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Gone from last year’s roster was his partner in crime from the backfield, Carlos Hyde. Gone was his top receiver, Philly Brown, and the absence of four starting offensive linemen from the year before wasn’t exactly encouraging, either.
On the other side of the ball, there were other question marks. Two first-round draft picks were gone in Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby, and while there was confidence in a new scheme installed by Chris Ash, there was still plenty of unknowns.
In college football, young teams often struggle on a week to week basis, and it was fair to wonder if that was going to happen to the Buckeyes, too. There simply wasn’t much experience in key places, and the total number of question marks made the College Football Playoff seem like a potential goal but certainly not a given.
Of course, Ohio State fans all know what happened next. Miller was injured Aug. 18, redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett took over and was arguably even more effective, and even his late-season injury couldn’t keep OSU out of the final four.
It was a surprising season given how much seemed lost when the two-time defending Big Ten MVP went down in mid-August, but Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer was worried about the Buckeyes even before his star pupil’s shoulder gave out.
“When Braxton was our quarterback I was still worried,” Meyer said. “Four new offensive lineman, brand new tailback. I didn’t know. Those issues on defense.”
Or as Meyer put it when ESPN interviewed him after OSU’s playoff bid came down – “if would have told me back in August, I'd have said not yet – maybe next year, but not this year because we're just so young.”
It was a fair point considering how veteran teams don’t even necessarily live up to expectations. And the pitfalls of the past two years – a 12-0 mark in 2012 but one that took a lot of work, and last year’s Big Ten title game loss after another unbeaten regular season – showed just how hard it is to make it to the top in college football.
But that youth has been served this year as Ohio State has put together a 12-1 record capped by the Big Ten Championship Game romp over Wisconsin. It was shown in the fact that five Buckeyes – first-team choices Barrett, Darron Lee, Raekwon McMillan and Eli Apple and second-team choice Billy Price – were named Scout.com Freshman All-Americans. The other three College Football Playoff teams have six combined.
That list doesn’t even include redshirt freshman “H” Jalin Marshall, who has eight touchdowns, and speedy Curtis Samuel, a true freshman running back with six scores. In all, freshmen scored 30 touchdowns this year for the Buckeyes, while Barrett was responsible for 34 more with his arm. It's all the combined impact of a 2013 recruiting class that was named Scout's best in the nation as well as a 2014 effort that finished fifth.
Looking even deeper, the two-deep used for the Wisconsin game included six underclassmen starting on offense, five starting underclassmen on defense, two underclassmen starting at the specialist spots and 15 freshmen listed at the backup spots. The dominance of the Big Ten promised under Meyer, who already has a 24-0 mark in conference play, could just be beginning.
So yes, the future is very bright at Ohio State, and Meyer admits that looking back he liked the talent on hand.
“I liked the young players,” he said. “I thought once they grew up – those two young safeties, three actually with Cam Burrows, you throw Erick Smith in there, when those kids grow up I think they’ll be outstanding safeties. They just grew up rather quickly.”
It’s the same throughout the roster, and after a season of significant downs and even bigger ups, the young Buckeyes showed what they could do culminating in the dominating performance in Indianapolis under first-time starter Cardale Jones.
“It’s probably what you saw,” Meyer said. “I didn’t think Darron Lee would perform like an All-Big Ten outside linebacker; he’s not quite there but darn close. To see the development of Eli Apple, I thought he was a very average player; he’s not an average player (now), he’s a pretty good player. Two sophomore safeties that never started before.
“J.T. Barrett, I thought he’d be OK. I’m hoping he gets that he gets that phone call to go to New York, I think he should. And then are you kidding me? If you said, if you nudged me in August and said, ‘By the way, that tall kid from Glenville? He’s going to lead your team to the Big Ten championship,’ of course not.
“It is a long journey. When did it start? I started seeing it, but I didn’t believe it completely until the experience that we had on Saturday night.”
The future is never guaranteed in college football. But it looks very promising at Ohio State – just like the present.