Reloading is going to be more challenging than usual this time for Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who is accustomed to losing much of his talent to the NFL each year.
Seven fifth-year seniors who were key contributors this season are departing, including quarterback J.T. Barrett — a four-year starter who holds nearly every Ohio State passing and scoring record — and defensive end Tyquan Lewis, the 2016 Big Ten defensive player of the year.
Another handful of this season’s best players could leave early to enter the 2018 NFL draft in the next few weeks, including All-American cornerback and likely first-rounder Denzel Ward , defensive end Sam Hubbard and linebacker Jerome Baker.
Meyer said it’s going to be especially tough to replace this departing group.
“These fifth-year guys are not just fantastic players, they are the nuts and bolts of this program,” he said. “They own this program.”
Before fully focusing on filling the holes, Meyer has to worry about motivating his troops to beat No. 8 USC in the Cotton Bowl Dec. 29, a consolation prize after the No. 5 Buckeyes just missed out on the fourth national playoff spot.
The game is big to the Buckeyes who are playing — or may be playing — in their last college game.
“After this game, I’m hoping I can celebrate in Dallas,” said Baker, who was third on the team in tackles this season but still didn’t meet expectations. “But I don’t worry about (possibly going to the draft). It comes with the sport. You make decisions, but right now I’m worried about beating USC. You always played USC in the video games, and to play them in real life is kind of cool.”
Four of the team’s top receivers also are draft eligible and could go early — K.J. Hill, Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon.
Barrett’s departure clears the way for an intriguing quarterback derby as this year’s backup, Dwayne Haskins , battles Joe Burrow, who was supplanted as the No. 2 signal-caller when he broke his hand before the season. Tate Martell, a dual-threat QB who was redshirted this season, also will be in the mix.
Barrett , a fifth-year senior who doesn’t have a lot of interest among NFL teams, was nonchalant about playing in his last college game in his home state of Texas.
“I am not sad or excited or anything. I have been here a while, guys. People joke around and say I have played college football for seven years. I think that’s a little extreme,” he said. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be at a place like Ohio State.”
All-American center Billy Price will be gone next year, as will starting tight end Marcus Baugh, a valuable target for Barrett the past two seasons.
Ohio State’s defensive line will be gutted even if all the NFL-eligible players stay put. The depth this season, particularly at defensive end, allowed a rotation without a drop-off in talent. Defensive ends Lewis and Jalyn Holmes are seniors, as are defensive tackles Tracy Sprinkle and Michael Hill. Tackle Dre’Mont Jones is an NFL prospect and could leave, too, along with Hubbard.
The bright side of that situation will be more snaps for second-team All-American defensive end and rising junior Nick Bosa . His brother Joey was a first-team All-American at Ohio State and now leads the Los Angeles Chargers in sacks.
“I’m not even close to where I could be,” Nick Bosa said. “I watched film on Joey, I watched his freshman, sophomore, junior film and the biggest jump he made was the year from sophomore to junior year. His stats weren’t the same, obviously, because he was getting triple-teamed and everybody knew who he was, but the jump he made as a player is why he’s doing what he’s doing right now.”
Bosa also will be expected to be a team leader.
“This is a very healthy program right now,” Meyer said. “There are some very good young leaders coming up the ranks.”