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.
If you did not happen to see the first two installments, check here for numbers 10 through six and here for numbers five through three.
2. Darron Lee
Why? In a defense that is stacked with NFL talent such as Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington, Joshua Perry, Vonn Bell and others, Darron Lee is the Swiss-Army knife that lets Chris Ash and Luke Fickell be creative. Lee is constantly around the football making plays against the run and the past. He plays the SAM linebacker position which is aligned to the field side. He is put in space on the wide side of the field and against a spread offense, he is typically lined up in the slot in their base 4-3 over defense. When re-watching the Oregon game, Lee dominated the smaller, quicker Ducks with his blend of athleticism and size. He was the perfect chess piece for Ash and Fickell to deploy against the high-octane offense. In my opinion, Lee made the best individual defensive effort of the season when he blew up the Oregon tight end in the slot before tackling the runner in the backfield for a loss. It exemplified the type of play he makes, that no other SAM linebacker can in the country.
2014 performance: After redshirting in 2013, Lee grabbed the coaches attention in spring practice and won the outside linebacker position on the other side of Joshua Perry. He wasted little time in his first collegiate game against Navy, as he scored the first touchdown of the 2014 season for the Buckeyes on a scoop-and-score and added seven tackles. He finished third on the team in total tackles with 81 and second on the team with 16.5 tackles-for-loss and 7.5 sacks. He dominated the College Football Playoff by securing Defensive MVP honors in the Sugar Bowl and he was unblockable versus Oregon, recording eight tackles. He was awarded for his efforts by being named freshman All-American by numerous publications.
Question marks: The New Albany, OH product has limited question marks at this level. He has the perfect combination of size and speed to play the SAM role in the Ohio State defense. With only one total season under his belt, the sky is the limit for the linebacker.
Conclusion: Lee is the defense's biggest playmaker, on a defense that is full of them. He can make plays in the backfield against the run game, he is a very smart blitzer and he can cover tight ends and slot players in pass coverage. Lee is Ash's ultimate weapon and he is the perfect SAM linebacker to complete this defense. Make no mistake about it, he is the most valuable and irreplaceable player on the defensive side of the ball for the 2015 Ohio State Buckeyes.
1. Ezekiel Elliott
Why? Ezekiel Elliott is the most important player on the best team in the country. When an Urban Meyer offense is running on all cylinders, it starts with the power running game. Just like Lee, Elliott has transformed himself into an athletic monster. He possesses elite attributes that will make him an eventual first round pick in the NFL Draft and the most complete running back in the country. He does run behind one of the best offensive lines in the country, but his vision, size, and athleticism make the difference between him and other backs at Ohio State. If Elliott were to go down, the offense would still play at a good level, but with the St. Louis product in the backfield, combined with the other stars, the offense is multi-dimensional and almost impossible to contain.
2014 performance: Elliott saved his three best games of 2014 for the biggest stage. After recording 1,182 yards and 10 touchdowns during the regular season, the St. Louis native gashed Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon. Elliott was named the offensive player of the game for the Sugar Bowl and the College Football Playoff title game. He broke numerous school and college football records in those final three games and almost broke the single-season rushing total held by Eddie George (1,878 yards to 1,927 yards).
Question marks: For someone who was as solid and spectacular as Elliott was in 2014, he has a couple of question marks. First is the health of his wrist, which plagued him all last season. Once it strengthens to where it needs to be, he will be even more dangerous, as he will add a stiff-arm to his arsenal and he will be able to switch the ball to his outside arm. His second question mark will be the lack of trusted depth behind him. There is plenty of talent but Elliott will be the bell-cow of this offense. His physical running style could wear him down by seasons end. The final question mark will depend on the winner of the quarterback battle. With Barrett under center, Elliott failed to rush for 100 yards in six out of Barrett's 11 games (not counting Michigan.) Jones forced safeties to respect his arm strength, which opened up the box for Elliott. Elliott responded with three straight games of 200-plus yards. Overall, Elliott benefits with Jones under center.
Conclusion: When the 2014 Ohio State offense was at its best, Elliott was unstoppable. When the offense was not clicking as well as it should have, (versus Navy, Virginia Tech and Minnesota) Elliott did not rush for over 100 yards. And in the games in which Elliott dominated, we all know the results. When Elliott was running wild and setting the tone physically, the offense did whatever they wanted, against whoever they went up against. Like the majority of the other players on this list, Elliott has talented, yet inexperienced back-ups who would not be able to carry the load at this time. Ezekiel Elliott is the most important player on the 2015 Buckeyes.