That turned out not to be the case as the answer for replacing Ryan Shazier and upgrading the position as a whole came from within. Senior Curtis Grant became a captain and finished with a bang in the middle, while junior Joshua Perry led the team in tackles and became one of the most dependable players on the team on the weak side. Then there was Darron Lee’s arrival as the walkout linebacker as the redshirt freshman went from little-known prospect to bona fide star, game-plan wrecker and backfield force.
Of the true freshman, only Raekwon McMillan – Scout’s No. 50 player in the class of 2014 – made a major impact, splitting time with Grant in the middle and eighth on the team with 54 tackles while showing a nose for the football.
Kyle Berger, Scout’s No. 67 player in the class, tore a knee ligament and missed the season. The only five-star member of the group, Sam Hubbard, had a cameo at tight end, moved to defensive end and redshirted, though Urban Meyer said repeatedly that he wished he could have gotten Hubbard into the rotation before it made more sense to save his year of eligibility.
Then there was No. 76, Dante Booker. The four-star prospect from Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary was named Ohio’s Mr. Football his senior season, becoming the first winner of that honor to attend Ohio State since Brandon Saine in 2007.
So there was plenty of hype for Booker and his mates, and Booker ended up in the middle of the spectrum as far as freshman year production. He battled injury, including a reported cut on his foot and a concussion, but still played in 11 games and made seven tackles while appearing mostly on special teams.
“I had kind of a crazy year … but I’ll bounce back,” Booker admitted. “Just keep working hard, keep my head down. That’s just how I am. Just do special teams, do what I can and hopefully I’ll be something more, but I’ll get there.”
While the Buckeyes didn’t need Booker to slide into the starting lineup, they were surely happy he got his feet wet and contributed for a national championship team.
On the other hand, Booker was also happy to be present for the championship run. It’s something he expected when he picked Ohio State to continue his career, but to see the team complete its season with 13 straight wins and the first-ever College Football Playoff run despite all the adversity that hit was memorable to Booker.
“When you’re actually doing it, it’s like, ‘Whoa,’ ” he said. “It’s been a heck of an experience. We’re definitely going to look back on this year 20 years later and think about how crazy it was and how fun it really was. It’s definitely been crazy. You expect to be in this position coming into Ohio State, but when you’re actually here, it’s like, wow. You just sit back and soak it all in sometimes.”
Booker could again be ticketed to be a backup as an outside linebacker with both Perry and Lee set to return, but he pointed to the junior starter as one of the key people who helped him during his freshman season.
“Perry was my big brother going into camp, so I would definitely say him and Curt helped me the most,” Booker said. “I learned a lot from those two. They set a great example. They set the bar really high for me, Raekwon and the guys.”
Booker saw what it took to win a national title in 2014, and he hopes to apply that knowledge as his role within the Ohio State program expands going forward.
“Just the grind,” he said when asked what he learned most. “That’s really understood in my head now is our culture – four to six seconds, A to B, it’s instilled in my head now. That’s what I think I learned the most is go hard, grind.”