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Ohio State’s instant impact freshmen in 2020

Which Buckeyes should see significant playing time in their first year in Columbus?

Ohio State freshman CB Ryan Watts
Steve Helwagen, 247Sports

Ohio State has a ton of pieces to replace from its stacked 2019 roster. Gone are the Chase Youngs, Jeff Okudahs and J.K Dobbins’ of the world, but in their place remains a team brimming with talent. Returning starters like Justin Fields, Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Shaun Wade are obviously going to play pivotal roles in 2020, but so too are some of the new faces on campus.

When you’re a football powerhouse like the Buckeyes, big personnel losses can be expected each and every year as guys declare for the NFL Draft. However, when you’ve put together a program as strong as Ryan Day’s, that exodus of talent can be replaced by a highly touted group of incoming freshman.

While you can’t really expect anyone to come in right away and fill the massive shoes left by players who have moved on to become early NFL Draft picks, there will certainly be room on this year’s depth chart for a few of the new guys to make an impact right from the get go. Ohio State’s 2020 class was ranked No. 5 in the nation, and contains a trio of five-star talents. Buckeye Nation should expect to see all three of these top recruits in action this season.

The highest-rated player of the group is five-star wide receiver Julian Fleming. The No. 3 player in the nation and No. 1 player at his position, the 6-foot-1, 199 pound receiver was one of 12 guys to enroll early in this class. Fleming comes to Columbus with a tremendous amount of hype, with 247Sports projecting him to be a future first round NFL Draft pick and comparing his style of play to that of superstar Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones.

Fleming is not the only five-star wideout in this cycle, however, as Jaxon Smith-Njigba also earned that coveted rating later on in his recruitment. At 6-foot, 196 pounds, Smith-Njigba was No. 5 WR in the nation and the No. 28 player in the class overall. Named the Texas 6A State Player of the Year, he joins Ohio State having compiled over 5,300 receiving yards and 82 touchdowns in his high school career.

Both Fleming and Smith-Njigba will definitely be among the many talented wideouts in rotation for the Buckeyes this season. With Olave on the outside and Wilson manning down the slot, it would not be at all surprising for either of the freshman pass-catchers to start at the other vacant spot on the outside opposite Olave. Fleming’s chances of starting seem pretty high, and at minimum he should see himself used in a similar fashion to Wilson’s first season in Columbus. Smith-Njigba is a bit more versatile, and could also see some time in the slot.

Sticking with the offense, another freshman primed to start in year one is offensive tackle Paris Johnson Jr. A consensus five-star prospect, Johnson was the No. 1 OT in the class and the No. 9 player overall in the 2020 cycle. As the top in-state player on the board, the 6-foot-6, 305 pound tackle joins the Buckeyes having already earned some hardware during his high school career — taking home the Anthony Munoz Lineman of the Year and All-American Bowl’s Man of the Year awards.

No matter who is the starter at right tackle for Ohio State this season, it will be a five-star talent on the field. The battle for one of two open starting positions along the offensive line will be between Johnson and Nicholas Petit-Frere, the latter having the added bonus of an extra year with the program under his belt. With spring practices cut short, we do not yet have a firm grasp over which of the two former top recruits will get the job come August. However, Johnson will be in the mix if not as the current favorite to be the Buckeyes’ right tackle this fall.

Even outside of the five-star guys, there are a handful of other freshman with a real chance at making an impact this upcoming season.

On offense, Gee Scott Jr., another talented wide receiver in a stacked class for Hartline’s position group, will without a doubt be in the rotation. The Washington native could have easily been a five-star in a less stacked class, as 247Sports rated him the No. 5 player at the position in 2019. The WR room is very crowded, but Scott’s skillset should have him near the top of the pecking order.

On defense, the side of the ball where Ohio State will be replacing a lot, a few different freshman DBs could enter the fold. Ryan Watts, a four-star prospect, could get some significant playing time depending on how much Kerry Coombs decides to rotate his corners. There are some intriguing guys in this class that could also pop in year one, with Lejond Cavazos, Lathan Ransom and Cameron Martinez all heavily in the mix as well with only one clear starting CB in Shaun Wade.

Without all of spring practice, it is tough to get a gauge on where certain players are at in regards to their individual position battles. However, regardless of who takes the field when the season gets under way, it’s clear the Buckeyes have enough talent on the roster top to bottom to compete for a national title in 2020.