CHICAGO — Replacing an Ezekiel Elliott, a Michael Thomas and a Taylor Decker on the offensive unit is not an easy task. It’s even more difficult when projected starting wide receivers redshirt sophomore Noah Brown and sixth-year Corey Smith are coming back from season ending injuries. Redshirt freshman running back Mike Weber and true freshman offensive lineman Michael Jordan will also be new additions to the starting lineup, coach Urban Meyer said at Big Ten Media Days on Tuesday. And that’s just scratching the surface of the young Buckeyes likely to be atop the depth chart.
But through all of that, Meyer reaffirmed his enthusiasm for this edition of the Scarlet and Gray.
“I can’t recall a time where you’re talking about a very, very talented group of players that have waited their turn and are a very talented group that got there in June,” he said. “My goal is to play every freshman. I know that doesn’t happen, but we want to play the freshmen as soon as we can.”
Ohio State’s unprecedented shipment of players to the NFL has given the Buckeye players the opportunity alluded to by Meyer. Where there is instability and questions surrounding the 16 new starters OSU will boast in 2016, Meyer took it upon himself before the spring game in April to announce his captains for the upcoming season. It was the first time he has done this before fall camp as OSU’s coach.
Redshirt junior J.T. Barrett, senior Pat Elflein and junior Raekwon McMillan were given those captain honors because Meyer believes success would not be possible without the influence of his core guys.
“I can’t imagine going into this without J.T. and without the other guy Pat Elflein,” Meyer said. “And Raekwon—they, all three have incredible leadership skills you want in the middle of your defense.”
Meyer added that the level of play is raised by those three on the field.
While the Buckeyes may have non-starters last season who had significant contributions, like junior Curtis Samuel and senior Dontre Wilson, there are plenty of players who will have to figure out their roles in fall camp. In fact, 44 of OSU’s scholarship players have yet to play in a game.
Barrett said that he’s comfortable around his receiving core this year, despite not having much of any in-game experience with them.
“I’m trying to help the young guys to understand how we play here at Ohio State and make sure they understand that we haven’t rebuilt in years,” Barrett said. “That isn’t going to change because they don’t have experience.”
A Heisman-like season from Barrett will be needed for the OSU offense to have success moving the ball against blue-collared Big Ten defenses and for the team to have a shot at the College Football Playoff. Elflein, redshirt junior Billy Price and the rest of the young offensive line have the duty to protect Barrett in the passing game and create holes for the litany of running backs expected to line up in the backfield.
Meyer mentioned Weber, Samuel, Wilson and a pair of freshman, Demario McCall and Antonio Williams as running backs who could be next to Barrett in 2016. He said that depth is a concern at the running back position. Elflein said it doesn’t matter who’s in the backfield, their job remains the same.
“The blocking scheme is what it is and the running backs have to adjust off of the block,” he said. “We’ll block up front and they’ll be fine.”
Elflein said that strength coach Mickey Marotti has paired Weber with him in nearly every summer workout. Barrett said the same. Under their watch, Weber has matured and is taking initiative when it comes to eating right and getting his body ready for the season.
Elflein and Barrett were viewed as on- and off-the-field leaders in 2015. McMillan is a bit new to the role.
The last two seasons, McMillan was molded by linebacker Curtis Grant in 2014, then he started alongside NFL linebackers Darron Lee and Joshua Perry in 2015. Perry was a team captain last season, and McMillan said that he’s trying to pass down the lessons he learned from Perry as a leader on the gridiron and away from football.
“Josh became a student of the game. He really brought me in to watch film with him, study a lot and just the preparation for the game,” McMillan said. “He taught me that the things you do on a daily basis, you can’t do by yourself.”
McMillan said that Perry would work with him on giving back to the community and becoming a better person as well.
“(I just) want to show them that I’m authentic and real. That outside of football I’m a real guy who cares about this program,” he said. “At the end of the day when I leave, I want the program to be better than when I got here.”
The Hinesville, Georgia, native made an immediate impact his freshman year in a second-string role at middle linebacker, but truly tapped into his potential in 2015 leading the team with 119 total tackles. He tallied four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, as well.
Now, as one of only three returning starters on the “Silver Bullets” defense with redshirt junior Tyquan Lewis and junior Gareon Conley, McMillan could be the next All-American Buckeye linebacker. His first task, however, of pursuing a Big Ten title with a young defense is a challenge that devotes full attention.
McMillan said that the talent is there, but the team needs to prove it. Barrett said the same for the offensive side of the ball.
“We try to get that experience through reps,” Barrett said. “I feel like, myself, I’m in a good place with some of the young receivers that we have. We’re just trying to keep on getting better.”