Ohio State currently sits fifth in the Scout.com team rankings, and the 23-member class features one five-star signee in linebacker Sam Hubbard as well as 16 four-stars. No program except Tennessee, which signed 32 recruits, inked more four-star players than OSU.
Looking like a kid on Christmas at times, the famously focused coach sprinkled in some laughs and jokes during his 25-minute press conference on Wednesday. He lightly noted that he would have been sporting a fake, forced smile at the podium if not for the news on Signing Day Eve that four-star offensive tackle Jamarco Jones would stick with his OSU commitment after visiting Michigan State over the weekend.
At times, though, he turned serious and flashed signs of the urgency that comes with the knowledge that the Buckeyes still have some work to do to reach the pinnacle of college football. After all, he stood at that same podium one year ago and proudly introduced the No. 1 class in the country – only to watch 15 of those 24 players redshirt, never setting foot on the field.
Meyer has often stated his distaste for redshirting, especially with high school players continually coming into college more physically prepared for the jump in levels. And yet it happened en masse last fall, despite the wishes of the OSU coaching staff. Using 2013 four-star cornerback Gareon Conley to make his example, Meyer argued that multiple factors were responsible. He chalked it up to a collective failure – one perpetrated by both the coaching staff and players.
"We wanted to (play them) last year," Meyer said. "Gareon Conley should have played last year. That's Gareon's fault, it's our fault and it's the position coach's fault."
With nearly two-thirds of the 2013 class still sitting on four years of eligibility, it's almost as though Ohio State will have two classes coming in this fall. That logjam hasn't slowed Meyer's resolve to correct what happened last year. For the 23 members of the "Dream 14" group, the expectation will be that they will come ready and able to contribute immediately.
While redshirt freshman and 2013 five-star linebacker Mike Mitchell will likely have something to say about it, look no further than the middle of the defense for the area in which the newest Buckeyes can provide an immediate impact. With injuries and inconsistency, OSU struggled at times in 2013 to field even one other competent linebacker to pair with All-American Ryan Shazier in a nickel package. Now that Shazier is gone to the NFL, it's open season on the linebacker position.
Enter the 2014 centerpiece – a collection that includes Sam Hubbard, Dante Booker, Kyle Berger and Raekwon McMillan. The lone 2014 five-star and trio of four-stars make up the No. 2-4 outside linebackers and No. 5 middle linebacker in the country.
"We signed 23 players. Emphasis is on linebacker," Meyer said. "There are some obvious strengths and weaknesses, but the linebacker position is one that we're going through an overhaul right now.
"That's far too many mistakes that have been made in either lack of development or whatever and it's just not where we need to be. So there's four linebackers that have been recruited – Raekwon McMillan, Sam Hubbard, Kyle Berger and Dante Booker. I'm putting pressure on them, Coach Fickell and myself to get ready for next year. They have to play for us, in addition to the players we have on our roster already. So just so everybody knows, there's no redshirt plans for those players at all."
The secondary will feature a new face in co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash, and it will also feature plenty of new faces on the field. Senior safety Christian Bryant was denied a final medical redshirt appeal, senior safety C.J. Barnett exhausted his eligibility and junior cornerback Bradley Roby entered the NFL Draft. Between there and special teams, the newly signed defensive specialists will have a chance to hit the ground running in their OSU careers.
"There's no redshirt for these players I'm getting ready to discuss," Meyer warned. "Damon Webb, I anticipate he'll be in the depth next year. And Marshon Lattimore from Glenville is going to be in the mix as well. And Erick Smith, he's a guy I'm really excited to get here. Played corner in the all-star game, but we plan on putting him at safety. And once again, immediately in the depth."
After a season in which it finished 110th in passing yards allowed, the Ohio State defense will be looking for all the help in can get in the secondary. The 2013 class included two five-stars at cornerback, rising sophomore Vonn Bell and redshirt freshman Eli Apple. They'll have to prove themselves when camp begins, as Ash and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs search for solutions.
"The competition I would tell you is wide open," Coombs said. "You've got to perform to play. And I think that the expectation on the part of every player on this football team is you gotta show up every day and you've got to perform in order to play in the fall. We're going to work really hard on finding those guys who can compete and who will challenge in tough situations. So whether they're incoming freshmen, whether obviously redshirt freshmen or experienced kids, they're going to have to play – and play well – to play in the fall."
Ash was asked if he felt pressure to get the true freshmen ready to play after Meyer told a room of 50 reporters that specific defensive players would definitely not redshirt in the 2014 season. The new co-defensive coordinator said that he didn't feel any additional pressure from Meyer but put that burden on himself.
With Meyer mentioning earlier that the coaches are just as much at fault for redshirt years as players, Ash gave some insight into what the OSU staff plans to do to correct that issue this season.
"The biggest hurdle typically is the mental hurdle," Ash said. "Learning the offensive and defensive schemes and the terminology and the reads and reactions. That's usually the biggest hurdle, but it's our job as coaches to develop a package that's simple enough for these guys to have an opportunity to use their ability and their skills to get out there and play. If they can be the best player, then it's our job to devise a system that allows them to be successful."
If there's any spot at which Ohio State appears certain to redshirt players, it's at quarterback and offensive line. Three-star quarterback Stephen Collier is an early enrollee, but he'll begin the year fourth on the depth chart behind senior Braxton Miller, sophomore Cardale Jones and redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett.
Although the offensive line lost four starters, it often takes at least one year for players to develop the size and skill necessary to play that position at a high level collegiately. In Jones and four-star offensive guard Demetrius Knox, Meyer has two players capable of cracking the depth chart this fall. Whether they develop enough to either win a spot in the lineup or fill in reserve duty during blowouts remains to be seen.
"Typically you don't put freshmen in there early, but these guys have got mature bodies, and they're fairly mature young men," Meyer said. "You have Marcelys Jones and Kyle Trout and Brady Taylor a guy from Columbus, impressive guy. Kind of a late comer, he's up to 295 pounds now and a wonderful family, tough guy. I love the guy. I'm really excited he might be a guy that gets in, sneaks in the depth fairly quickly as well."
The hope that the 2014 class will contribute more quickly than the 2013 group did hinges on a number of factors. Although some members of last year's class simply weren't as good as the upperclassmen at their position, injuries and other personal matters also played a role in those who redshirted. The newcomers will have to stay healthy and also beat out their more experienced counterparts.
One thing remains certain – in his quest to move along the new recruits, Meyer won't insert players simply to start their four-year clock. He refused to pull the redshirt off Mitchell last season in a game when the Buckeyes were without Joshua Perry and Curtis Grant, even on the off chance that Mitchell could help out the struggling unit.
Instead, Meyer seeks out players in the mold of defensive end Joey Bosa, who inserted himself into the lineup as a true freshman and made enough of an impact to take home freshman All-American honors.
"I don't want to have a young man come in and play 12 snaps and lose a year," Meyer said. "If we're going to play him, play him, but you have to get him ready to go. And the young man has to attack it as if to go get ready. Joey Bosa is a perfect example, came in on day one."
With a commitment to player development and another top-five class, Meyer is banking on the thought that Dream ‘14 will yield fewer cases like Gareon Conley – a guy Meyer said will eventually be "a fine player" but needed time to grow – and more recruits in the mold of Bosa, who carved out playing time after seizing an opportunity.
The ink may still be drying on their National Letters of Intent, but for 23 players, the clock is now ticking.