COLUMBUS, Ohio — This wasn’t supposed to be Ohio State’s year.
After a 12-1 season, a Big Ten championship and a spot against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in the first national semifinals, the Buckeyes are looking beyond this year with as many starters who are freshmen and sophomores as upperclassmen.
“We’re not a finished product,” coach Urban Meyer said. “There’s too many young players out there.
The future’s very bright, though.”
Much is made of the Buckeyes’ depth at quarterback, particularly since injured two-time Big Ten player of the year Braxton Miller (who is back next year) was replaced by freshman J.T. Barrett (also back), who was fifth in the Heisman Trophy balloting. When Barrett broke an ankle in the regular-season finale, sophomore Cardale Jones (yet another returnee) stepped in and was a star.
— Urban Meyer
The Buckeyes have been stockpiling young talent. Their most recent depth chart shows four freshmen starters (offensive guard Billy Price, H-back Jalin Marshall, linebacker Darron Lee and either Eli Apple or Gareon Conley at cornerback). A sterling sophomore class is represented by Jones, tailback Ezekiel Elliott, wide-out Michael Thomas, conference defensive player of the year Joey Bosa and interceptions leader Vonn Bell, along with lineman Pat Elflein, safety Tyvis Powell and Jones, who had the big breakout game in a 59-0 win against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.
Meyer was worried before the season started.
The Buckeyes had four new starters on the offensive line and a defense that had gushed points in two losses to end last season. They were also without their leading passer (Miller), rusher (Carlos Hyde), receiver (Corey Brown) and tackler (Ryan Shazier).
Barrett took over when Miller was lost for the year with a shoulder injury. He looked like a rookie — as did everyone else — when the Buckeyes were upended by two touchdowns at home by Virginia Tech in Week Two.
Callers to local sports-talk radio shows and fans writing angry letters to the editor all but gave up on the season.
Instead, game by game, the Buckeyes learned their roles and grew. The unknown Barrett developed into one of the best QBs in the country, setting school records for TDs passing (35) and total offense (3,772 yards).
Some say all of that stemmed from the maturation of the offensive line.
“None of this would be possible if it weren’t for [coach] Ed Warinner and what he’s done,” said QBs coach and co-coordinator Tom Herman, who has taken the job at Houston but will coach the Buckeyes in the bowl game. “It doesn’t matter who you have on the perimeter or who you have playing quarterback if you can’t run the ball and you can’t protect.”
Then there’s Elliott, who was a sought-after recruit but had not proven himself as a durable, go-to back. Yet he has rushed for 1,402 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Thomas, redshirted a year ago and all but forgotten, became Barrett’s security blanket/No. 1 target, with 43 catches for 680 yards and eight scores.
“Not playing last year, I’m still playing catch-up,” he said. “I still have a lot to prove.”
It wasn’t just on offense, either. The defense went through a makeover in the spring and summer under new hire Chris Ash, and it seemed as if every young kid he threw into the scheme came up big.
Lee was a quarterback from just outside Columbus who appeared to have fallen into a black hole when he shifted to linebacker. But he was just what a more mobile, more aggressive defense required.
The Buckeyes also inserted the untested Apple at the corner and he became a shutdown defender. And Bell and Powell took over for veterans at safety and seemed to find big plays almost every game.
And then there was Bosa, a free spirit at defensive end who loves video games and social media. Oh, and he also likes tackling quarterbacks — his 13.5 sacks are just half a sack behind Vernon Gholston’s school record.
He does a shoulder shrug whenever he plows under an opposing quarterback. He was asked what he’ll do if he breaks the sack record.
“Backflip,” the 6-foot-5, 278-pound Bosa said with a grin.
And several of the Buckeyes’ top freshmen missed all or a large portion of the season with injuries.
“This book’s not written yet,” Meyer said. “I’m pleased with it. But these next couple [of years], that’s going to be our legacy.”