Few words can describe how most of the Ohio State Buckeyes football team felt following a 31-0 blowout loss to Clemson in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl — devastation, anger and shock are a few of them. Although players were seen in tears following the game, with many offering short responses during post-game interviews, there are more than a few reasons for the Scarlet and Gray to remain upbeat heading into the new year.
With departures of star players like Curtis Samuel and Malik Hooker, Urban Meyer will be looking for a group of young players to fill big shoes. That fact, mixed with incredibly high expectations following the team’s second appearance in the College Football Playoff in three years, could yield some interesting results by this time next season.
Even with a multitude of questions looming over the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, there are more than a few things to expect as the 2016 NCAA football season comes to a close with Clemson and Alabama fighting for a title while the Buckeyes watch from home.
Who’s the next man up at safety?
Malik Hooker, Mr. Do-It-All for OSU on defense last season, rose to fame in his first and only year starting for the Buckeyes, picking off seven passes and returning three for touchdowns. His ability to level ball carriers like a linebacker and run effortlessly across the field to break up a pass like a corner boggles the mind.
That much is known, but who fills his shoes next season is a bit of a mystery.
Soon to be senior safety Damon Webb seems like the obvious fit for the spot, barring any shocking announcement to enter the 2017 NFL Draft. He started alongside Hooker as the second safety for the Buckeyes, and returned his first career interception for a touchdown.
Still, Webb was worlds behind Hooker skill-set wise, and it showed at times when he struggled to locate his man in coverage. He might have been a starter last year, but there will be a severe drop in production after this year’s showstopping performance by Hooker.
The other options at safety, rising sophomore Jordan Fuller and incoming freshman Isaiah Pryor, have virtually zero cumulative time playing in the OSU defense. Fuller has been predominantly a special-teams player in his short time in Columbus, while Pryor comes in from powerhouse high school program IMG Academy.
Either one could be cracking the starting lineup if they have a good offseason camp, but only time will tell.
McCall’s expanded role
As a freshman running back who saw limited time early in the season, Demario McCall is arguably the fastest player on the offense for the Buckeyes. In his brief stints in the backfield against teams like Bowling Green and Maryland, McCall churned out 270 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, and even hauled in a receiving score.
That kind of versatility screams H-back, the very position Curtis Samuel flourished in this year.
McCall even appeared as a punt returner, briefly, albeit just three showings. His combination of speed and agility could prove useful if Meyer puts him back deep for returns.
This year, when asked whether McCall could see more touches after a stellar cleanup effort against Nebraska, Meyer responded: “He might now.”
Whether it’s at H-back, spread out wide, sharing carries with Mike Weber or returning kicks and punts, expect to see number 30 on the field often in 2017.
Big offensive changes ahead for Ohio State
Tim Beck has moved on to Texas, Ryan Day will be coaching the quarterbacks, and Kevin Wilson might very well be the next man picking plays alongside Ed Warinner next year. That is, of course, as long as Warinner survives the offensive overhaul OSU is undergoing right now.
Add these changes to the fact that Samuel and wide receiver Noah Brown are leaving early for the draft, and OSU’s field general Pat Elflein is gone, and you have the makings of a complete overhaul.
J.T. Barrett came under fire this year on multiple occasions, as fans are still hungering for a repeat performance from his freshman campaign. Even though he holds the all-time touchdowns responsible for record at OSU, Barrett still has a lot to prove in his final year of eligibility.
Predictions of a quarterback battle before the dust has even settled seem ludicrous, but Dwayne Haskins and Joe Burrow have shown promise. Burrow has done an admirable job in cleanup, and even has a 169.9 rating.
Haskins came in as a four-star recruit, and the 63rd overall player in the 2016 class in ESPN’s top 300.
And this doesn’t account for the fact Tate Martell graduated early and committed to OSU in June of last year. The Las Vegas native is the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback in the nation, and is carrying some big hype behind him.
Even though Barrett has veteran leadership and experience, things might get a little dicier as kickoff for the 2017 season approaches. Expect some serious talk about a possible different signal caller, although Barrett should get the nod.
“I’m going to take a hard look at some things when we get back,” Meyer said after the Fiesta Bowl. “Any time you struggle a little bit, you always take a hard look.”
This kind of statement from Meyer leaves nearly anything as a possibility heading into 2017.