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The 3 most important Ohio State Buckeyes for 2016

The offensive backfield will have a lot to say about whether Ohio State can compete this year

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NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Notre Dame vs Ohio State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When looking at the 2016 depth chart compared to the 2015 depth chart, there are noticeable holes and questions regarding inexperience, due to the mass exodus of NFL departures and graduation. Using key departures, spotlighting players at important positions, leadership qualities and players switching positions, we came up with the 10 most important players on the team. They may not be the most heralded players, or even the best players, but they will be vital to this team’s on-field success.

Here is the third and final installment (here is 10-7 and 6-4) of the most important players for the 2016 Ohio State Buckeyes:

3. Pat Elflein

Why? Elflein was immediately named captain for the 2016 season following the Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame and he was more than deserving of the accolade. The fifth-year senior is making a change to center after starting the prior two seasons at guard and has been rated as college football’s most NFL-ready interior offensive lineman. With the move to center, he now becomes the de-facto quarterback of the offensive line and will need to call out the Mike linebacker, recognize the defensive front and get the rest of the offensive line on the same page. The 6’3”, 300 lb offensive lineman is a road grader and has been one of the most consistent and dominant run blockers in college football over the past two seasons.

Elflein was an integral part of an offensive line that paved the way for the top-two yards per carry averages in school history with 6.8 yards per carry in 2013 and 5.7 yards per carry in 2014. Elflein and Billy Price are the only two returning starters and although Price was recently named a captain, Elflein is the leader and the most talented of the group.

2015 performance: Elflein started all 13 games and was named second-team All American by the Associated Press and He was also named first-team all Big Ten for the second straight year. The Buckeyes averaged 245.2 rushing yards per game; including 360 rushing yards at Virginia Tech and then 369 yards at Michigan.

Question marks: J.T. Barrett’s new center is about as rock-solid as a player can be. The only possible question mark would be his transition to a new position, but if anyone can make it a seamless transition, it would be the three-year starter.

Conclusion: For most spread teams, the offensive line is not as important because they are predicated on quick reads and quick throws that slow down opposing defensive lines. But at Ohio State, where they feature a pro-style, run-first spread offense, the offense lives and dies by the offensive line (remember 2014 Virginia Tech, anyone?). Although they only return two linemen, they will be tough and experienced at center with the return of Elflein, who checks in at No. 3 on the most important Buckeyes list.

2. Mike Weber

Why? Ever hear of Ezekiel Elliott? Our reigning “most important player” of last season was chosen by the Dallas Cowboys with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. The Buckeyes will look to redshirt freshman Mike Weber to replace Elliott’s 3,961 yards (6.7 yards per carry) and 44 total touchdowns. Pretty big shoes to fill, huh?

It would be unfair to Weber to expect him to replicate those numbers, but the power run game is the staple of Urban Meyer’s system, and from a measurable and skillset standpoint, Weber fits the bill. Standing at 5’10”, 210 lbs, Weber is a powerful bowling ball who might remind fans of Carlos Hyde (his nickname is actually ‘Baby Los’), due to his size and physical running style. With the departure of Bri’onte Dunn, it’s Weber’s backfield now and he’s going to be counted on to take the brunt of the load at halfback. Sure, Curtis Samuel will do everything out of the H-Back, running back and wide receiver positions, but Meyer likes a physical runner to wear down opposing defenses; which is exactly what Weber brings to the table.

2015 performance: First, Weber’s recruitment did not go as planned in 2013-2014, as he had formed a special bond with former RB coach Stan Drayton, who then left for the Chicago Bears soon after his commitment. Weber’s dissatisfaction with Ohio State also initiated Jim Harbaugh’s first subtweet directed at the Buckeyes. The last time Weber played a competitive season of football was in 2014, when he rushed for 2,268 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior, despite missing three games. His head coach at Cass Tech (MI.) thought very highly of his running back, calling him “the best back in the Detroit Public School League in the last 30 years.” The four-star recruit redshirted his freshman year at Ohio State, and he wasn’t too happy with it.

Question marks: There are two major questions: First, can Weber handle the heavy load of 210-220 carries? And can he handle the pressure that comes with being the starting running back at Ohio State?

Weber will be facing a barrage of tough defenses in 2016; which include Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan and possibly Iowa. He’s definitely built for it, but he hasn’t played in an actual game since high school and has never played against a gauntlet of physical defenses that he will play against in 2016.

In 2014, Elliott was named the starting running back after Carlos Hyde became the first 1,000 yard (RB) rusher in Urban Meyer’s coaching career. Elliott had some big shoes to fill. He started off that season extremely slow, rushing for only 44 yards (vs Navy), 32 yards (vs Virginia Tech) and 65 yards (vs Kent State) in his first three games as the starter. There was scrutiny from fans saying he could not replace Hyde, before he went on a tear for the rest of the season. He finished with 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns, en-route to a national title. If Weber struggles early, will he be able to handle the pressure from the rabid fan base and the media?

Time will tell.

Conclusion: A solid running game is what makes Urban Meyer’s offense work, and a successful running game is what makes Urban Meyer’s offense nearly unstoppable. If the offensive line can do its job, it’ll be up to Weber to make ‘Zeke-like plays on the second level. We know he has the talent and the measurables to do it, now it’s his time to establish a legacy for himself and become the next great Ohio State tailback.

1. J.T. Barrett

Why? Make no mistake about it, Barrett is the most important player of 2016, and it’s not very close. As we know, the Buckeyes lost a lot of skill guys. But there is no better way to negate the losses on the perimeter and in the backfield than a two-time captain and veteran at quarterback. When the offense is running on all cylinders, it begins with the power run game, which is then complimented with the play-action pass game. Barrett’s masterful reads as the decision maker in the read option will make life much easier for Elliott’s successor, which then gives confidence to the young offensive line. In order for the Buckeyes to succeed in 2016, J.T. Barrett needs to be the leader and the quarterback that he had shown he could be in 2014.

2015 performance: 2014 was a roller coaster ride for the native Texan. As we know, Barrett was named the emergency starter right before Week 1, then went on to become the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, before breaking his ankle. He entered the 2015 preseason neck-and-neck with Cardale Jones, who led the playoff run, but lost the battle to Jones right before Week 1. From there on out, it was a quarterback carousel and it was not pretty to watch. Barrett appeared in 11 games, but there was no consistency by the coaching staff. One would throw a pick and then get benched. The other would throw an incomplete pass and be tempted to look over his shoulder. Then one would get hot and then get switched out due to the other one being better at that certain down-and-distance. It was complete disaster.

Barrett went from a 34:10 TD:INT ratio as a freshman to a 11:4 TD:INT ratio as a sophomore. His completion percentage stayed roughly the same, but his passing yards per attempt dropped two full yards, from 9.0 to 6.7. One could argue that was due to his unwillingness to take shots downfield, to limit a mistake and a possible benching.

Question marks: As we just noted, Barrett’s confidence seemed shot as a passer in 2015. Can he get back to his 2014 form with the new and talented weapons on the perimeter and better playcalling? He no longer needs to look over his shoulder if he makes a mistake, which should allow him to play more freely and make fans forget about his 2015 season.

Conclusion: For most programs and especially one that has lost as much as the Buckeyes did, the defense will typically be ahead of the offense early in the season. That’s the primary reason why there are no defenders mentioned in the top three of this list. J.T. Barrett’s pristine decision making in both the run and pass game should allow this offense to click earlier than they should, and allow them to compete at a high level in Norman, Oklahoma. However, if he reverts back to his sporadic 2015 play, this team could go from a potential playoff team to a three-plus loss team.

There you have it. J.T. Barrett is the most important player of the 2016 Ohio State football team.