Ohio State’s 2021 Class Has One More Chance to Become Legendary After Most of Its Stars Return for Senior Seasons

By Dan Hope on January 13, 2024 at 8:35 am
JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer

The expectations for Ohio State’s 2021 recruiting class were massive when those Buckeyes arrived in Columbus three years ago.

On paper, the 2021 class was the best Ohio State has ever signed. Including seven five-star recruits, it was the highest-rated recruiting class in school history per the 247Sports team composite rankings, with an average prospect rating of 95.05 that ranks as the third-highest all-time.

Jack Sawyer, one of the most highly touted prospects in the class, wasn’t bashful about setting expectations for what he and his recruiting classmates would accomplish.

“The direction of our program just continues to keep getting better and better,” Sawyer told Eleven Warriors before his enrollment at Ohio State in January 2021. “And I think we’re going to win a few national championships here. I think we’re gonna win five, six, maybe seven, eight in the ’20s. So I’m super excited.”

So far, that prophecy has gone unfulfilled. The Buckeyes haven’t even beaten Michigan once in the last three years, let alone won any national championships. But the 2021 class still has one more chance to achieve legendary status.

While it was expected when that group arrived at Ohio State – and even as recently as a couple of months ago – that most of its stars would only be Buckeyes for three years before entering the 2024 NFL draft, a majority of the key players from that class will be back with the Buckeyes in 2024 to make one final run at achieving championship glory.

Marvin Harrison Jr. and Mike Hall are the only two members of that crop of players who have opted to leave early for the 2024 NFL draft. Sawyer, fellow defensive end JT Tuimoloau, wide receiver Emeka Egbuka, running back TreVeyon Henderson, defensive tackle Tyleik Williams, cornerbacks Denzel Burke and Jordan Hancock and left guard Donovan Jackson all would have been drafted this year had they chosen to go pro, but all eight of them decided to stay at Ohio State for their senior seasons instead.

JT Tuimoloau and Denzel Burke
JT Tuimoloau (44) and Denzel Burke (10) are among the stars from the 2021 class who put off the NFL for another year to stay at Ohio State for their senior seasons.

The opportunity to achieve the teamwide goals that none of them have achieved yet – beating Michigan, winning a Big Ten championship and winning a national championship – was a major factor in their collective decisions to stay at Ohio State for another year.

“I think a lot of us all are on the same page about we don't want to end our Ohio State careers like this,” Sawyer said after Ohio State’s Cotton Bowl loss to Missouri. “We all love it here. We love Coach Day. We love the staff. And sometimes unfortunate things happen and you don't get the outcome you want, and I think it's going to play a big factor in our decisions.”

Each of them had their own individual reasons to come back beyond just the team’s goals. Burke, for example, said before the Cotton Bowl that he strives to be a top-10 pick, which he wasn’t likely to be in this year’s draft. Egbuka was unable to maximize his draft stock this past season due to a midseason ankle injury. Hancock can certainly benefit from another year of experience since he didn’t become a starter until midway through this past season. Jackson’s draft stock took a hit as Ohio State’s entire offensive line struggled in 2023.

But those Buckeyes also said there were a lot of conversations between them about what they could accomplish as a group if they all stayed at Ohio State. More of them would likely be on their way to the NFL right now if they had already beaten Michigan and won Big Ten and national championships, but they knew their legacies as Ohio State players would be incomplete if they didn’t achieve any of those goals.

“That’s the big thing,” Burke said before the Cotton Bowl when asked if not having beaten Michigan or won a championship would factor into his decision. “Especially for me, man. I want to be a top-10 pick. But not only that, I want to have something to show for it down the road. To be able to show my kids and my family when I was at Ohio State, we won something.”

Even Harrison, who would have had nothing to gain from a draft stock perspective as a projected top-five pick, openly contemplated the possibility of staying for one more year solely because the Buckeyes hadn’t yet achieved their team goals in his time as a Buckeye.

“I think as a freshman, you come to the Big Ten, a school like Ohio State where the Big Ten championship is played and you want to play in Indy so bad. And I will say, when I got here, it's was like, it's gonna be a foregone conclusion that we're gonna play in Indy every year, and obviously that has yet to happen for me,” Harrison said in December. “It's something that if I do decide to move on and not come back, I'm gonna have to live with. It would be very hard for me.”

“I want to have something to show for it down the road. To be able to show my kids and my family when I was at Ohio State, we won something.”– Denzel Burke on returning for his senior year

In the week leading up to this past season’s game against Michigan, Harrison knew the reality of how his class would be remembered if it left Ohio State without beating the team up north. While Ohio State’s 2021 class is likely to produce double-digit NFL draft picks over the next two years, their lack of major team accomplishments keeps them out of the discussion as one of OSU’s all-time great classes.

“We all go in there and debate in the locker room who has the best class, who's the best team, and probably the No. 1 question you have to ask is, ‘Did you beat the team up north?’ I think it always starts there,” Harrison said. “That's a deciding factor I would say, on where your class ranks, as far as legacy-wise. I think what definitely matters most is that game.”

While Harrison won’t have a chance to win Gold Pants or a championship himself, his recruiting classmates who are still at Ohio State can propel the 2021 collective into that discussion if they can lead the Buckeyes to a national title in 2024.

They won’t be able to do it by themselves. As a whole, only 11 of the original 23 members of the 2021 class are still at Ohio State. Ten of its members, most notably including quarterbacks Kyle McCord and Quinn Ewers, have transferred to other schools. Wide receiver Jayden Ballard, tight end Sam Hart and offensive tackle Zen Michalski remain at Ohio State, but none of them have played significant roles for the Buckeyes yet.

Ohio State’s 2021 Recruiting Class
Pos Player Stars Rank Status
QB QUINN EWERS ★★★★★ #1 Transferred to Texas
DE JT TUIMOLOAU ★★★★★ #4 Still at Ohio State
DE JACK SAWYER ★★★★★ #5 Still at Ohio State
WR EMEKA EGBUKA ★★★★★ #10 Still at Ohio State
LG DONOVAN JACKSON ★★★★★ #19 Still at Ohio State
RB TREVEYON HENDERSON ★★★★★ #23 Still at Ohio State
QB KYLE MCCORD ★★★★★ #28 Transferred to Syracuse
CB JK JOHNSON ★★★★ #50 Transferred to LSU
DT MIKE HALL ★★★★ #53 Entered 2024 NFL Draft
CB JORDAN HANCOCK ★★★★ #73 Still at Ohio State
RB EVAN PRYOR ★★★★ #83 Transferred to Cincinnati
LB REID CARRICO ★★★★ #87 Transferred to West Virginia
WR MARVIN HARRISON JR. ★★★★ #97 Entered 2024 NFL Draft
WR JAYDEN BALLARD ★★★★ #99 Still at Ohio State
OL BEN CHRISTMAN ★★★★ #124 Transferred to Kentucky
DT TYLEIK WILLIAMS ★★★★ #166 Still at Ohio State
S ANDRE TURRENTINE ★★★★ #169 Transferred to Tennessee
S JANTZEN DUNN ★★★★ #172 Transferred to Kentucky
CB DENZEL BURKE ★★★★ #199 Still at Ohio State
OT ZEN MICHALSKI ★★★★ #306 Still at Ohio State
TE SAM HART ★★★★ #388 Still at Ohio State
S JAYLEN JOHNSON ★★★ #406 Transferred to Memphis
P JESSE MIRCO ★★★ #1990 Transferred to Vanderbilt
Stars/Rankings via 247Sports Composite

The other eight remaining members of the class, though, will enter 2024 as eight of the best players in college football. Henderson and Egbuka are both among the nation’s most dynamic offensive players. Jackson has All-American potential if he can return to form following a disappointing junior year. Sawyer and Tuimoloau are more than capable of being college football’s best defensive end tandem, while Williams was already one of the nation’s best defensive tackles this past season. Burke and Hancock pair with Davison Igbinosun to give the Buckeyes an elite trio of cornerbacks.

Had those players left for the NFL, Ohio State would have a bunch of major holes to fill this offseason. With all of them back, Ohio State has to replace only nine starters from this past season: Harrison, Hall, McCord, wide receiver Julian Fleming, tight end Cade Stover, right guard Matthew Jones, linebackers Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers and free safety Josh Proctor.

Ohio State still has some significant personnel questions to answer. Kansas State transfer Will Howard will hope to restore the Buckeyes' run of elite quarterback play, and their offensive line needs to take a big step forward. Will linebacker and free safety remain open on the defensive side of the ball.

Altogether, though, Ohio State looks poised to have one of the best rosters if not the best roster in college football in 2024. And that all starts with the retention of eight of its top draft-eligible stars, who will now look to ensure that their class has more than just individual accomplishments to be remembered by.

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