Five Former Ohio State Teammates Playing Key Roles in Cincinnati Bengals’ Playoff Run

By Dan Hope on January 29, 2022 at 8:35 am
Sam Hubbard
Katie Stratman – USA TODAY Sports

Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, Joe Burrow, Sam Hubbard and Isaiah Prince were all members of the 2015 Ohio State football team.

Seven years later, all five of them are starters for the Cincinnati Bengals as the Bengals are set to play in the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1988.

All of them have taken different paths to Cincinnati. Hubbard was the only one who actually went directly from Ohio State to the Bengals. Apple, Bell and Prince were all drafted by and played for other NFL teams before signing with the Bengals. Joe Burrow was drafted by the Bengals, but not before he spent two years at LSU.

Nevertheless, they’re all back together with the Bengals now after previously playing together in Columbus. And for a franchise whose fans often used to bemoan the lack of Buckeyes on the roster, they represent the largest contingent of players who played at the same university on the Bengals’ active roster – all the while making up five of the Bengals’ 22 starters.

As the Bengals prepare to play in Kansas City on Sunday (3 p.m., CBS) with a Super Bowl berth on the line, we take a closer look at how each of those five former Buckeyes got to Cincinnati and how they’ve helped the NFL team two hours southwest of Columbus have its most successful season in over three decades.

Sam Hubbard

We’ll start with the Buckeye who took the most direct route to Cincinnati, as Hubbard was selected by the Bengals with the 77th overall pick in the third round of the 2018 NFL draft. While Hubbard fell a bit further in that draft than expected, he ended up landing in an ideal spot, as the Cincinnati native got the opportunity to play in his hometown.

Hubbard has taken full advantage of that opportunity. He became a starting defensive end in his second year with the team, and signed a four-year, $40 million contract extension with the Bengals last summer. 

He’s been among the Bengals’ most productive defenders this year, recording 62 total tackles with 12 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, three pass deflections, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. In the first two playoff games of his career, Hubbard has recorded six total tackles with two tackles for loss, one sack and one pass deflection to help lead the Bengals to a pair of wins.

Vonn Bell

Bell, who was playing his final season as a Buckeye when Burrow and Prince were true freshmen in 2015, began his NFL career in 2016 with the New Orleans Saints. The second-round draft pick spent four years in New Orleans, where he made three trips to the playoffs, including an appearance in the NFC Championship Game three years ago.

Bell signed a three-year, $18 million contract with the Bengals in 2020 and has proven to be well worth the money. In his first season with the team, Bell recorded 114 total tackles with three tackles for loss, five pass deflections, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. This year, Bell recorded 97 total tackles with five tackles for loss, one interception, eight pass deflections, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery during the regular season, and he’s had 10 total tackles with a sack in the Bengals’ first two playoff games.

In addition to the playoff experience he’s brought to Cincinnati from New Orleans, he also has experience winning at the highest level of college football – he was a starting safety for Ohio State’s 2014 national championship team – and as a team captain (as Burrow and Hubbard also are), he’ll try to help lead the Bengals to a semifinal upset just as he did when he had eight tackles and a crucial interception in Ohio State’s famous CFP win over Alabama.

Vonn Bell
Vonn Bell has become a leader in the Cincinnati Bengals’ secondary, just as he once was at Ohio State. (Photo: Joseph Maiorana – USA TODAY Sports)

Eli Apple

When Apple joined the Bengals in March, he reunited to play in the same secondary as Bell for the third time in their careers. After previously playing together at Ohio State from 2013-15, Apple also played alongside Bell with the Saints in 2018 and 2019, where he too gained playoff experience that he now brings to the Bengals.

Apple has had a roller-coaster NFL career since he was selected with the 10th overall pick by the New York Giants, who traded him to the Saints in the middle of his third NFL season. After he signed with the Carolina Panthers last offseason, he appeared in just two games before he was released and went unsigned for the second half of last season. His signing with the Bengals on a one-year, $1 million deal came with little fanfare.

Yet Apple has played the second-most snaps of any Bengals defender all year, behind only Bell, starting every game but one during the regular season. He’s made plenty of noise off the field this week with his Twitter trash talk, but he has reason to feel good after making what might have been the biggest play of his NFL career to date last weekend when he deflected a pass that led to a game-changing interception in the Bengals’ divisional round win over the Tennessee Titans.

Isaiah Prince

Like Apple, Prince’s NFL career has had plenty of ups and downs. He lasted less than one full season with the Miami Dolphins after being selected in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL draft, then opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 after being claimed by the Bengals.

Going into training camp, Prince was no lock to make the Bengals’ roster this year, and even after making the roster, he began the season as a backup. But he’s been the Bengals’ starting right tackle for five of their last six games, including both playoff wins, after previous starter Riley Reiff suffered a season-ending ankle injury.

To call Prince a reason why the Bengals are in the AFC Championship Game would be a stretch, as he and the rest of the Bengals’ offensive line have had plenty of struggles, particularly last week, when they allowed the Titans to take Burrow down for a playoff-record nine sacks.

Considering the inauspicious start to his career and that many people doubted Prince would play in the NFL at all, though, it’s certainly a notable achievement that he is a playoff starter for one of the four remaining teams.

Isaiah Prince
When Riley Reiff went down with a season-ending injury, the Bengals turned to Isaiah Prince to take his place at right tackle. (Photo: Scott Galvin – USA TODAY Sports)

Joe Burrow

No player has been more important to the Bengals’ transformation into one of the NFL’s top teams than Burrow, who has become exactly what the Bengals hoped he would be when they selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Despite suffering a torn ACL in his rookie season, Burrow bounced back for a spectacular sophomore campaign, completing 70.4 percent of his passing attempts for 4,611 yards and 34 touchdowns with only 14 interceptions during the regular season.

Burrow earned All-AFC honors for his regular-season play, and he’s continued to perform well in the postseason, completing 73.2 percent of his pass attempts for 592 yards and two touchdowns with one interception in the Bengals’ wins over the Las Vegas Raiders and the Titans. Paired with star rookie wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who he also played with at LSU, Burrow has turned the Bengals’ offense into one of the NFL’s most dangerous.

LSU is the school listed next to Burrow’s name on the Bengals’ roster, and that’s why he’s the last player we’re writing about here. He never started a game at Ohio State, and it was his career at LSU – where he won the Heisman Trophy and national championship – that led to him becoming the draft’s top pick and the Bengals’ quarterback.

But while the debate rages on about whether Ohio State can ‘claim’ Burrow as a Buckeye, it’s at least true that he spent three years with the Buckeyes – in which he was teammates with each of the other four Buckeye Bengals – and he made it clear this week that he believes his time at Ohio State helped him get where he is now.

“I wouldn’t be the same player that I am today without those trials and tribulations that I went through there,” Burrow said. “I loved my time there. I stay in contact with a lot of people from Ohio State. I wouldn’t be the same player. I think I am who I am because of the difficult times that I went through in my career.”

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