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College Football Preview 2019: 6. Ohio State Buckeyes

6. Ohio State Buckeyes

A new era in Ohio State football, but one that should begin with a solid debut season under Ryan Day

K.J. Hill
Offense: After serving as co-offensive coordinator and interim head coach last season, Ryan Day was promoted to head coach following the retirement of Urban Meyer. Even with the promotion, Day is still expected to call plays for the Buckeyes, which should mean an up-tempo offense that will spread the ball around.

Dwayne Haskins had a marvelous lone season as starter, tossing for 4,831 yards and 50 touchdowns, while single-handedly winning a number of games for Ohio State in 2018. His jump to the NFL was expected, and his likely replacement is no slouch. Justin Fields is the former No. 1 QB recruit in the country before playing sparingly this past season at Georgia. His arrival immediately sent Tate Martell packing to Miami and Matthew Baldwin to TCU, leaving him as the favorite. Fields doesn't have Haskins' arm but he is a little bit more mobile and can be used more creatively. It should be interesting to watch how Day breaks in his new quarterback, who has plenty of weapons to help ease the transition.

While the Buckeye rushing attack struggled with consistency all of last fall, junior J.K. Dobbins still proved to be a high quality player, managing 1,053 yards and ten scores. Yet, Dobbins didn't have as many big plays as the year prior, and sometimes struggled to really make an impact. The good news is Dobbins will no longer have to split carries with Mike Weber, who is now playing on Sundays. Fellow junior Demarcio McCall may still get some action as a reserve, but it is clear that this is Dobbins' backfield now in Columbus.

Despite the absence of leading receiver Parris Campbell, yet another Buckeye off to the NFL, the receivers group could be among the best in the Big Ten. It is headlined by K.J. Hill, who took off a season ago, with 70 receptions for 885 yards and six touchdowns. Hill has the size and speed of a true No. 1 target and he made plenty of flashy plays last year, which should carry into 2019. Another proven veteran, Austin Mack, had some issues with drops early on in the year but turned it on by the end of the season. The same can be said of sophomore Chris Olave, who seems like the most likely breakout candidate of the unit. Olave barely played for much of the season before exploding for two touchdowns in the rivalry victory over Michigan and then adding one more in the Big Ten Championship versus Northwestern. On the smaller side, Olave fits the mold more of Parris Campbell, an explosive weapon whose versatility can be used in a ton of different ways. OSU also feels good about tight end, where Rashod Berry and Luke Farrell are back. Neither are probably going to be All-Big Ten players, but they should find ways to make an impact.

The big challenge for this offense is going to be on the offensive line, where four starters depart. That includes book-end tackles Jamarco Jones and Isaiah Prince, who played a major role in keeping Haskins clean in '18. Junior Thayer Munford is the lone returning starter, and despite getting held out of the spring due to injury, he'll be huge for this unit. Don't be surprised if a number of newcomers get an opportunity to see snaps right away. Nicholas Petit-Frere took a redshirt last fall after coming in with plenty of fanfare and now could start at right tackle, while Rutgers transfer Jonah Jackson will open up holes at guard. At center, Harry Miller was a big get from SEC country and the true freshman has the tools to start.

Even with some notable losses gone, Ohio State's offense shouldn't drop too far away from the group that averaged 42.4 points per game (8th nationally) and 535.6 yards per game (second nationally). If Fields can really live up the hype and the O-Line gels quickly, there is no reason it can't be a Top 10 group once again.

Defense: While the offense carried the Buckeyes in 2018, the defense had one of their roughest seasons in recent memory. They allowed 403.4 YPG, which was 10th in the conference, while allowing big play after big play. The great news is that nine starters return to Columbus, including one of the most dominant defensive ends in the nation.

OSU recruits and develops defensive ends incredibly well (just look at the Bosa brothers) and Chase Young is the latest stud DE to come through town. Young really made a name for himself with a terrific showing in the close win over Penn State and got even better when Nick Bosa was out for the year, finishing with 9.5 sacks. He likely could have gone pro but wasn't eligible, which means he will get to terrorize opposing quarterbacks for at least one more season. Unfortunately for opponents, they won't be able to double team Young, as they'll also have to deal with veterans Jonathon Cooper and Robert Landers. Cooper is bound to retain his starting end, while Landers routinely disrupts run plays up the middle. Add in local prospect Zach Harrison, a 6'5", 243 absolute freak widely viewed as a five-star recruit, and talent certainly is not a question on this unit. Now, they'll have to prove they can put it all together and help improve a rush defense that allowed 4.5 yards per carry a year ago.

Even though the linebacker corps didn't have a great 2018, it is still reassuring that all three starters are returning. That includes junior middle linebacker Tuf Borland, senior outside 'backer Malik Harrison and junior strong-side LB Pete Werner. Borland has the chance to be an absolute tackling machine with his instincts and twitchy feel for the game. Yet, he injured his Achilles over the off-season and may not be 100 percent for the season opener against Florida Atlantic. Harrison is a mainstay who had 81 tackles and 8.5 TFL last fall, while Werner is still learning the ropes but has proven he can produce. The depth in this unit was hurt by the continued ill health of Justin Hilliard and the transfer of Keandre Jones, but Ohio State is hopeful Baron Browning can finally live up the hype that surrounded him when he arrived on campus. Browning was the No. 11 player in his class when he came to Columbus, but has struggled to see the field. He could be a valuable asset as a reserve behind Borland at MLB. 

Ohio State's secondary has regularly been stocked to the brim with NFL talent but this is another group that had some struggles last fall. The Buckeyes were 11th in the Big Ten in pass defense and were burned time after time in 2018, which leaves plenty of room for improvement. Luckily, three starters are back to this secondary, including the star, safety Jordan Fuller. Fuller could have gone pro but instead decided to continue honing his skills with the Buckeyes. He tied for the team lead in tackles last season, and will be high in that category once more. OSU must get better play from their cornerbacks and there is serious upside there. Senior Damon Arnette needs to step up as a leader, while Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade have to fulfill their vast potential. Okudah looked the part for much of last season but has to continue developing consistency. Add in the return of rock-solid free safety Isaiah Pryor and there should be no reason why this is not a notable strength for Ohio State in 2019.

While co-DC Alex Grinch leaving for Oklahoma means a talented defensive mind leaves the staff, the new defensive staff seems like it could be a better fit. Greg Mattison has loads of experience in the Big Ten, while Jeff Hafley has spent a ton of time in the NFL and will work wonders with this secondary. I firmly expect this defense to take some major steps in the right direction in 2019.

Special Teams: Junior punter Drue Chrisman has proven himself as one of the best in the business, booming 61 punts for an average of 43.2 yards last season. His return, as well as Blake Haubeil at kicker, means special teams should be a strength. Haubeil hit 10 of 13 on field goals in 2018, despite playing just eight games. 

Bottom Line: Even though Ohio State once again secured the Big Ten, a rough road loss to a Big Ten West foe doomed their Playoff hopes for the second straight season. The hope is that Day will come in and move the program away from some of the drama that swirled around during the latter half of the Urban Meyer era. That, along with improved play from all levels of their defense as well as a resurgence in the ground game, should make Ohio State a terrifying force in the conference. Yet, until we've seen Fields a full season and even more of Day, who is still an extremely unproven head man, I hesitate to pick the Buckeyes to win the conference. That doesn't even begin to mention a tricky schedule that includes some sneaky non-conference opponents as well as trips to Nebraska and Michigan. I firmly expect OSU to be hovering around Playoff contention come early December but to just miss the cut for a third consecutive campaign.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 11-1 (8-1 Big Ten)
Offensive MVP: RB J.K. Dobbins
Defensive MVP: DE Chase Young
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Chris Olave
Impact Freshman: DE Zach Harrison

Five-Year Trend
2014: 14-1 (8-0 Big Ten)
2015: 12-1 (7-1 Big Ten)
2016: 11-2 (8-1 Big Ten)
2017: 12-2 (8-1 Big Ten)
2018: 13-1 (8-1 Big Ten)

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