Skull Session: Caleb Downs is “A Top-Five Pick in a Couple of Years,” Tommy Eichenberg’s GOAT is Ray Nitschke and Ohio State’s RB Room is One of Its Greatest Strengths

By Chase Brown on March 1, 2024 at 5:00 am
Tommy Eichenberg
Adam Cairns / USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Skull Session.

The Ohio State men's basketball team!

Have a good Friday.

 “HE’S A DOG.” Jaylen Key is one of Alabama’s 10 representatives at the NFL Scouting Combine. At an interview session on Thursday, Eleven Warriors deputy editor Dan Hope asked Key what to expect from Caleb Downs, his former Crimson Tide teammate who transferred to Ohio State in January.

Key said Downs’ maturity and work ethic will stand out the most.

“His preparation – the way he took care of his body week in and week out and the way he went in the playbook and made sure he knew what to do on Saturdays, it was completely different from any freshman I’ve ever seen,” Key said.

That preparation paid off for Downs in his freshman season at Alabama, where he led the Crimson Tide defense in defensive snaps. He recorded 107 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four pass breakups in 13 appearances, winning the 2023 Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year award and receiving second-team All-American honors.

“He’s definitely a twitchy player that’s going to trigger on things before a lot of guys even see it,” Key said. “He’s able to come down in the run fit pretty fast. He’ll cover. He’s not afraid of anything. As a freshman, that blew me away. As a true freshman? Extraordinary. … He plays very physical. He comes downhill, and when he makes contact, there’s going to be a pop. He makes plays all over the field.”

When asked if it would be hard to root for the Buckeyes in 2024, Key smiled.

“For me to root for the (Ohio State) team, definitely,” he answered. “But for Caleb, that’s my brother for life. Wherever he is, I’m rooting for him. He should be a top-five pick in a couple of years.”

And to think Downs – a future top-five pick, according to Key and several other college football experts – will be a starter for the Silver Bullets this fall. 

You know, the Silver Bullets, who will also start Jack Sawyer (Ohio State’s MVP heading into 2024), JT Tuimoloau, Tyleik Williams, Ty Hamilton, Cody Simon, Sonny Styles (yes, I think he will be a linebacker), Denzel Burke, Davison Igbinosun, Jordan Hancock and Lathan Ransom?

You know, the Silver Bullets, whose second-string defense is still ridiculous with Caden Curry, Kenyatta Jackson, Hero Kanu, Kayden McDonald, C.J. Hicks, Gabe Powers, Jermaine Mathews Jr., Calvin Simpson-Hunt, Lorenzo Styles Jr., Malik Hartford and Ja’Had Carter?

Yeah, you know them.

Ohio State’s defense is ELITE.

And when all is said and done, Downs could be the star of it. He’s just that good.

“He’s a guy that’s probably generational,” Key said of Downs. “He’s a dog, and mentally, he’s already prepared for the NFL.”

 A MAN OF FEW WORDS. On Wednesday, former Ohio State linebacker Tommy Eichenberg discussed his football career with Rick Spielman and Ryan Wilson. Often a man of few words, Eichenberg looked more comfortable than I have ever seen in him in an interview. He showed CBS Sports HQ viewers a side of him that's rare to witness.

On his role at Ohio State the past two seasons

“I was lucky to have Coach (Jim) Knowles as a defensive coordinator. He allowed me to have a lot of responsibility, calling the defense out there. If I did have to make checks, I was the one making them. I was getting guys lined up, making sure everyone was on the same page.”

On his brother, Liam, a current Miami Dolphins offensive tackle

“Our whole childhood was me and him competing in whatever. Growing up, he was always way bigger than me. He still is. He’s three years older than me, and he’s way bigger. The things I could get him on were when we would play video games. It was the things that didn’t involve size. I didn’t back down or anything, but I could definitely get him in those (kinds of) things.”

On Ohio State’s defense in 2024

“They’re gonna be really, really good. I was so happy to see all of those guys come back, especially on the defense, too. We call ourselves the ‘Mud Dogs’ from ‘The Waterboy’ — that’s what they called them. We build an identity of who we wanted to be and the standards that we wanted to live up to. The standards of great players like (Chris Spielman) and the great defenses. I’m glad that they want to uphold that standard.”

On Mike Hall

“He made a ton of plays. He made my job a lot easier. He’s making all these offensive linemen miss, and they’re even trying to double-team him. He’s just taking up blocks for me. Another guy asked me, ‘Was that surprising to see?’ And I’m like, ‘No, he did that every single day in practice.’ He practiced really, really hard. I know that whatever team gets him is gonna be really, really lucky.”

On his football GOAT

“Ray Nitschke.”

I'll admit it. I had to look up Ray Nitschke. I'm glad I did, too. He is the perfect selection for Eichenberg. Nitschke spent his entire 15-year NFL career with the Green Bay Packers. Enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker anchored the Packers' defense and won five NFL championships and two Super Bowls. Sounds like GOAT material to me.

 ESPN WHIPAROUND. The Worldwide Leader in Sports has released a few college football articles in recent weeks, all involving questions that surround the top 25 teams in its January and February polls. 

With Ohio State as ESPN’s second-ranked team behind Georgia, Blake Baumgartner and Heather Dinich explored three topics for the Buckeyes, including its most important offseason question, its best position room and its route to the College Football Playoff. I’ve included each of those topics and some reactions below.

Biggest Question This Spring

HOW WILL WILL HOWARD LOOK? Howard comes from Kansas State with the pressure to build off what Kyle McCord, who transferred to Syracuse, did for the first 11 games of last season before a third straight defeat to Michigan. How the versatile Howard (2,490 total yards and 28 total touchdowns for Kansas State in 2023) fits and adapts to the offense for coach Ryan Day and new offensive coordinator Chip Kelly will be the biggest factor in determining how different things will be in Columbus in 2024.

— Blake Baumgartner

While there are understandable questions about Will Howard, I believe the most important offseason question revolves around Ohio State’s offensive line. Its last time out, Josh Simmons, Donovan Jackson, Matt Jones, Enokk Vimahi and Josh Fryar were more like matadors than brick walls, and Ohio State scored once in a 14-3 loss to Missouri. 

With Simmons, Jackson and Fryar returning, the Buckeyes have two starting spots to fill in the trenches. Alabama transfer Seth McLaughlin will take one of them, but who will take the other? Could McLaughlin start at center, Fryar start at guard and either Luke Montgomery or Tegra Tshabola start at tackle? Could Carson Hinzman regain his starting job at center and kick McLaughlin to guard? I wonder more about those questions than I do about Howard’s assimilation into a quarterback-friendly offense.

Ohio State’s Best Position Room

RUNNING BACKS: When running back TreVeyon Henderson decided to return for his senior season, that was already a boon for the Buckeyes. But then Mississippi running back Quinshon Judkins made his move to Columbus official on the night Michigan won the CFP national title against Washington. Henderson (926 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in 2023) and Judkins (2,725 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns in two years with the Rebels) may be the best running back duo in the country and will make life easier as quarterback Will Howard makes the transition from Kansas State.

— Blake Baumgartner

Picking Ohio State’s best position room is an impossible task. The running back room features TreVeyon Henderson and Quinshon Judkins. The wide receiver room features Emeka Egbuka, Carnell Tate, Brandon Inniss and Jeremiah Smith. The defensive line room features – I could go on. You get the picture.

I suppose if I had to choose the Buckeyes’ best position room, I would also pick the running backs. Henderson and Judkins will be the best duo in America this fall. Their individual and collective stocks also experienced a considerable boost when Ohio State hired Chip Kelly as its offensive coordinator. With how much Kelly loves to pound the rock, Henderson and Judkins could be in for an incredible season.

How Ohio State makes the CFP

HOW TO IMPRESS THE COMMITTEE: A winning record against the Big Three: Oregon, Penn State and Michigan. The Buckeyes might not have enough on the rest of their schedule to go 1-2 against those teams. A nonconference lineup that includes three straight home games against Akron, Western Michigan and Marshall won't push the Buckeyes ahead of another contender with a better résumé. Iowa could be a top-25 team, but that might be the only other ranked opponent Ohio State faces if it doesn't reach the Big Ten title game.

— Heather Dinich

HOW OHIO STATE’S PATH WILL BE DIFFERENT FROM OTHERS: In the CFP era, the Big Ten race -- and in turn the conference's best hope at a playoff representative -- has boiled down to Ohio State vs. Michigan. Now, the Big Ten is bigger than The Game, as difficult as that might be for traditionalists to digest. While bragging rights will carry impact, adding Oregon to the schedule as a conference opponent is just as significant in the committee meeting room. Even in a four-team field, Ohio State was able to earn a CFP bid without winning the Big Ten, and that won't change -- the odds of it happening will only increase -- as long as the Buckeyes look the part against ranked opponents more often than not.

— Heather Dinich

Dinich is correct. Ohio State must win two of its three matchups against Oregon, Penn State and [REDACTED] to impress the committee. It will also be important for Ohio State to reach the Big Ten championship (the new Big Ten title game will be between the conference’s top two teams, not its division winners), where the Buckeyes can lock down one of the top four seeds and a bye with a win.

 REPORT CARD SZN. After a chaotic coaching carousel in 2024, Chris Vannini of The Athletic turned back the clock to 2019, when another chaotic coaching carousel occurred in college football. That year, 27 coaches were hired at the Power Five and Group of Five levels, including Ohio State’s Ryan Day.

In a recent article, Vannini looked at how a handful of news outlets graded the Day hire five years ago. He then regraded the hire, knowing what we know now about Day’s tenure as Ohio State’s head coach.

The Athletic: B+

CBS Sports: C

Sports Illustrated: 4 out of 5

SB Nation: B

The Athletic’s Regrade: A-

Day’s promotion following Meyer’s retirement was not exactly cheered by the graders. So as he sits here with a 56-8 record, a 39-3 Big Ten record, three College Football Playoff appearances and two Big Ten championships in five years, it’s easy to say this has been a smashing success, right? Right?? Well, not quite when the Buckeyes have lost three consecutive games to Michigan and just watched the Wolverines win a national championship. This is one of the most attractive jobs in the country, and what Day has done is match the expectations. Day has avoided the mind-boggling losses Meyer had (Purdue, Iowa), but he’s 1-3 against Michigan, and Meyer never lost to the Wolverines. It’s been generally good overall for Day, but for some fans, it has not been good enough. With a loaded roster and coaching staff for 2024, a national championship is the expectation.

To me, somewhere in the B+ to A- range feels good for Day – an 89.5 that could round up if the professor allowed for it. (I had a professor at Ohio State who rounded up an 89.5 to an A- for me, which changed my GPA in the course from a 3.3 to a 3.7. She was the real MVP.)

As Ohio State’s head coach, Day is 56-8 and has a 39-3 record in Big Ten competition. He’s reached the College Football Playoff three times and appeared in the national championship game in 2020. He’s avoided dumbfounding losses to Iowa and Purdue, among others. All of those outcomes boost the grade.

However, Day’s three Big Ten losses have been to [REDACTED], which has been brutal. They’ve been so brutal that some Ohio State fans have called for him to be fired. That hurts the grade. That hurts the grade real bad.

Overall, Day’s performance through five seasons has been above average. 

In his sixth season in 2024, Ohio State is a national championship contender. If the Buckeyes can beat [REDACTED], win a Big Ten title and the College Football Playoff, Day could see his grade improve beyond comprehension. A+? A++? A+++?

For the “What It’s Worth Department,” here are some other Power Five regrades: 

  • Colorado and Mel Tucker, C
  • Georgia Tech and Geoff Collins, F
  • Houston and Dana Holgersen, C+
  • Kansas and Les Miles, F
  • Kansas State and Chris Klieman, A
  • Louisville and Scott Satterfield, C+
  • Maryland and Mike Locksley, B
  • Miami (FL) and Manny Diaz, B-
  • North Carolina and Mack Brown, B
  • Texas Tech and Matt Wells, C
  • West Virginia and Neal Brown, B-

 SONG OF THE DAY. “Thunderstruck” - AC/DC.

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