2016 season preview: Ohio State Buckeyes
Coming off a national title-winning season in 2014 with an obscene amount of talent returning, Ohio State’s 2015 season was viewed as a disappointment. Instead of consistently blowing teams out with their depth, talent and experience, the Buckeyes simply went through the motions for much of the season, earning one-score victories over the likes of Northern Illinois and Indiana, before finally succumbing to Michigan State (sans QB Connor Cook). That loss proved to be the only blemish on their record, but it denied them both the Big Ten championship and another chance at the national playoff.
The losses are beyond heavy this year. Eight defensive starters departed, seven of them for the NFL. Seven offensive starters are also gone, and this number does not even include WR Braxton Miller and QB Cardale Jones, third- and fourth-round draft picks respectively. In all, Ohio State had a record 12 players selected in the first four rounds. To put this in perspective, hated-rival Michigan has only seen 11 of its players selected in the first four rounds since 2009.
With so much talent leaving Columbus, the Buckeyes are sure to experience some growing pains this season. Fortunately for them, the starters they do return are among the best in the country at their respective positions, and should themselves be high draft picks come next April.
Star RB Ezekiel Elliott and all three starting wide receivers are now in NFL camps, as are three offensive line starters, including Detroit Lions’ first round pick, LT Taylor Decker. In all, the Buckeyes have lost 6438 offensive snaps from 2015 to the NFL.
The two returning offensive line starters, guard Billy Price and center Pat Elflein (more on him later) both graded out positively last season, and Elflein’s switch inside this season from right guard should help bring continuity to the unit. The run blocking will also be bolstered by TE Marcus Baugh, who only saw 78 receiving reps last season but posted the seventh-highest run blocking grade among returning TEs.
Also back in scarlet and gray this year is QB J.T. Barrett, who will be the clear-cut starter this season after a 2015 campaign that saw him yield early on to Cardale Jones, one of the principle heroes of the 2015 national championship game. While he has graded barely above average as a passer during his college career, Barrett has proved to be an outstanding runner, as in 2014 he posted the nation’s top running grade among QBs. He has posted 45 touchdowns to just 14 interceptions in his two years in Columbus, a ratio that may be difficult to duplicate this year considering how green the WR corps is, but a ratio that is absolutely essential to the overall success of the team in 2016.
The pecking order at the skill positions is wide open this year, as only Curtis Samuel logged more than 150 total snaps (303) last season, and he only touched the ball 39 times. It remains to be seen how much time he’ll spend in the backfield vs. at wideout, but either way, he is expected to be the most productive offensive skill player this season. With five-star recruit Bri’onte Dunn recently dismissed from the team, the starting RB job likely falls to red-shirt freshman Mike Weber. Weber was a four-star recruit out of Cass Tech Michigan (a school that traditional stocks the Wolverines with in-state talent), and needs to build immediate chemistry with Barrett in order for Ohio State’s zone read option offense to work effectively.
1,954 snaps from the 2015 defensive line do not return this season, including those from third-overall pick Joey Bosa, who was our highest-graded edge player each of the past two seasons. DE Tyquan Lewis is the lone full-time starter back for 2016. He posted the 15th-highest run defense grade last year among 4-3 DEs returning to college this season. Sam Hubbard will man the other DE spot, and is expected to be one of the top players on the Ohio State defense after posting seven sacks and 23 total pressures on just 186 pass rushes in 2015.
While the rest of the LB corps only logged 171 snaps in 2015, ILB Raekwon McMillan is without question the best Buckeye defender back this year, and is likely the best player in the country at his position. His overall grade last year was good for eighth-best among ILB returnees this year, and his coverage grade cracked the top six.
Outside of CB Gareon Conley, the rest of the returning Buckeye secondary had just 173 coverage snaps and two pass break ups last season. Conley should be a strong player this year, however, as he allowed just 27 receptions on 61 targets last year. He did show himself to be susceptible to the big play, as he yielded six receptions of over 25 yards last season, including an 81 yard touchdown to Notre Dame’s Will Fuller in the Fiesta Bowl.
McMillan would be the more obvious national choice, but Elflein ranks higher on our top 101 list and is widely considered the best interior blocker in the country. His cumulative overall grade the past two seasons is the best in the country, and he improved his pass protection significantly in 2015, allowing just one sack and two hits for the entire season. His move inside could result in him being yet another first-round pick from Ohio State in next year’s NFL draft.
Finally free from Bosa’s shadow, Hubbard could be a household name by the end of the season. A converted safety from high school, Hubbard played just 346 total snaps last year. He made the most of them, however, as he ranks sixth in the loaded Big Ten in returning pass rush productivity at his position. Not surprisingly considering where he played in high school, he still needs to add bulk to his frame, but his natural explosion and bend off the edge is something every Big Ten tackle is going to struggle with this season.
Unfortunately for the young Buckeyes, they will go on the road in Week 3 to face Big 12 favorite and national title contender Oklahoma, a school much better-equipped for a huge early-season matchup. The Big Ten schedule looks to be more difficult this year as well, as Ohio State has road games at Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State. The Buckeyes do draw Nebraska and Michigan at home, not to mention the fact that both games (as well as the matchup against the Spartans) are in November. It’s difficult to envision the Buckeyes making it through the regular season without at least two losses (one of the presumably to Oklahoma), but if Barrett can carry the offense while the defense’s young talent becomes more acquainted with the college game, there could still be conference and national aspirations on the line when Ohio State hosts the Wolverines on November 26th.