When looking at the 2015 version of the Ohio State Buckeyes, it is tough to find glaring holes at any position. Using key departures, spotlighting players at important positions, leadership qualities and players switching positions, I came up with the ten most important players on this team. They may not be the most heralded players, but they will be vital to this team's on-field success.
This is the first of two installments, so be sure to check back for the five most important players.
10. Marcus Baugh
Why? Some may question why a backup tight end cracks this list but in 2014, Nick Vannett did not allow the production from the tight end position to dip when Jeff Heuerman was hampered by a foot injury in the final two games of the season. Vannett was on the field for 111 out of a possible 168 plays in the College Football Playoff and he led all tight ends with 19 receptions in 2014. Urban Meyer likes to use two-tight end sets and the tight end is a key blocker in the Buckeye power run game. Even when Heuerman was healthy in 2013, Vannett was getting ample playing time and that only gave him more experience for 2014 and 2015. This is Baugh's chance to secure the No. 2 spot this year, become a factor both as a blocker and receiver, before taking the reigns as the starter in 2016.
2014 performance: Baugh played sparingly, catching one pass for two yards and a touchdown. Based on the backup tight end's performance in 2013 and 2014, Baugh has a chance to shine in 2015.
Question marks: Baugh has had off field concerns in each of his first two seasons, including a two-game suspension for his second underage drinking mishap. The Riverside, CA native currently has two strikes and if he missteps once more, his time in Columbus will most likely be over.
Conclusion: The 6'5, 250-pound tight end was a composite four-star and the number four ranked tight end in the 2013 class. He is known to have great hands and good speed to go along with his NFL-type frame. If Baugh puts his past behind him and puts it all together on the field, he will challenge Vannett for playing time and he could be a big weapon in the red zone for the Buckeye offense.
9. Noah Brown
Why? Most receivers want to get "theirs" but at Ohio State, "Zone 6" locks down the secondary in the run game more than any other receiving group in the country. With the departure of Evan Spencer, who took out multiple Alabama linebackers en-route to Ezekiel Elliott's Sugar Bowl-clinching touchdown, the Buckeyes could take a step back in the physicality department. But this is where the 6'2, 222-pound sophomore should be inserted. Noah Brown has the body to be the main physical presence on the outside and he could be a better overall receiver than Spencer.
2014 performance: Brown played 43 snaps in the final three games which shows that he staff started to trust him more as the season went on. He only recorded one catch for nine yards in the 11 games where he saw action.
Question marks: Brown's important snaps in the three biggest games of the season will prepare him for a workload that should compare to Spencer's 2013 and 2014 seasons. Spencer was known as the Buckeye's best perimeter blocker in his final two seasons and he also added 37 receptions during that time. The question is, will the sophomore put in the every-down effort as a blocker, like Spencer did as an upperclassmen?
Conclusion: Brown saw the field as a true freshman in the three most important games of the season. The coaching staff trusted him on the field in key situations against two top three teams. Brown has been working extensively at wide receiver in the off-season and he should play a big part in the passing game and most importantly, as a blocker.
8. Raekwon McMillan
Why? From day one, McMillan was nipping at the heels of senior Curtis Grant and may have been more talented as a true freshman. He possesses unlimited potential and has the attributes to be an excellent three-down linebacker. He has sideline-to-sideline quickness, hits like a truck, can drop back into coverage and excels as a blitzer. McMillan is the complete package and he will only get better as he gets more experience. Flash forward to 2015, McMillan will be asked to anchor the middle linebacker position between two highly talented outside linebackers in Darron Lee and Joshua Perry. He will solidify arguably the nation's most talented linebacker corps.
2014 performance: He enrolled at Ohio State early in the spring of 2013 and it showed in his freshman season. The 2013 Butkus Award winner, as the top linebacker in high school football, saw time immediately and ended up playing more snaps at linebacker than senior Curtis Grant, while playing in only nine games on defense. McMillan finished with 54 total tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks and an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
Question marks: Like most first-time starters, durability and experience are a bit of a natural concern for McMillan, due to his age and inexperience as a starter. Although McMillan will be taking over Grant's middle linebacker spot, he will not have to be the unquestioned leader of the linebacker corps with the experienced Joshua Perry alongside him.
Conclusion: McMillan was one of Meyer's most heralded recruits at Ohio State and he did not disappoint as a true freshman. McMillan's defensive snaps will double but he has all of the tools to become one of the best linebackers in the country. Look for the Georgia native to take the reigns at middle linebacker and evolve into a team leader in 2015.
7. Eli Apple
Why? The former five-star recruit will be looked at as Ohio State's boundary and shutdown corner in 2015. With the departure of the consistent Doran Grant, Apple will slide over to the boundary position. The boundary position is tougher than the field position in Ohio State's defense. He will be looked at to play more man-to-man coverage with less safety help. Ohio State typically rolls coverage to the field side, which will give more help to the corner on the opposite side of the field. Apple will also have to be more of a force player in the run game when the ball is ran to the boundary.
2014 performance: After redshirting in 2013 during his first year at Ohio State, the New Jersey native won the starting cornerback position across from Doran Grant in 2014. Apple finished his redshirt freshman season with a team high 13 passes defended and three interceptions. He had one of the biggest plays versus Oregon, pushing a wide-open receiver out-of-bounds to cause an incomplete pass, that would have resulted in an easy touchdown.
Question marks: Apple was a solid performer on the field in his first season as a starter. He had a minor leg issue that kept him from starting the Michigan State game but fought through the pain and ended up playing after the first defensive series. The biggest question mark will be switching from field to the more physical position of boundary corner, taking over the important spot left by Grant.
Conclusion: With Ohio State's excellent safety play typically rolled to the field side, Apple will have less help in 2015. He proved he could play at a high level against the nation's best teams, by recording 12 total tackles in the two College Football Playoff games and by picking off Marcus Mariota's final collegiate pass. The 6'1, 200-pound cornerback has ample size to compete against the opponent's number one receiver and he should be a household name by the end of this season.
6. Taylor Decker
Why? The three year starter is the anchor of the offensive line and the leader of the "slobs." He was the only returning starter last season and he was key to the amazing turnaround in the trenches, following the Virginia Tech debacle. Although there is young talent behind Decker, he is the most consistent and irreplaceable member of the offensive line. He is a road grader in the dominant Ohio State run game and equally as impressive as a pass blocker. Decker is one of the team leaders and is a lock to be a team captain.
2014 performance: Decker has started in 29 straight games and has appeared in all 41 contests in the past three seasons. He started at left tackle last season and helped create holes for the Buckeye ball carriers who gained 3,967 yards on the ground. The mammoth lineman participated in 1,034 plays last season. He was named second-team all-Big Ten by the media and coaches.
Question marks: The 6'8, 315-pound tackle is about as rock-solid of a left tackle as a team can have in college football. His last truly poor performance came in his first career start in 2013, versus future first round pick Khalil Mack. As noted above, durability has never been a question mark with Decker.
Conclusion: Decker is the most dependable player on this list. He has been a main-stay at both tackle positions for three seasons and has been named a 2015 pre-season All-American by numerous publications. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will be kept up-right and will have the utmost confidence with their back-side protection. Decker is a likely top 15 pick in next year's NFL Draft and he could be the first of many Buckeyes selected.
Check back soon for the five most important Buckeyes for 2015.