2022 Ohio State football championship hopes rest on the young sophomore shoulders

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State football fans could see a tidal wave of talent rising in the distance.

Two elite edge rushers backed by other future NFL differences. A three-man cornerback rotation destined for glory. A multi-faceted third-year quarterback, pro safeties, and possibly a generational backfield talent.

The 2015 Buckeyes were going to be great.

Then they decided to crash the party and arrive a full year early. Urban Meyer’s 2014 national championship roster thrived on the shoulders of his sophomore superstars.

As Ryan Day’s signing class came together in 2021, it was hard not to look at the core they could form in 2023. Loaded with seven five-star prospects (yes, I included the now-deceased quarterback Quinn Ewers), the class took first place. 2 nationally behind Alabama. Aside from Ewers, the other 13 top 100 prospects remain in the group and are shaping up to be a potentially special gathering a year from now.

However, if this group is really that special, the incubation period may not last a full three years. As preseason camp begins Thursday, Ohio State’s best road to a national championship is once again via sophomores peaking early.

on the edge

At the end of Joey Bosa’s freshman year in 2013, no one doubted his path to stardom. In the second year he proved everyone right. His 13.5 sacks and 55 tackles earned him the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

Statistically, the OSU defense was solid in 2014. Still, it made significant leaps from last year in most categories: total defense (47th nationally to 19th), yards allowed per game (39th to 25th), and the Football Outsiders defensive FEI metric (43rd to 13th).

Funny what a generational pass rusher that unlocks the cheat codes can do for a defense.

Akron as osu football

Can defensive JT Tuimoloau (44) shoot up to stardom in his second season like Joey Bosa did in 2014?David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

The Class of 2021 provides the current Buckeyes with two candidates. JT Tuimoloau combines uncommon athleticism, coach-child intelligence and advanced maturity into a package that earned him Defensive Player of the Year in our preseason Big Ten Football Poll. Jack Sawyer profiles himself as a more traditional pass rusher – albeit with a high enough cap to allow the tradition to follow the Bosas, Chase Young and other horrors the program spawned.

No OSU defensive end has averaged even a half sack per game over the past two seasons. A championship defense in 2022 means either Tuimoloau or Sawyer or both have made a second breakthrough.

go around the corner

This 2014 season began with an established returning starter at a cornerback spot in Doran Grant. The Akron product became a fourth-round NFL draft pick after the season and spent six seasons at various levels of professional football. He was the kind of dependable high-end veteran that forms the backbone of successful teams.

Opposite him appeared two redshirt newbies who help form elite teams.

Eli Apple picked up a redshirt in 2013 and apparently spent that observation time wisely. He accumulated 53 tackles, three interceptions and 10 pass defenses while playing all 15 games. Another redshirt rookie, Gareon Conley, assisted him with 16 tackles.

Both became NFL draft picks in the first round. Denzel Burke took a big first step down that path with an All-American season as a freshman. But his classmates Jordan Hancock and JK Johnson follow the Apple-Conley timeline more closely. Neither made much of an impact as true newcomers, but both former top 100 prospects began building preseason enthusiasm back in the spring.

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Michael Thomas was not part of the sophomore movement on this 2014 team, despite being only a sophomore by class. He played in 2012 and then spent 2013 as a redshirt — a rare mid-career correction but one that later paid off hugely.

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Emeka Egbuka’s versatile skills could make him a key player on offense in 2022 even without a starting job.David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

However, a second receiver is essentially included in the 2022 lineup. Marvin Harrison Jr. arrived at the Rose Bowl with a three-touchdown performance. He’ll take over Garrett Wilson’s starting job as an X-receiver and potentially become CJ Stroud’s new bullish with reach in the end zone.

Don’t neglect the additional effects of Emeka Egbuka. His claim to a real starting role is less secure. However, he showed enough of a true freshman to warrant a real role in this offense. His abilities are possibly the most versatile of any top receiver, with the exception of Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who could open up more opportunities.

trench warfare

While offensive linemen traditionally take a longer development path to the lineup, OSU always finds second-year starters. Harry Miller made it for the 2020 national team runners-up. Both Paris Johnson Jr. and Luke Wypler became interior designers last season. (Johnson will switch to left tackle this season.)

However, expectations were so high for Donovan Jackson that the Buckeyes found ways to get him onto the field. Thanks to his ability to move so well at such a large size, he became a sixth offensive lineman in special packages.

He will start on the left and is so talented that he has already been touted as a possible solution to a potential left tackle problem in 2023.

Maryland at OSU, October 8, 2021

After taking a redshirt as a true freshman, Mike Hall (51) can be part of Ohio State’s noseguard solution.David Petkiewicz, cleveland.com

Mike Hall was the top-ranked defensive tackle candidate in the class, and he may still emerge as the most talented. He wore a redshirt last season while growing into a physique that OSU hopes can use as a nose guard.

Tyleik Williams, on the other hand, came in too heavily and still raised his profile. His five sacks ranked second on the team, and while most were late in blowouts, this isn’t a program that can turn down even every successful pass rush.

Watch snapshots more closely than defensive tackle rotation starting assignments. Who’s on the field when Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan have to be stopped in third when games are on the balance sheet? Hall’s reputation and Williams’ early performance both have the potential to earn that trust.

breaking away

Ezekiel Elliott got his feet wet as a freshman in 2013. He chipped 262 yards and a couple of touchdowns behind Carlos Hyde and made his greatest impact as a special team shooter.

A year later, he was nearing that freshman season’s rushing total in each of the Buckeyes’ last three games. This 696-yard obliteration by Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon carried OSU to its most recent national championship.

TreVeyon Henderson’s feet were plenty wet after last season’s opening night as he seared Minnesota for a 70-yard catch-and-run. His first 1,000 rushing yards were on the bench in early November. He will open this season on nearly every top running back shortlist in the nation.

Throughout the OSU depth map, doors are open for stars to emerge in Year Two. In the case of Burke, Henderson and others, they have already crossed the threshold.

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