It is tough going for fans of the Ohio State football program at the moment.
Back-to-back losses in the biggest games since Urban Meyer took over as head coach, and the departure of a myriad of big name players from the squad that won 24 straight games may have the Buckeye faithful worried.
But something that might have slipped past Buckeye Nation’s eyes during the 2014 Discover Orange Bowl loss to Clemson, as well as throughout the 2013 season, was the impact of younger players. These players hope to use this season as a springboard for years to come.
Young players like sophomore defensive end Noah Spence, freshman defensive end Joey Bosa and freshman running back Dontre Wilson made headlines all season long for OSU.
The future of the Buckeye secondary, which is set to lose four players heading into next year, was on display in the Orange Bowl.
Freshman defensive back Vonn Bell made his first career start, and was joined by redshirt-freshman defensive back Tyvis Powell who started at corner.
“(It was my) first start, you know,” Bell said after the game. “I’ve been preparing for this moment ever since the season started. So it’s not our turn, but we’ll keep it rolling in spring.”
Bell’s moment in the sun came on an athletic interception of Clemson redshirt-senior Tajh Boyd in the red zone in the third quarter.
“We ran a little zone play and I read the eyes of Tajh (Boyd) and he threw it up,” Bell said. “I just wanted to make a play.”
Sophomore cornerback Armani Reeves also started this season, although he hasn’t since Sept. 7 against San Diego State, and will hope to join Bell and Powell in the secondary in the future.
Junior cornerback Doran Grant, who started every game this season, said he is confident in the defense’s future.
“We have a lot to build on, we have some guys who can play,” Grant said. “I’m excited to see them play next season, see what they got in the spring. We’re going to work at it.”
On the other side of the ball, Wilson was the big focus for OSU, with his speed inserting him into the offense instantly, but he wasn’t the only one who earned himself a potential spot for the future.
Redshirt-freshman right guard Pat Elflein played the majority of OSU’s 42-41 victory against Michigan Nov. 30 and played the entirety of the Big Ten Championship loss against Michigan State Dec. 7 in place of redshirt-senior Marcus Hall.
During the Michigan game, Elflein grew as a player, redshirt-senior left tackle Jack Mewhort said after the win.
“Pat did a tremendous job … he’s not a kid anymore after playing in an environment like that. You kind of grow up a little bit and I think that was a really good learning experience for him,” Mewhort said.
Although the Buckeye offensive line is losing four of its five starters, Elflein isn’t the only player set to join the starting ranks that has experience. Sophomore left guard Taylor Decker started every game this year for OSU and sophomore center Jacoby Boren played significant minutes in place of an injured senior Corey Linsley in the season opener.
After the game against Iowa, Oct. 19, co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Ed Warinner said Decker was continuing to advance in the system.
“He has a great talent … he’s playing solid football for us and continues to get better with a big upside,” Warinner said.
The Buckeyes will also have to replace one of the more productive running backs in recent memory at OSU — senior Carlos Hyde. This season Hyde ran for a team high 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Hyde led the OSU running backs in yards in every game following his return from a three game suspension to start the season with the exception of one.
During a 76-0 win against Florida A&M Sept. 21, Hyde only tallied 41 yards on the ground, while freshman running back Ezekiel Elliott ran for 162 yards and two touchdowns. After the game, Meyer said Elliott will have “an incredible future here.”
Senior wide receiver Corey “Philly” Brown said he can’t wait to watch these players in the future.
“I can see a lot of these young dudes growing in front of our eyes,” Brown said after the Orange Bowl. “Like I said, I’m so excited to see what these dudes turn into.”
It is a saying around the college football world that certain programs don’t rebuild, they reload.
Although no one is sure what these players will become, the foundation set for them in the 2013 season was strong.
OSU’s next generation is set to take its next shots at stardom Aug. 30 in Baltimore against Navy.