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Ohio State’s best hopes to replace its departing NFL talent

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With the Buckeyes’ mass exodus for the NFL, there are some big shoes to fill for new contributors.

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

When I was 16, I got my first job: a summer gig at a barbecue restaurant that paid me too much for what I actually contributed to the organization. I worked there for the next few summers, putting at least as much effort into cutting off the sleeves of my t-shirt as I did into pulling pork and running coleslaw to the servers. It was perfect, really, a long stretch of halcyon days that I thought would last forever. And then one day real life beckoned, and it was over. Poof.

Ohio State football has felt a lot like that in recent years. In the seasons when the program was supposed to be rebuilding, the team was (mostly) more fun to watch than in those years when it was supposed to conquer the world. And now, somehow, another college football season is over, and another round of college football’s biggest talents are leaving Columbus for greener pastures unless you count the ones drafted by the Browns. Poof. Gone. The good news: there are plenty of absurdly talented guys to fill their shoes. Who’s in line for a breakout year in 2017?

Binjimen Victor, WR

It’s no secret that Ohio State’s passing game struggled mightily in 2016, especially when held up to earlier years. Blame who you will for that particular downturn. What’s certain is that the Buckeyes are still loaded at the position despite losing some of their best receiving threats, including Noah Brown and Curtis Samuel. The cream of the crop is Binjimen Victor, who saw just nine targets in his true freshman season. Despite how few looks he got, he still managed to parlay his playing time into a touchdown and a 16.0 yards/catch average.

At 6’4, 185 lbs., Victor will make for a matchup nightmare for any defensive back in the Big Ten. He also showed he can take a lick while holding onto the ball, as he managed against Clemson. Victor outshone his fellow freshmen Austin Mack and Alex Stump this year; look for him to do the same to the rest of the conference in 2017.

Demario McCall, RB (for now)

Another true freshman in 2016, McCall showed speed, reliability, and field vision in his limited snaps backing up 1,000-yard rusher Mike Weber. The bad news for McCall is that Weber’s hold on the first RB spot is ironclad after a tremendously successful first year as a starter. The good news? Do-it-all H-Back Curtis Samuel is gone for the NFL, leaving the Buckeyes with a hole at a position that’s of paramount importance in Urban Meyer’s offense.

McCall has shown glimpses of the skill set needed to succeed as an H-Back for Ohio State. In six games, he found the end zone three times and averaged 5.5 yards/carry. He also reeled in four of five passing targets, good for 21 yards a pop. (Literally—these were largely “pop” passes, which every college football commentator is really mad about not counting as runs. It’ll be hard to replicate Samuel’s output at H-Back, especially if he’s reluctant to change roles, but he could do a fraction of what Samuel did and still have a wildly successful year.

Damon Arnette, CB

Ohio State’s lockdown pass defense is losing just about every major contributor to the NFL, with Gareon Conley, Marshon Lattimore, and Malik Hooker all leaving school to cash in on their tremendous 2016 seasons.

That leaves plenty of room for Arnette to step up and become the No. 1 corner for the Buckeyes. Arnette will be a redshirt sophomore next season, and the experience he gained during the Buckeyes’ playoff run—16 tackles, 1 interception—will be invaluable toward his development as the next lockdown guy in the secondary.

His game certainly has holes, and his transformation into the next Darrelle Revis is hardly a guarantee. But people pointed out the same flaws in Gareon Conley’s game before he took over the top job, and he turned into one of the best DBs in the conference. At 6’0, 195 lbs., Arnette’s a perfect Conley analog. If his ball skills get to Conley’s level, the Buckeyes will be in good shape next season.

Jordan Fuller, S

Speaking of the secondary, the Buckeyes still need to fill that gaping void where Malik Hooker used to play. Given the current options on the depth chart, rising sophomore Jordan Fuller looks like a good bet to take up the open job at safety. There’s a chance that Erick Smith—who will be in his senior season in 2017—could win the job; he was a highly-touted prospect whose battles with injuries have so far hindered what might otherwise have been a spectacular Ohio State career. But Fuller is younger and bigger than Smith, and that combo might prove appealing enough to earn him some immediate playing time.

Failing that, Fuller could still see the field plenty if Smith or Damon Webb struggle. (For all intents and purposes, the Buckeyes don’t designate between free and strong safeties.) Fuller made nine tackles in mop-up duty and on special teams this past year; even without a starting job, expect that number to skyrocket in 2017.