Freshmen Ready For Encore

Ohio State's class of 2013 has been heralded as a program-changing group. Could the 2014 class be even better?

The focus and determination of Ohio State’s 2014 class was evident before the 23 National Letters of Intent were faxed to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

It started with players like Raekwon McMillan, a four-star linebacker out of Georgia. McMillan, whose chose the Buckeyes over Alabama, was hosted by linebacker Curtis Grant on his visits. Grant, wary of the problems that can arise when dealing with teenagers accustomed to hearing how great they are, steeled himself for another weekend out on the town.

It never happened. McMillan revealed himself to be a quiet kid focused more on his future than the chance to party on a college campus. He preferred to stay inside, getting to know Grant and his teammates while playing the occasional video game.

“Partying wasn’t really a big thing for me because I couldn’t go out very much back home,” McMillan told BSB. “When I came here to visit, I just wanted to come up here and relax and get to know everybody.”

That was a priority for a class that included players from Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Florida, Georgia and Texas. Defensive end Jalyn Holmes, a four-star prospect out of Virginia, set up a group text where the entire class could communicate prior to their arrival in Columbus. The group also bonded at events like Nike’s The Opening camp, which was stocked with commits from the group that called itself “Dream 14.”

The expectations were laid out upon their arrival. The group included just one five-star, linebacker Sam Hubbard, but the class was dripping with talent. The Buckeyes managed to haul in 10 players in the Scout 100, tied with Alabama for the top total of any team in the country. Although the Buckeyes finished ranked fifth in the country, Meyer said on National Signing Day that he thought this group was justifiably one of the nation’s best.

“I hear people say (recruiting rankings) are not important. I disagree,” he said. “I think it's very as long as you're keeping score we're going to try to win. I'm disappointed we weren't the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. Our staff knows we're disappointed about that.

“There is a correlation between how teams do where your team is ranked, recruiting class is ranked. But certainly that's not the final product because you've got to coach and develop them and get them here. So actually we do pay attention to that. It's not saying we take a kid who is a five-star over a three-star, if we believe in the three-star. That's not it at all. But I'll start watching it at the end of the recruiting class.”

The 2014 class arrived with a special dose of pressure. The group one year ahead of them showed up to Columbus as the No. 1-ranked class in the country, but only five players saw meaningful playing time as true freshmen. The inability of those players to see the field right away created a massive set of redshirt freshmen and essentially failed to create separation between most members of the 2013 and 2014 class.

When Meyer stood behind the podium and spoke about the 2014 class, he said he didn’t want to see that group go the way of their predecessors. Guys like McMillan would be counted on to contribute right away, he said.

And if you ask safety Vonn Bell, one of the aforementioned five players in the 2013 class who either started a game or scored points, the OSU coaching staff made it a priority to follow up on that vow with the 2014 group.

“The coaches regretted not being able to play us enough, getting us ready, getting us experience, and the coaches didn’t want that to happen again,” he said. “That’s why some of these guys played as much as they did. Experience matters the most, I promise you. Those game reps, you can take them to the bank with you.”

The 2013 class blossomed as true sophomores and redshirt freshmen, with guys like running back Ezekiel Elliott and defensive end Joey Bosa continuing their good play and others like cornerback Eli Apple, linebacker Darron Lee and quarterback J.T. Barrett stepping into the spotlight for the first time.

While the rise of that group has been heavily documented, a lesser-made observation is this: the 2014 class received more playing time and had more success as true freshmen than their heralded, year-older peers.

McMillan split time at middle linebacker with Curtis Grant, showing off his playmaking ability from the start. Running back Curtis Samuel scored six touchdowns, twice as many as Elliott and Dontre Wilson did as true freshmen. Safety Erick Smith joined McMillan in making an interception. Kicker Sean Nuernberger started from the day he arrived.

Left tackle Jamarco Jones saw playing time as a backup, more than a token gesture with Barrett still in the game. Holmes gave the defensive line a sturdy rotation option, and guys like cornerback Damon Webb, linebacker Dante Booker and receiver Noah Brown also contributed in reserve roles and on special teams. Receiver Johnnie Dixon played but will receive a medical redshirt after knee problems ended his season early.

“We came in and didn’t really know what to expect,” Jones said. “Some of us got to play this season and got some experience, so next year after going through the offseason we’ll be bigger, faster and stronger. After another year of coaching, we should be pretty good.”

“Between the 2013 class and 2014 class, what we can do is going to be unreal,” true freshman quarterback Stephen Collier said. “This team hasn’t peaked at all. If you look at the depth chart, there’s so many young players on it. It’s definitely encouraging to see what the 2013 class has done, but I’m really excited for what we’re about to do.”

Director of player personnel Mark Pantoni, the architect of these recruiting classes, noted that the 2014 class had the benefit of learning from the players ahead of them. That example should help the freshmen make a leap during their second year in Columbus.

“They’re also grinders like the ’13 class, which is really cool to see,” Pantoni said. “The other thing is that they’re seeing the ’13 kids playing this year and they’re learning from them. They’re seeing what it takes to be successful going into next year.”

On top of that, the members of the most recent class to arrive at Ohio State collected three rings in their first season, winning a conference championship in addition to the Sugar Bowl and CFP National Championship.

“From day one, all they’ve known how to do is win games,” Pantoni said.

All signs point to that continuing in the future.

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