The Path of Totality

Ask around. By all accounts, last season was a letdown.

Not an unmitigated collapse, perhaps, but certainly nothing close to success. Not for the players, not for the coaching staff, and certainly not for the majority of fans for whom watching the football Buckeyes get shut out is tantamount to a child watching the top of his ice cream cone topple off and tumble onto the hot pavement.

Two losses and no titles outweighed the Michigan win and playoff berth in the eyes of many, and the specifics of the final defeat at the hands of the Clemson Tigers were notable. Ohio State got blanked on the national stage. People didn’t care for that.

A year later, after yet another stellar draft class that saw six players ascend in the first seventy picks, Urban Meyer’s cupboard somehow looks as stocked as ever. The roster has so much talent and experience that Meyer saw fit to anoint not four, not six, but nine team captains.
So who are these titans? Many of the same faces as a year ago, naturally. It may be the changes to the coaching staff that have the biggest impact. Nonetheless, resumes have been updated and the configurations tweaked. Here’s a look at the 2017 football Buckeyes:

When We Have the Ball

By David Heasley

As just mentioned, the most important new face on the offensive side of the ball won’t be behind a facemask. It’s new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. Regarded widely as one of the top offensive minds in football, he’s the architect of many successful systems, perhaps the most notable being his installation at Oklahoma. Though his tenure as Indiana’s head coach was underwhelming from a wins-and-losses perspective, Wilson’s Hoosier offenses recorded 137 points in five games versus the Buckeyes (27.4 ppg). With measurably better talent at his disposal, Wilson could blow the lid off the opposition. The offense will likely play faster and take more risks, both of which should please the players.

Wilson will have at the center of the huddle Ohio State’s first-ever three-time captain, quarterback J.T. Barrett. By his own admission, Barrett has had a “roller coaster” career at OSU, yet, barring injury, should own essentially every significant school passing record before season’s end. He remains a threat with the ball in his hands both running and passing, and under Wilson’s guidance, should fully blossom in his senior campaign.

Out of the backfield comes a slew of young talent, headed by tailback Mike Weber. Weber showed up big in his freshman season. He had big shoes to fill with the departure of Ezekiel Elliott, and with 1,119 yards and nine touchdowns, he absolutely fit the bill. He and Barrett both eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark, and while Curtis Samuel’s 807 on 97 carries will be missed, Demario McCall (49 car. 273 yards) is looking more and more like he’s this year’s hybrid back, but true freshman J.K. Robbins is ready to pick up some slack when needed.

The offensive line lost Pat Elflein –a first-team All-American– a year ago to the NFL, where he figures to start at center straight away. This was, however, the line’s only departure. Billy Price (who will slide from guard to center) and tackle Jamarco Jones were first-team All-Conference themselves in 2016 and lead a strong unit of young talent.

Samuel’s role as the H-receiver—a slot/scat hybrid—will likely fall to some combination of receivers Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill, both of whom played admirably a year ago (along with McCall). Campbell has more experience out of the backfield, where Hill has shown dangerous speed and elusiveness. Meyer and Wilson have a lot of options here, and none of them are bad.
The rest of the receiving corps is headed up by Johnny Dixon, Terry McLaurin, Binjimen Victor, and Austin Mack. It also will be interesting to see whether Trevon Grimes, injured his final high school season, will emerge at some point.

In Wilson’s offense, any or all receivers in the mix could blow up. Tight end Marcus Baugh is a fifth-year senior who posted a very solid 24 catch season in 2016.
From an Xs and Os standpoint, Wilson will have this squad playing up-tempo with more balance between the run and the pass. Summarily, there should be more touches to go around. Fans frustrated with the perceived lack of imagination in Meyer’s QB run option-heavy attack should find relief in Wilson’s style that will incorporate more screens and simpler sets, meant to attack precise part of opposing defenses. Done well, stringing together long, clock-eating drives is common. And devastating.

When THEY Have the Ball

By David Heasley

First, the bad: for the second season in a row, the Buckeyes will be replacing most of their secondary. Corners Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore and safety Malik Hooker all went in the first round of the NFL Draft. That kind of talent doesn’t grow on trees.

But, perhaps, for Ohio State, it does.

New cornerbacks Denzel Ward and Damon Arnette both have plenty of experience, and the lone returning starter, safety Damon Webb, provides senior leadership and big play potential. Fans will also see Erick Smith, Jordan Fuller, and freshmen Jeffrey Okudah, Kendall Sheffield, Shaun Wade. Expect a good rotation in a secondary that probably won’t have to work especially hard.

The reasoning behind that is the good news: the front seven for Ohio State returns an embarrassment of riches. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan is off and starting for the Miami Dolphins. Everyone else is back in the scarlet and gray to continue their FBS-leading ways down in the trenches.

Four of the nine named captains are defensive linemen. Yes, that’s a fact: all four starters along the defensive line are team captains. These are Tyquan Lewis (first-team All-Conference 2016), Sam Hubbard, Tracy Sprinkle, and Jalyn Holmes. Every one of them is a pro talent, and it doesn’t even end there. Michael Hill, Dre’Mont Jones, Nick Bosa, and Robert Landers will all force their way onto the field as well. Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano went so far as to say in spring camp that this may be the most talented defensive line he’s ever coached. And he coached in the NFL. A hot take, perhaps, but a 26-year coaching veteran wouldn’t toss that kind of praise around without good reason.
The line’s ability to stifle the run and disrupt the pass should free things up for the linebacking corps to wreak havoc and take significant pressure off the secondary. A more aggressive and successful offense should keep the whole defensive unit fresh and ready to run.

Speaking of the linebackers, the star of the show is junior Jerome Baker. He returns to his zone on the weak side and should be able to build even further on what was a stat-sheet-stuffing 2016 (83 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 2 INTs, 2 pass deflections, one fumble recovered, one touchdown scored, and a partridge in a…well, you know).
On the strong side, senior Chris Worley also made his presence known in the box score last season, albeit to a slightly lesser extent (natural effect of lining up against more opposing personnel). He nonetheless impressed in his first year as a starter and is one of the nine aforementioned captains.
Returning from a week one injury last year to take starting reps once again is fourth-year junior Dante Booker. He has made a full recovery and will take over in the middle in replacement of the departed McMillan.
Overall, the defense will have the opportunity to play all out, all of the time. Some positions go three-deep, and with the kind of strength this unit displays up front, forcing enemy offenses into second- and third-and-longs should be a regular occurrence. Excepting this year’s trip to Ann Arbor, the Buckeyes get all of their toughest matchups at home. All signs point to yet another trip to the College Football Playoff.