The 2020 season may not have ended exactly as Ohio State had hoped but considering the fits and starts as a result of the ongoing pandemic, it's hard to be disappointed with a 7-1 record featuring another Big Ten title and a College Football Playoff semifinal win over Dabo Swinney's Clemson Tigers.
Getting the Dabo-monkey off the program's back alone was worth falling short against an all-time great team in Alabama even if sucked really hard watching the 55-24 blowout unfold in Miami.
It wasn't the storybook ending fans wanted for guys like Justin Fields, Trey Sermon, Wyatt Davis, Shaun Wade, Josh Myers, Justin Hilliard and others but the beat goes on. The Buckeyes have some reloading to do but there's no reason to believe they can't be a threat in 2021.
With that, here are Five Things on my mind after looking back on the 2020 seasons of notable returning players with an eye on what it could mean for 2021.
WHO'S THE BACK?
With Trey's Sermon's departure, his primary backup, Master Teague, will return as the team's most-seasoned ball carrier. If I'm being honest, that doesn't provide a ton of comfort.
The Buckeyes will be breaking in a new quarterback and a stout running game sure would ease the transition, taking some pressure off a first-year starter whether it be CJ Stroud or Jack Miller.
The problem is Teague averaged just 4.96 yards per carry behind an elite offensive line while all Buckeye ball carriers averaged 5.96 and Sermon averaged 7.50. Teague led the team with eight touchdowns and had his moments but if we're being honest, his best trait seems to be running straight ahead with power without much ability to cut or make guys miss. His pass protection seems to be an area of opportunity as well, at least to my untrained eye.
I'm truly not trying to diss Teague, he's by all accounts a great teammate and I think he has some tools that can help the Buckeyes win – I just think it's a stretch to see him as the bell cow for an elite offense.
That said, Ohio State may have some game-breaking rushers waiting in the wings. Freshman TreVeyon Henderson, the No. 1 running back in his class, arrives as an early enrollee later this month with a ton of hype and skill that should translate into early opportunities and Miyan Williams sure did look good albeit in a tiny 10-carry sample size last season.
Even if you're more bullish on Teague than I'm willing to go, Ryan Day needs at least one more guy to be a legit producer. Yes, Day has revolutionized Ohio State's passing game but a fearsome rushing attack has been a staple of virtually every great Buckeye team.
LEAP YEAR COMING
Knowing Ohio State had a deadly 1-2 punch in the receivers room with Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, I still expected true freshmen Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming to make a noticeable impact on the 2020 receiving stats.
The abbreviated season following an extremely short spring no doubt compromised their development but I did not expect a combined 17 catches for 121 yards from the duo.
Smith-Njigba had one of the highlight catches of the entire season but the fact his 10 catches (on 163 snaps) averaged 4.9 yards made me think it was a misprint at first. His longest catch of the season was 15 yards. Smith-Njigba proved to be a very effective downfield blocker especially for a first year player.
For his part, Fleming had seven catches on 128 offensive snaps and seemed a little of out sync at times, dropping a few balls despite being wide open.
Under the watchful eye of Brian Hartline, I expect both players to make huge leaps next fall as they earn their position coach's trust, allowing him to revert back to a more even distribution of snaps among his top four guys.
Sure, Garrett Wilson will be the team's featured pass catcher (and Jameson Williams made some plays down the stretch) but there should be room for both Smith-Njigba and Fleming to shine in year two, even with a new quarterback throwing the football.
BLESS YOU, THAYER
Holy smokes left tackle Thayer Munford is returning for a fourth year as Ohio State's starting left tackle.
Munford was dominant in 2020, in both pass pro and run blocking, making it surprising to many that he opted to return to school for one more go. That said, maybe it shouldn't be so shocking as Munford noted he promised his family he would become the first to earn a college degree and sticking around one more year will allow him to fulfill that promise.
Munford's return is gigantic for an Ohio State offensive line losing first-team All-Big Ten center Josh Myers and All-American right guard Wyatt Davis to the NFL Draft.
Despite losing two linchpins in the trenches, Munford's decision gives the Buckeyes another year having maybe the nation's best tackle-tandem in Munford and right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere. On the inside, Matthew Jones should stay at left guard due to his late season performance and Harry Miller figures to move from left guard to center, replacing Myers.
At right guard, I give the early nod to Paris Johnson Jr. who is a born tackle but will need to wait one more year before showcasing his skills on the outside. Dawand Jones should also be in the mix at guard. Any way you slice it, Ohio State should once again have a strong offensive line led by Munford.
BEGINNING OF THE END?
I admit it, I'm impatient and as such, I'm a bit surprised defensive ends Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith didn't stuff the stat sheet more last season.
It's fair to suggest they played better than their stats and even point out that Harrison finished tied for second on the team in tackles for loss (4.5) and tied for third in sacks (2.0) but man I expected even more. Also in his defense, Harrison missed a game and maybe my expectations were just too high but I really thought he'd break out.
Meanwhile, Smith posted just one sack and one tackle for loss though he did lead the team in quarterback hurries with three in seven games.
To be clear, I'm not down on either of these guys, I'm just a bit antsy wondering if 2021 will be the year one, both or neither breaks out to become a force.
With Jonathon Cooper moving on, Harrison and Smith are now Larry Johnson's most experienced edge rushers and Kerry Coombs' pass defense sure as hell needs them to step up in a big way next fall.
PROCTOR AND GAMBLE
Josh Proctor didn't enter the 2020 season as a starter as the Buckeyes sought to replace Jordan Fuller. He was still expected to receive playing time but at least some concern over his focus on making the big play instead of always the consistent play seemed to be a factor in Marcus Hooker starting during the first part of the season.
With Hooker having some of this own struggles, along with other factors in the secondary, Proctor began earned the starting job from the Big Ten championship onward. Over those last three games, he had a couple missteps to be sure but he also recorded some big hits, tallied nine of his 20 tackles on the season and recorded an interception. He dropped a few more interceptions which I get it, that's not great, but you can't drop an interception if you weren't in position to make the play in the first place.
With 354 snaps accrued in 2020, after just 123 the season prior, I'm still bullish on Proctor putting it together. With a secondary struggling to do its job, I think Proctor can be part of the solution and the experienced gained this past season will hopefully be a catalyst.