch List: Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Jim Thorpe Award, Lott IMPACT Trophy, AFCA Good Works Team
No Ohio State player made a wider variety of preseason watch lists than Fuller, who was recognized for his abilities both on and off the field. Fuller has been nominated for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which honors college football’s best defensive player; the Jim Thorpe Award, which honors college football’s best defensive back; the Lott IMPACT Trophy, which honors a defensive player for both character and performance; and the AFCA Good Works Team, which honors players for the impact they make off the field.
To have a shot at winning the Nagurski or Thorpe, Fuller will need to make more game-changing plays this season – a goal he has expressed this offseason – while providing consistent play both in coverage and as a tackler on the back end of Ohio State’s defense. That’s not out of the question, but his best bet at winning an individual award might be in the categories that take his off-field efforts – which include Academic All-American honors in the classroom and participating in multiple student organizations on campus – into consideration.
Drue Chrisman, P
Watch List: Ray Guy Award
Chrisman was a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award last season, so it’s certainly possible he could make a run at the award this year. Texas A&M’s Braden Mann is back for his senior season as the reigning award winner, but if Chrisman can put together more games like he had last season at Michigan State – when he downed five punts inside the 6-yard line to lead the Buckeyes to a 26-6 victory – he’ll warrant consideration. B.J. Sander (2003) is Ohio State’s only previous winner of the award.
Other Potential Award Candidates
Ohio State’s most obvious snub from the preseason award watch lists is Jeffrey Okudah, who looks primed – if his performance against Washington in the Rose Bowl was any indication – to potentially emerge as one of college football’s most dominant cornerbacks this season. If he plays up to his potential, Okudah could be the Buckeye who makes the strongest run at the Jim Thorpe Award (though he’ll probably have to grab some interceptions, which he hasn’t yet in his Ohio State career, to capture voters’ attention). Even Fuller took to social media to say that Okudah belonged on the watch list with him:
Appreciate you bro! They done messed up not putting you on there... we wont speak on that though— Jordan Fuller (@j_fuller4) July 22, 2019
Ohio State’s starting centers have earned first-team All-American honors for each of the past three years, and Pat Elflein (2016) and Billy Price (2017) both also win the Rimington Trophy as college football’s best center, so even though Josh Myers has never started a collegiate game, precedent could help his candidacy for that award if he emerges as an immediate star in the middle of the Buckeyes’ offensive line.
While there aren’t any other Buckeyes who are obvious candidates for individual awards heading into the season, any Ohio State starter has the potential to emerge as one of the nation’s best players at his position. After all, the Buckeyes are loaded with highly talented players were highly touted recruits, making just about everyone in the lineup a possible candidate for national recognition if he has a breakout season.