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College Football Preview 2015-2016: 1. Ohio State Buckeyes

Ezekiel Elliott
1. Ohio State Buckeyes

2014-2015 Record: 14-1 (8-0 Big Ten)
Coach: Urban Meyer, fourth year (38-3 overall)
Recruiting Rundown
Key Losses: WR Devin Smith, LB Curtis Grant
Heisman Hopeful: RB Ezekiel Elliott
Breakout Player: HB/WR Braxton Miller

A September loss to Virginia Tech seemed to indicate something rather odd in Columbus; the Buckeyes were going to suffer through a long year. Braxton Miller, the two time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year had just been lost for the year at quarterback, and his replacement, J.T. Barrett was having some growing pains. The Buckeyes were dominated by a Virginia Tech team that would finish off with six wins. Though, after that, something changed. Barrett ended up growing up quick, and would throw for 2,834 yards and 34 touchdowns before a broken leg kicked him out late in the year. Though by that time, Ohio State had ended the regular season nearly flawless (except for that VT loss) and clinched the Big Ten East. But, third-stringer Cardale Jones' inexperience and flaws would sink the Buckeyes? Wrong, as the Buckeyes won the final three games of the year, a 59-0 beatdown of Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, a seminfinal win over Alabama and a great performance in the 2014-2015 College Football Playoff Championship. Now, Ohio State isn't a good team struggling with injuries; they are a stacked roster up and down, and one hungry to a win a second straight national title.

Backfield: The Buckeyes truly went through unreal adversity at the quarterback position a season ago. Just to recap; they lost their two-year Heisman candidate just days before the season and were forced to go with redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett. Barrett ended up setting records and leading OSU to an 11-1 mark before breaking his leg and being done for the year. Then, the Buckeyes turned to their third-stringer, Cardale Jones, who would lead them to wins in their three biggest games of the year and clinched the team an unlikely National Title. All that adversity not only made for a great story, but also gave Ohio State plenty of options at the position entering 2015. Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Jones all return to Columbus, all three back despite an offseason full of transfer and draft rumors. Though, Miller, just a few weeks ago, made a decision to move to H-Back, where he will play a hybrid receiver/running back role. It will certainly be an interesting transition, but Miller's speed and explosiveness are off the charts, and the move will prepare him for a life in the pros, as he had a very slim shot of making it to the NFL as a quarterback. That leaves Barrett and Jones competing for the quarterback job. The competition is amazing; the winner will lead the heavy favorite to win it all and will likely be a Heisman frontrunner. Jones took all the first team snaps in the spring but that was because Barrett was still recovering from his leg, which is now fully healed. There is a strong chance that Urban Meyer could use both, at least to begin the year, but one has to eventually win out. My guess? Likely Jones; the junior was for the most part fantastic against three very strong defenses in the biggest games and the Buckeyes should stick with him if they want to keep the momentum going. While the quarterback quandary is certainly fascinating, attention should also be given to the talent at running back. It begins with junior Ezekiel Elliott, who came in for the very productive Carlos Hyde and produced to be better, with 1,878 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. Elliott was even better in bigger games and in their final three he ran for a combined 696 yards and eight scores while averaging over nine yards per carry. And, in wasn't like he was playing against low level defenses, as Alabama, Oregon and Wisconsin all have strong rushing defenses. Entering 2015, the versatile Elliott may enter the season as the nation's top running back. He has the size and power needed, mixed in with impressive speed and shiftiness. While the quarterbacks will take some attention away, people should still take notice of Elliott and if he has strong showings against Virginia Tech in the opener, and both Michigan schools down the stretch, he has a very good shot at the Heisman. To make matters even scarier, sophomore Curtis Samuel returns behind "Zeke". Samuel had 383 yards and six touchdowns last season in a backup role, and the explosive weapon should still a much larger role.

Receivers: While much of the Buckeyes' roster entering 2015 is stacked with returning talent, if there is one position group too be worried about, it is the receivers. Devin Smith took his home run ability off to the NFL, while Evan Spencer and tight end Jeff Heuerman are also gone. To make matters worse, receiver Corey Smith, and H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson all earned suspensions for the opener against Virginia Tech. While there is some worry at the position for the time being, there isn't any denying the talent that is still there. Junior Michael Thomas quietly put together a tremendous 2014-2015, with 54 receptions, 799 yards and nine touchdowns and will now take over as Ohio State's top target. At 6'3", 210 pounds, Thomas uses his impressive size to haul in tough passes and to get into favorable position against smaller defensive backs. Thomas was just yet another Buckeye who performed best when the team need it most, in that crazy three game stretch to end the year. He isn't the deep threat that Smith proved to be, but there is no denying how important he is to the Buckeyes' offense. Joining Thomas will be Corey Smith, a solid if rather underwhelming weapon in the passing game. Speedy redshirt freshman Johnnie Dixon will join Smith and Thomas as a playmaker for the Jones/Barrett combo to work with. Dixon has all the speed and explosiveness to score every time that he touches the ball but considering his youth he has to work on drops and route running. Sophomore James Clark is another dynamic weapon that should see a major increase in usage entering 2015. The H-back position, which Meyer uses as a hybrid/receiver playmaker will be filled to the brim with talent this year. Not only are Marshall and Wilson back, but the addition of Braxton Miller only adds more versatility to the Buckeyes' offense. Marshall proved to be one of the Buckeyes' top offensive weapons a year ago, doing it all. He had 145 rushing yards and 499 receiving yards and flourished in the open space. He can literally do it all; he is a good ball carrier with great vision, and also possesses incredibly soft hands. Big things were expected of Wilson entering last season but he missed most of it with a foot injury. There is no denying how great of a player Wilson is on the field; his speed, quickness and acceleration are all incredibly impressive. But, he could still be rusty and will have to be worked on to the field slowly entering the year. Big things should be expected of Miller as he makes his transition to a brand new role. He has all the talent in the world and he will plenty of opportunities early with injuries and suspensions to prove himself. The tight end position did take a major hit when Heuerman graduated. Despite not being the most electric gamechanger, Heuerman was good in traffic, especially in the red zone. Senior Nick Vannett is widely considered the top prospect to replace him. He doesn't have the experience, but his size and strength enable him to also work wonders in traffic.

Offensive Line: Midway through 2014-2015, the Ohio State offensive line looked almost lost. What was considered a strength entering the year, the unit just didn't have the confidence or experience to be very effective. But, then something changed. And, Ohio State's offensive line morphed into a group of beasts, helping path the way towards major successes. Now, much of the O-Line returns, headed by All-American candidate Taylor Decker. Entering his senior season, Decker is just one of a number of Buckeyes turning the heads of pro scouts. How couldn't you notice Decker? He is 6'8", 315 pounds and possesses excellent footwork and mobility. He is already an established pass blocker and should only grow in his final year in Columbus. Up the middle, the Buckeyes will rely heavily on the services of center Jacoby Boren. Also entering his senior year, Boren has all the physical tools of an absolute stud on the line. He has had some ups-and-downs in what has been a long and full career in Columbus but his talent has never been in question. Whoever starts at quarterback will have the luxury of an experienced center who they are comfortable with in Boren. Junior Pat Elflein is a solid contributor to the offensive line as well. Elflien is slated to take over at the right guard spot and although he isn't the most dominant linemen, he has experience and a great feel for the position. He is a superb run blocker who will open up valleys for Elliott, Samuel and more to burst through. Rounding out the Ohio State offensive line will be sophomore Billy Price and senior Chase Farris at right tackle. Price will have to fight off fellow sophomore Evan Lisle for the starting gig, but he has the advantage in experience and played much better in spring practice and fall camp. Farris is another pretty experienced player, but who is still technically not a returning starter. Though, Farris has great upside and is already an established physical beast at right tackle. Redshirt freshman Jamarco Jones could give Farris a run for his money at the position, or provide valuable help to Decker at left tackle. Matt Burrell Jr. and Isaiah Prince are two names you could be hearing from right away in Columbus. Both hailing from the 2015 Class, both offer different areas of expertise. Burrell is a four-star guard with a hard-nosed approach to the game. Coming on over from Virginia, Burrell could certainly find a niche early on as a reserve at guard. Price is a solid, four-star prospect also hailing from the East Coast, as he comes west from Maryland. Already super large, Prince will continue to put on weight and become an even more imposing presence at the tackle position.

Defensive Line: There is no shortage of talent or hype for a number of playmaking defenders entering the year. Names like Scooby Wright, Jalen Ramsey, Vernon Hargreaves and more are widely considered big names in not only the college football world but as names to watch in the 2016 NFL Draft. Though, there may not be a more hyped of pass rusher in college football right now then junior Joey Bosa. Entering his third year removed from being a big time defensive line recruit, Bosa has clearly established himself not just as a great pass rusher, but as one of the top defenders in the sport, period. He had 13.5 sacks along with 21.5 tackles for loss last year, showing complete reckless abandon and a fearless mindset. Scouts love his wide, powerful build and his versatility, as he was immediately a defensive tackle prospect early in his OSU career before transforming into a beast at defensive end. He will enter 2015 as a surefire All-American, and perhaps even as a Heisman long shot. Though, he isn't the only beast returning to the defensive line; enter senior Adolphus Washington. Entering his senior year, Washington has also proven himself to one of the best at his position. Washington isn't absolutely massive but he is incredibly strong and he knows how to get to gaps and plug them. His partner in crime up the middle though, bulky Michael Bennett is gone. The experienced and proven Bennett was the leader of the unit and his 14 tackles for loss and seven sacks in 2014-2015 will be missed. The top candidate to replace Bennett has to be senior Tommy Schutt, who isn't the athlete that Washington may be, but has some notable strengths. He is just as strong as Bennett though not as big or imposing. He should put together a great season, himself but Bennett's production, especially at the tackle position, will be nearly impossible to replicate. Sophomore Michael Hill is a rising name on the Ohio State roster and he could certainly claim a role on the OSU defense. At defensive end, the Buckeyes also suffered a tough loss opposite of Bosa. Underrated Steve Miller, who had a huge pick six late in the Sugar Bowl to shrink Alabama is now departed, along with his own 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. He wasn't overwhelmingly productive, but he has a great vocal leader who the Buckeyes will definitely miss. Sophomore Jayln Holmes and redshirt freshman Sam Hubbard are just two of the names fighting to replace Miller on the defensive line. Being slightly more experienced and with crazy potential, Holmes probably has quite an advantage over Hubbard at the moment. Jashon Cornell is a big name in the 2015 Class that could shine himself early in his Buckeyes career. From Minnesota power Cretin Derham-hall, Cornell has a tantalizing mix of size and explosiveness.

Linebackers: Ohio State has proven themselves as power in college football, only reinvigorated by Meyer. They are stacked at so many positions, so it is hard to pick out particular strength from the team. But, if I had to, I would pick the linebacker corps as the unit with the most talent, experience and upside. It begins with the two sophomore outside linebackers: Darron Lee and Raekwon McMillan. The pair of them are nearly unstoppable at their respective roles off the edge. Lee was putting together a wonderful year before his performance in the Sugar Bowl and Championship game really started to put people on notice. A fearless linebacker with plenty of athleticism, Lee's 80 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks were no fluke. McMillan was a prized recruit for Meyer entering last season and he lived up to all the hype and more. Another linebacker with fantastic athleticism with excellent range, McMillan had 54 tackles and seven tackles for loss a year ago. Those numbers aren't absolutely insane, but the way he was playing at the end of the year should convince you that McMillan is on the brink of superstardom, entering just his sophomore season. Joining those two as starters in the 4-3 defense is going to be senior Joshua Perry. Not exactly the flashiest player on the roster, Perry doesn't get a ton of credit. But, there should be no denying just how important he is to this defense. He led the team in tackles a year ago, recording 124 of them with three sacks mixed in. He doesn't have the greatest closing speed, but he makes up for it with great instincts and positioning. He should help lead a unit that at least makes up the best starting linebacker unit in the Big Ten, let alone the nation as a whole. There is experience and talent beyond them as well, starting with names like Camren Williams, a senior who has waited for his time to shine, along with sophomore Chris Worley, another outside linebacker ready to step up into the big time. There is also talent ready to produce from the get-go in the recruiting class. Outside linebacker Justin Hilliard earned himself the top OLB prospect in the nation by ESPN and also received a five-star billing from 247 Sports. Fellow impact linebacker Jerome Baker is a dynamic weapon that could also produce, as a four-star pickup coming over from Cleveland.

Vonn bell
Secondary: Much like a number of other units on the Ohio State team in early 2014-2015, the Buckeyes' secondary had major questions. It was an extremely young unit that had looked pretty overmatched early in the year. But, like so many other units on the OSU roster, the defensive backfield found itself and transformed into a strength. Though, it does loses shutdown cornerback Doran Grant, who managed 63 tackles and an impressive five interceptions and it could have some troubles replacing him. But, there isn't any denying that the secondary is at the very least solid, led by some big name talent. Sophomore Eli Apple is going to take over for Grant as the Buckeyes' top cover corner. Apple doesn't have the physicality, strength or toughness of Grant, but he does possess incredible athleticism, the same familiar ball hawking mentality as Grant and plenty of potential. Another plus for Apple and the secondary in general is that the team doesn't face an overwhelming amount of pass-happy teams, outside of spread offenses like Northern Illinois and Indiana. The big question has to be at the other cornerback spot, where sophomores Damon Webb, Gareon Conley and redshirt freshman Marshon Lattimore are all competing for the gig. All three of them have plenty of talent and upside, but they will need some adjustment time. Lattimore may be the most talented of the trio but he is still very raw coming off his redshirt year and Big Ten football is not an easy adjustment. The two safety spots are in great hands, led by juniors Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell. Bell was second on the Buckeyes in tackles last year, ranking only behind Perry with 91 of them total. Bell is an incredibly quick player with the versatility that enables him to make key tackles in run support, pushing him to that 91 total. Powell is a superb strong safety, blessed with excellent size, at 6'3", 210 pounds, and power. Powell had 76 tackles a year ago, but also showed a knack for the highlight reel play, with four interceptions and plenty of huge hits. Junior Cam Burrows is a productive weapon that could be used at either safety role and brings valuable depth to the unit as a whole.

Special Teams: Special teams will not be a weakness for Ohio State either entering 2015, as the Buckeyes return both Sean Nuernberger and Cameron Johnston. Nuernberger is slated to handle kicking duties again, while Johnston is the punter. Names like Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson and more are sure to make the Buckeyes' return game deadly.

The end to the Buckeyes' 2014-2015 season was pretty magical, almost straight out of a Hollywood film. Though, now comes the hard part: following it up. The thing is, there is certainly enough talent, experience and playmakers to be much better this season. It starts with the backfield: no matter who starts at quarterback will have Zeke Elliott to hand the ball off to, along with other explosive weapons like Marshall, Miller and Samuel. Then you continue through the talent in the trenches, the front seven and the speed and upside in the secondary. This team is stacked, and it would take some miracles not for them to at finish in the Playoff conversation. A Michigan State-Michigan ending to the year is pretty tricky, but it isn't enough to stop the Buckeyes. This team doesn't just want to make the Playoff; they want to win it all, and they have the talent to do just that. It is a National Title or bust season for sure in Columbus, and my bet is that Meyer will claim his second straight title with the Buckeyes.

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