Inspired by a thread on our Ask the Insiders board, I've decided to take a look at the five players I believe to be most likely to make an impact this fall for the Buckeyes. I'll note that the lone Scout.com five-star of the group, Cincinnati Moeller linebacker Sam Hubbard, would be a member of this list had he not recently tweeted out that he has been switched to tight end. With Jeff Heuerman, Nick Vannett and Marcus Baugh presumably ahead of him on the depth chart at tight end, that position already has more talent than available touches in 2014. I also believe Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) Dwyer four-star wide receiver Johnnie Dixon will have one of the five best careers in this class… just not one of the five most impactful seasons in 2014.
5. Sean Nuernberger
I'll preface this by saying Nuernberger is the most likely member of Dream 14 to start the first game of the season (and hold down his job throughout the season). He faces no scholarship competition, and despite what Meyer has said about it being an open competition, he outperformed Kyle Clinton in the spring game and has a bigger leg.
With that being said… he's a kicker in Ohio State's offense. Drew Basil attempted 21 field goals in the two years he played under head coach Urban Meyer. Twenty-one! In two years! Of the 128 FBS kickers to convert a field goal in 2013, exactly 12 of them took fewer attempts than Basil, whose number was called 10 times in 14 games.
4. Erick Smith
The Cleveland Glenville product wasn't the most highly regarded Tarblooder for much of the recruiting cycle, but an impressive week in San Antonio at the U.S. Army All-American game vaulted him to rankings as the No. 4 safety in the country and No. 43 overall prospect. He showed off his potential June 14 at the North-South Classic, as well, by delivering some booming hits.
That talent is certainly a crucial step to earning early playing time, but Smith also benefits from the depth chart at defensive back. Of the 28 starting spots at safety last fall, the players who made 27 of those starts no longer have eligibility. That opens the door for a younger player to come into camp and either win a job or show he's capable of playing in nickel and dime coverages or stepping into a starting role should an injury occur. Given that Christian Bryant broke his ankle five games into the 2013 season and Bell lasted just one day of spring practice in 2014 before getting hurt, the latter possibility is not such a stretch.
3. Damon Webb
The second commit of the 2014 class is easily one of its most valuable members – and it came from an unexpected place. Hailing from the Michigan pipeline of Detroit Cass Tech, Webb chose the Buckeyes in January of 2013. He finished as the sixth-ranked cornerback and No. 43 prospect in the country and was a U.S. Army All-American.
Much like Smith, Webb will likely benefit from the depth chart at defensive back. Cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs is very high on Webb, having mentioned in April that he expects Webb to compete for serious playing time this fall. Coombs also noted that he expects most of the defensive backs to get on the field at some point with the nickel and dime combinations. Given his status as one of the best lockdown corners in his class, Webb could provide an instant boost to the Ohio State pass defense.
2. Raekwon McMillan
Should he be No. 1? There's certainly a compelling argument for that… but we'll get to why he's not in a second. The Hinesville (Ga.) Liberty County product showed this spring that while he may be a true freshman, he certainly doesn't play like one.
McMillan has a relatively easy path to the field, too. All he has to do is beat out one player for the starting job at middle linebacker. That person happens to be senior Curtis Grant, but it's not like he's been a model of consistency over the course of his career. In 2013, Grant recorded 52 tackles, well behind Ryan Shaizer's 143 and Joshua Perry's 64. With a head start on his career thanks to an early enrollment, McMillan will have a fighting chance in camp to take the top spot at middle linebacker. Even if Grant starts against Navy, don't count out McMillan. Bell was unquestionably one of the five biggest true freshman contributors last season despite only starting the Orange Bowl.
1. Curtis Samuel
I was fully prepared to make McMillan No. 1 on this list, if not for the fact that I anointed Samuel as my pick to make the biggest impact in a BSB story back on Signing Day Eve. Here's what I wrote back then: "I'm going to go out on a limb here and say four-star Curtis Samuel, who is an early enrollee and was listed as a hybrid running back/wide receiver on his capsule released by OSU. He's got a 40-plus inch vertical jump and recruiting analysts I've talked to who covered him in high school believe he's underrated despite being listed as the No. 9 receiver in the country. Throw in OSU's problems at receiver last year, and he could be in line for some early production."
Obviously, not all of that applies now as it appears Samuel will be headed for the backfield and not receiver. At the same time, after spring I'm a little more confident that it may be easier for him to get carries out of the backfield than receptions out wide.
Meyer has gushed on him at every possible opportunity. After the spring game, for example, Meyer noted that, "The guy that really, really excites me is No. 4, Curtis Samuel. We just have to figure out if he has the size and strength to take the pounding running backs take." As my editor Jeff Svoboda reported, Meyer also mentioned at the Buckeye Boosters golf outing on July 16 that, "(Samuel) will do things that will make Buckeye Nation remember him."
That's about as good an endorsement as it gets and certainly enough to make me stick with my February prediction.