Second-Year Players Performing Up to Potential Could Be Key to Ohio State’s 2022 National Championship Hopes

By Dan Hope on July 14, 2022 at 11:35 am
J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer

One common thread among some of Ohio State’s greatest teams ever has been a star-studded crop of second-year players.

Ohio State’s 1968 national championship team was defined by its second-year talent. Starting quarterback Rex Kern and his three leading receivers (Bruce Jankowski, Larry Zelina and Jan White), running backs John Brockington and Leo Hayden, defensive linemen Jim Stillwagon and Mark Debevc, linebacker Doug Adams and defensive backs Jack Tatum, Mike Sensibaugh and Tim Anderson were among the “Super Sophomores” who made key contributions as the Buckeyes went 10-0 and were named national champions.

The Buckeyes’ most recent national championship team in 2014 also featured a multitude of second-year stars. Joey Bosa was a unanimous All-American at defensive end, Ezekiel Elliott emerged as a superstar running back, J.T. Barrett was the Big Ten Quarterback of the Year and Vonn Bell, Darron Lee, Eli Apple and Billy Price were among the other sophomores and redshirt freshmen who made major impacts as Ohio State won the first-ever College Football Playoff.

Ohio State’s lineup in 2002 wasn’t quite as sophomore-heavy, but there were several second-year Buckeyes who played crucial roles in that national championship run as well, including two-way standout Chris Gamble, fellow starting cornerback Dustin Fox and All-American kicker Mike Nugent.

The Buckeyes’ hopes of winning another national championship in 2022 could be bolstered by what projects to be another loaded class of second-year players.

Ohio State’s recruiting class of 2021 is the highest-rated recruiting class it’s ever signed, and the hype surrounding that group of players has only grown after several of them made immediate impacts last season as true freshmen. TreVeyon Henderson’s rapid breakthrough as a star running back wasn’t a huge surprise, but four-star recruit Denzel Burke’s immediate emergence as a No. 1 cornerback was a revelation, as was the instant playmaking potential four-star defensive tackle Tyleik Williams showed on the interior defensive line.

There are many other members of that class who look like they could be on the cusp of becoming stars this year.

Wide receivers Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka showed plenty of playmaking ability in limited action last season. Defensive ends J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer had everyone buzzing about their performance this spring after they flashed their five-star talent as freshmen. Left guard Donovan Jackson looks like he could be an immediate difference-maker as he steps into a starting role on the offensive line.

Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr.
Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr. are among the sophomores who could be star players for Ohio State this season.

If all or at least most of those second-years can become the players they’re expected to be as sophomores, the Buckeyes should be one of the best teams in the country.

Other second-year players who drew praise from Ohio State coaches this spring and could also be candidates to make impacts as rotational players include cornerbacks Jordan Hancock and Jakailin Johnson, running back Evan Pryor, wide receiver Jayden Ballard, linebacker Reid Carrico and defensive tackle Mike Hall. Jesse Mirco was solid in his first year as Ohio State’s starting punter. Kyle McCord is also an important sophomore, of course, as C.J. Stroud’s top backup at quarterback.

Ohio State’s Sophomore Class (Scholarship Players)
Pos Player Ranking Rating 2021 Snaps Projected 2022 Role
DE J.T. TUIMOLOAU #4 (#2 DL) ★★★★★ 285 Starter/co-starter at defensive end
DE JACK SAWYER #5 (#3 DL) ★★★★★ 173 Starter/co-starter at defensive end/Jack
WR EMEKA EGBUKA #10 (#1 WR) ★★★★★ 115 Potential starter at wide receiver, lead kick returner
LG DONOVAN JACKSON #19 (#1 IOL) ★★★★★ 103 Starting left guard
RB TREVEYON HENDERSON #23 (#1 RB) ★★★★★ 507 Starting running back
QB KYLE MCCORD #28 (#6 QB) ★★★★★ 95 No. 2 quarterback
CB JAKAILIN JOHNSON #50 (#3 CB) ★★★★ 8 No. 4 cornerback
DT MIKE HALL #53 (#10 DL) ★★★★ 35 No. 3 nose tackle
CB JORDAN HANCOCK #73 (#5 CB) ★★★★ 31 No. 3 cornerback
RB EVAN PRYOR #83 (#6 RB) ★★★★ 45 No. 3 running back, potential passing-down back
LB REID CARRICO #87 (#9 LB) ★★★★ 19 Sam linebacker in three-linebacker packages
WR MARVIN HARRISON JR. #97 (#14 WR) ★★★★ 255 Starting wide receiver (X)
WR JAYDEN BALLARD #99 (#15 WR) ★★★★ 34 Rotational wide receiver
OL BEN CHRISTMAN #124 (#7 OL) ★★★★ 0 Competing for backup spot at guard
DT TYLEIK WILLIAMS #166 (#25 DL) ★★★★ 183 Regular at 3-technique defensive tackle
S JANTZEN DUNN #172 (#10 S) ★★★★ 9 Reserve safety (returning from injury)
CB DENZEL BURKE #196 (#8 ATH) ★★★★ 731 No. 1 cornerback
OT ZEN MICHALSKI #314 (#22 OT) ★★★★ 2 Potential backup left tackle
TE SAM HART #397 (#16 TE) ★★★ 0 Reserve tight end
S JAYLEN JOHNSON #416 (#30 S) ★★★ 0 Reserve safety (returning from injury)
P JESSE MIRCO #2013 (#6 P) ★★★ 127 Starting punter
Snap counts do not include special teams snaps (except for Mirco). Players who transferred out of Ohio State are not included. All rankings are courtesy of 247Sports’ composite rankings.

In an era where star players often leave for the NFL after three years, the third-year class is often the most important class for a top college football team, and Ohio State’s 2020 class will certainly be vital to its 2022 success. Stroud, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Paris Johnson Jr. are arguably the Buckeyes’ three most important players, while Luke Wypler, Cody Simon, Julian Fleming, Kourt Williams and Miyan Williams are among the other third-years who figure to play substantial roles this season.

Senior leadership is always important, and the Buckeyes should have plenty of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-year contributors with the likes of Dawand Jones, Ronnie Hickman, Zach Harrison, Cameron Brown, Josh Proctor, Tanner McCalister, Steele Chambers, Tommy Eichenberg, Matt Jones, Taron Vincent, Jerron Cage and Mitch Rossi, among others.

The 2021 class, though, might be the class whose development ultimately determines whether the 2022 Buckeyes can get over the hump and be a champion rather than merely a contender.

Ohio State wasn’t the only team that signed a historically great class in 2021, and it’s no coincidence that the one team who signed an even higher-rated class that year – Alabama – is also expected to be the Buckeyes’ top competition for this year’s national championship. Top prospects from that class who could be impact players for the Crimson Tide this fall include five-star edge rusher Dallas Turner, five-star cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry, five-star offensive tackle JC Latham and top-75 wide receivers Ja’Corey Brooks, JoJo Earle and Christian Leary.

That said, first impressions suggest the Buckeyes hit a home run with the class they brought in one year ago. They project to have as many as seven starters and could have more than a dozen noteworthy contributors from the 2021 class this season – and outside of Mirco, all of those players were ranked among the top 200 prospects in that class going into their Ohio State careers.

Burke (the No. 196 overall prospect), Williams (No. 166 overall prospect) and Harrison (No. 97 overall prospect) have each already made the case that they should have been ranked higher than they were, and the early returns on top-25 prospects Henderson, Tuimoloau, Sawyer, Egbuka and Jackson have all been promising.

Now, all of those players have to actually make good on their potential. Burke, Henderson and Mirco are the only rising sophomores who were already consistently in the lineup last year, and they still have room to grow. The high expectations for players like Jackson, Sawyer and Tuimoloau are still based on their lofty recruiting rankings and what they’ve done in practice rather than on proven performance in actual game action.

But none of the Super Sophomores had even played a varsity snap before the 1968 season, as freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity football back then. Outside of Bosa, most of the second-years who made big impacts in 2014 hadn’t played much or at all before that season either.

This year’s second-year Buckeyes appear to have the upside to burst onto the scene in a similar way as those two sophomore classes did. And if they do, Ohio State just might end up hoisting the national championship trophy again at the end of the season.

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