Coming off a 2-10 campaign, it was a given that new players would take the field for the Beavers this season, especially on defense — as they turned in arguably the most dismal defensive season in program history last year.
Not surprisingly, Gary Andersen and Co. made that side of the ball a priority during the 2016 recruiting cycle. Of the 27 commitments they received, 18 of them were defensive players. Of course, that number now is skewed because of non-qualifiers and position changes, but you get the point.
Of the recruits who made it to campus, it seemed (at least to my orange-colored tunnel vision) Kenny Turnier, Phillip Napoleon, Shemar Smith, Wesley Payne, Paisa Savea, Andrzej Hughes-Murray, and Christian Wallace could be Day 1 starters, or at the very least, in the mix for playing time right away.
Well, Turnier was moved to TE during fall camp to help with depth issues. Christian Wallace was tripped up by the NCAA Clearinghouse and now is a likely redshirt candidate due to getting a late start.
But the rest of the bunch wasted no time getting on the field, and recently, some have seen their redshirts lifted and have stepped up big for the Beavers.
Napoleon and Savea, both JUCO transfers have played the most, in 8 and 9 games respectively, while Napoleon has six starts and Savea one start. Together, they’ve combined for 31 tackles, two quarterback hurries, and a sack — while playing defensive tackle.
Surprisingly, Payne hasn’t made much of an impact after recording video game numbers at the JUCO level at linebacker. Though he has played in all nine games, he has recorded a lone tackle, a far cry from the 149 tackles and 6 sacks he recorded last season for Pima Community College.
As far as true freshmen go, Hughes-Murray has come on strong recently for the Beavers. While he has played in just three games, two have been starts, including last week against Stanford. In that game he recovered a fumble and had crucial 4-yard tackle for loss of Stanford QB Keller Chryst. On the season, Hughes-Murray has recorded 12 tackles and blocked a kick.
Other freshmen who have stepped up include Joah Robinett who has played in two games, both of which were starts, before injury sidelined him, and Shemiah Unutoa-Whitson, who has one start. Robinett recorded all five of his tackles against California. Unutoa-Whitson also has five tackles this season, and narrowly missed sacking Chryst two times last weekend.
During the past several games, it seems like a different freshman has stepped up — and those performances have provided hope for next season and beyond, especially as the Beavers continue to flounder offensively. To that point, here’s hoping that a newcomer steps up on offense and finishes the season strong. Hmm, maybe Trevon Bradford?
It’s never ideal when injuries force players onto the field, but there’s a silver lining for the Beavers. As the program battles through its rebuild, newcomers must be able to step up, not only to help the Beavers’ improve their talent level, but to push older players to get better.
One of Ohio State coach Urban Meyer’s recruiting philosophies goes something like this: That if you don’t start as a freshman, the staff will recruit someone to replace. Not that it always happens, but you get the logic. Guess who is under the Meyer coaching tree… Andersen.
In the case of OSU, at some positions, don’t be surprised if younger players supplant older ones, sooner rather than later. For example, the Beavers are set to return three of their starting linebackers next season, but if players such as Hughes-Murray and Robinett continue to perform strongly, well, fall camp will be a battle.
Seeing upperclassmen lose their starting spots is never fun, but it’s necessary as teams strive to constantly improve. At this point, it appears as if the OSU defense is way ahead of the offense in terms of improvement and growth, so may the best man win — because despite being shaky against the run, the defense seems like it could be good very soon.
Adding to the excitement and intrigue is what kind of impact Christian Wallace will make next season? Can the former 4-star step in and fill the void that will be left by Treston Decoud? Who knows what Isaac Garcia’s fate is, but if he can make it to OSU, could he be the pass rusher on the edge the Beavers so desperately need? Or what if Craig Evans commits to OSU? He’s a Stephen Paea/Kyle Peko type who could help transform the defense even faster.
So, the question remains, which youngster steps up next this season for the Beavers?