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College Football Preview 2016-2017: 8. Ohio State Buckeyes

J.T. Barrett
8. Ohio State Buckeyes

Conference: Big Ten (East)
Location: Columbus, Ohio
2015-2016 Record: 12-1 (7-1 Big Ten)
Bowl Result: Victory in Fiesta Bowl
Breakout Player: RB Mike Weber
Heisman Hopeful: QB J.T. Barrett
X-Factor: WR Noah Brown
Recruiting Rundown (via Rivals)

Entering 2015-2016, Ohio State was a trendy pick to repeat as National Champions, and for good reason. The Buckeyes returned three quarterbacks all that could compete for the Heisman, one of the nation's top running backs, and a defense stocked with talent and potential. A season-opening victory over Virginia Tech seemed to indicate OSU was once more on track to dominate the college football world. However, the Buckeyes slowed down from there. Their offense struggled to click and late in the year, a tough loss to Michigan State on a field goal knocked them from Big Ten title contention and Playoff contention. Ohio State recovered by blowing out arch-rival Michigan and winning the Fiesta Bowl, but to many, not winning the Big Ten or reaching the Playoff was slightly disappointing. Ohio State suffers severe losses as they enter this campaign, but Urban Meyer has helped this program reach new heights and a Big Ten title and National Championship are never too far out of reach.

Backfield: The Buckeyes entered last season with quite the quarterback quandary. Braxton Miller was the best quarterback in the Big Ten before a shoulder injury sidelined him for all of 2014. In his absence, J.T. Barrett came in and was terrific and even a Heisman candidate before a broken leg sidelined him late in '14. Cardale Jones was the third-stringer who came in and led OSU to three straight crazy wins in the Big Ten Championship, Sugar Bowl and National Championship. Miller, who medical redshirted in '14, moved to wide receiver prior to the season, making things easier. Meyer went with Cardale early but he struggled and the Buckeyes soon began flipping between Jones and Barrett, which really ruined their rhythm and flow. This season, Miller has graduated and Jones made the jump to the NFL, making it clear Barrett is the guy. Barrett threw for 992 yards and 11 touchdowns last season in a reduced role but has demonstrated on several occasions he has a huge arm that can make all the throws. If Barrett can recapture his 2014 form, he is a legit Heisman candidate, and OSU will be very tough to stop. Ohio State will certainly miss running back Ezekiel Elliott, who was one of a large group of Buckeye players that left a year early for the NFL. Elliott ran for 1,821 yards and 23 touchdowns last season, while averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Making matters worse at the running back spot is the loss of senior Bri'onte Dunn. Dunn has long been a player Ohio State fans see as a breakout candidate and he may have finally got the carries he needed to break out this season. However, he was dismissed from the team a week ago, leaving the position almost exclusively to redshirt freshman Mike Weber. Weber impressed in last year's fall camp but injuries forced him to take a redshirt a season ago. Weber has continued to back up the hype by feasting in the spring, with his hard-nosed running ability. Ohio State will look for some new pieces to break in at the H-back position, which Urban Meyer has always used as a hybrid receiver/running back. Junior Curtis Samuel ran for 132 yards last season, but does most of his damage as a pass-catcher, with 22 receptions in 2015. The Buckeyes will certainly be creative with how they get the explosive Samuel the ball this season. Senior Dontre Wilson does it all, making plays catching, running or on special teams. Unfortunately, injuries have restricted Wilson's play for the past couple seasons. He has one final chance to show what he can do with the Buckeyes, and he hopes to stay 100 percent. Sophomore Johnnie Dixon will also see action as a playmaker that can do some serious damage in space.

Receivers: The NFL Draft stripped Ohio State off a ton of important pieces to their roster, but there was no position group it hit harder than the receiver corps. Michael Thomas emerged as a reliable pass-catcher over the past couple seasons, including his 56 catch, 9 touchdown performance last year. Jalin Marshall added 477 yards and five scores in a hybrid role, and Braxton Miller showed he could make plays at the receiver spot, with 341 yards and three touchdowns. Those three will all depart along with former tight end Nick Vannett (19 catches, 162 yards), leaving OSU searching for some new weapons. The most likely player to step up in '16 is sophomore Noah Brown, who suffered a broken leg just days before last season. He had just one catch in his true freshman campaign, but his speed and explosiveness have the Buckeyes excited about what he can do. Former junior college transfer Corey Smith also has the talent to play a much larger role. He had five receptions for 62 yards but then was also struck by injuries, lost for the year due to a leg injury. If both those guys can stay healthy, they could form a pretty nice 1-2 punch with good size and speed. Behind them are plenty of less experienced pieces, but the upside is there. Sophomore Parris Campbell is an exciting playmaker that knows how to make defenders miss, while redshirt freshman Torrance Gibson was a pretty highly touted newcomer last season. Gibson, who has the versatility do plenty of things, could be especially dangerous because of his impressive size and athleticism (6'4", 210 pounds). Without the reliable Vannett at tight end (he was also a great blocker), Ohio State could turn to junior Marcus Baugh, who had just two catches in 2015. He does offer solid upside as a playmaker with more athleticism than Vannett. Senior Chase Hounshell could also see an increased role as a grad transfer from Notre Dame. Hounshell didn't make much of an impact with Notre Dame, but he did appear in 23 games over his time with the Irish and showed he could play big-time football. The Buckeyes' receivers may have been seriously hurt by the bright lights of the NFL, but that doesn't mean that talent doesn't exist. The unit was ravaged by injuries in '15, but with increased health could give Barrett plenty of help.

Offensive Line: When Ohio State players were declaring early for the pros left and right this offseason, the Buckeyes did receive one big name that wasn't going early. Senior linemen Pat Elflein opted to stay and play his final season with the Buckeyes giving them an anchor on the offensive line. That will be important because OSU did lose stud left tackle Taylor Decker, center Jacoby Boren and right tackle Chase Farris. Elflein can play either guard spot, but without Boren, Ohio State may ask the experienced blocker to move inside to center. Elflein earned Second-Team All-American honors for his performance last year, and could play an even larger role in the Buckeye offense this year. The other returning starter on the Buckeye offensive line will be junior Billy Price, who will join Elflein in the interior of the line. Price made 13 starts at left guard last season, and earned pretty high honors himself, earning Second-Team All-Big Ten honors. He very well could start at left guard or help out at right guard as well this season. The tackle positions are going to be the question marks, as Decker and Farris' presence will be sorely missed. Junior Jamarco Jones is a physical blocker that saw some action as a backup last year. He is the most likely starter at the left tackle spot. On the right side, sophomore Isaiah Prince is going to battle JUCO transfer Malcolm Pridgeon. Prince is a good blocker with size, but Pridgeon has dominated on some lower levels and brings his 6'8", 330 pound frame to the equation. The Buckeyes will also look for true freshman Michael Jordan to play a role in his first season in Columbus. Jordan is a four-star prospect from Michigan who can play guard and most likely will, with how thin Ohio State is at the position. Fellow newcomer Jack Wohlabaugh should also see some action in his first season with the team. Wohlabaugh is hard-nosed, gritty blocker who could be an ideal backup at center.

Defensive Line: Over the years Ohio State has produced some quality talent on their defensive line, which includes Joey Bosa. Bosa was dominant in his first two seasons with the Buckeyes, but his production slipped to five sacks last season as blockers focused nearly exclusively on him. Bosa made the expected jump to the pros, along with solid Adolphus Washington. Even so, the Buckeyes' D-Line has the chance to be improved. Junior Tyquan Lewis is the only returning starter and should lock down a defensive end spot, although he has the versatility to help out at a number of places. Lewis showed he could get after the quarterback last year, with eight sacks and six tackles for loss. He isn't a great athlete, but finds success through his power and strength. The Buckeyes are also looking for big things at the other end position, where sophomore Sam Hubbard likely is going to start. Hubbard showed what he could do in 2015, as the young end recorded 6.5 sacks and proved to be very disruptive. Hubbard is a great athlete that is extremely quick off the edge. He was very productive this past season despite being in a reserve role. As a starter, he could evolve into one of the Big Ten's best pass rushers. In the interior, Ohio State will miss Washington and also departed Tommy Schutt's run stopping abilities. Junior Michael Hill is a high potential player that possesses decent athleticism and could have a big year, while redshirt freshman Davon Hamilton has the talent to have a breakout season. Both could lock down starting gigs, but will face pressure from another junior, Tracy Sprinkle, who has solid experience. Although the Buckeyes will miss Joey, they will have a Bosa on their roster this season. Joey's younger brother, Nick, arrives with plenty of fanfare. The young defensive linemen can play either end or tackle, and could certainly find his way on to the field in 2016. There are plenty of people who have seen Nick that think he is even better than his former All-American brother. Fellow newcomers Malik Barrow and Jonathon Cooper will bring deth and upside. Barrow may have a chance to see plenty of action with the tackle position being pretty thin.

Raekwon McMillan
Linebackers: Much like so many other units on this football team, the linebacker corps is not devoid of losses. Joshua Perry and Darron Lee were two big-time contributors who produced some eye-popping numbers in their time with the Buckeyes. Perry had 105 tackles and four tackles for loss last season, while Lee used his impressive athleticism to record 66 tackles and 4.5 sacks. But, much like so many other units on this team, the talent returning is impressive and the young players ready to step up could be even better in the long run. The only returning starter is junior Raekwon McMillan, who may be one of the best defenders in the Big Ten, if not the entire nation. McMillan showed his impressive talent early, as he split starting time as a true freshman in 2014, and played terrific on OSU's title run. McMillan led Ohio State in tackles a season ago, recording 119 as the middle linebacker showcased wonderful range and an incredibly high motor. McMillan could be even better this season, as he grew even stronger this offseason and with less experience around him, his numbers could grow. Junior Chris Worley is going to join McMillan in a starting role. Worley is a decent run stopper that could also assist in coverage. He doesn't have the upside of other players in this unit or team, but he has shown he can produce. Also joining them will be another junior, in Dante Booker, who will start at an outside linebacker spot. Booker had 22 tackles last season as a backup and showed he could help in a variety of ways. Booker and Worley may not quite have the talent of Perry/Lee but paired with McMillan it could still be a very good starting group. Redshirt freshman Jared Drake and true freshman Tuf Borland and Keandre Jones will provide valuable depth. Drake is a playmaker at middle linebacker that will help aid McMillan, while Jones is a special pickup from Maryland who is rated by some scouting services as a five-star guy.

Secondary: Gone from the defensive backfield is Eli Apple, Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell, all who helped the team in different ways. Apple was inconsistent at times but made up for it with his athleticism and ball skills. Bell earned All-American honors after picking up 65 tackles and nine pass deflections. Powell had 71 tackles and three interceptions himself. That should push some new names to the forefront. One name that isn't new, however, is junior cornerback Gareon Conley, who will become the Buckeyes' top coverage option with Apple departed. Conley recorded 49 tackles and two interceptions last season and while he may not have the pure talent of Apple, he may end up being more consistent. If he plays well, he very well could be the 30th Ohio State defensive back selected in the NFL Draft since 1997. The cornerback spot opposite of Conley is the question. Sophomore Marshon Lattimore has the potential to be very, very good but is still very young. Sophomore Denzel Ward will also compete for snaps at corner. Junior Cam Burrows is a possible breakout candidate at one of the safety slots. Burrows hasn't seen enough action over the past few years to really make much of an impact but he has shown very brief flashes. Burrows has good size and speed, and should be able to produce this year. Also helping out at the depleted safety position is sophomore Malik Hooker, junior Erick Smith and redshirt freshman Damon Arnette. Hooker is the most important returnee of the group, as the safety picked up 10 tackles last season and showed he could make an impact.

Special Teams: Kicker and punter are in good hands in Columbus. Junior Sean Nuernberger is going to lock down kicking duties after knocking down 3 of 4 while splitting time at the position. Punter should fall to senior Cameron Johnston, who averaged 43.9 yards per punt in '15. The return game should also be strong, even without punt returner Jalin Marshall, as Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson should do big things.

It is a testament to the Ohio State program and Urban Meyer that they lose so much and still appear very much in the Big Ten and National Title race. The receiver corps, offensive line and secondary all will have some growing pains, but if they stay healthy, they could actually improve in some areas, and the backfield is stocked with loads of talent. The season may very well hinge on what Barrett can do at quarterback. When he is playing well, Ohio State is right there with the best teams in the nation, but when he isn't, they obviously struggle. A resurgent Barrett would be huge for the Buckeyes, as would strong performances against Oklahoma non-conference and against both Michigan schools to end the year. The Big Ten East will be brutal this season, but even so, Ohio State has the talent to win it and gain their second Playoff appearance.

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