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Column: Opt-outs aren’t ideal for Rose Bowl, but are good for future of program

Yeah, it sucks to lose some of Ohio State’s best players for the Granddaddy of Them All, but their absences open the door to the future.

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Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Listen, I get it. After a disappointing year in which the Ohio State football team squandered opportunity after opportunity and after watching the third season out of four in which the Buckeye defense looked ill-prepared to compete on a level befitting the program’s pedigree, not having the full complement of talent take to the field in the final game of the season can be frustrating.

I too would love to see Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, Haskell Garrett, Nicholas Petit-Frere, and anyone else who might opt out between now and Saturday play in the 2022 Rose Bowl, but that’s not going to happen. And, yes, that very well could impact the outcome of the game against a very tough and motivated Utah team. If the Utes leave Pasadena with a win, that would give OSU their first three-loss season since the Luke Fickell-led interim campaign a decade ago (and we aren’t really counting that, are we?). Nobody wants that; not players, not coaches, not fans.

But, friends, as painful as that might be to those of us in Buckeye Nation who derive our entire personality and identity from the successes of the football team that we root for, but are in no way otherwise involved with, it will ultimately be okay. Not seeing CO2 become a hero in a marquee game for the Scarlet and Gray one last time will certainly suck, but the opportunities that now befall a handful of young, talented players thanks to these recent opt-outs will almost assuredly pay massive dividends both on and off the field for players, coaches, and even fans alike.

Like many Buckeye fans and commentators, I’ve been calling for a youth movement on this team since even before the season started (not that I would have wanted any of the players that have opted out to sit in favor of younger guys). So having the opportunity to see some of the electric talent from the dynamic 2020 and 2021 recruiting classes get an expanded opportunity to show what they are capable of on the grandest stage in all of college football will undoubtedly be exciting.

With Olave and Wilson now out of the picture at wide receiver, the incomparable Jaxon Smith-Njigba will be OSU’s WR1, but behind him will be a crew of unconscionably talented players itching to make their biggest impact to date. The No. 1 rated wide receiver recruit in the 2020 class Julian Fleming stepped in for Olave when he was out against Nebraska, so I’d expect him to be one of the first WRs into the starting mix on Saturday.

Then there is the 2021 No. 1 receiver prospect in Emeka Egbuka who has electrified as a kick returner this season. While both Fleming and Egbuka have had opportunities as second-team receivers this season, getting them in the game with the first team offense — and especially with C.J. Stroud at quarterback — will be a great indication as to what the passing offense could potentially look like next season.

Then, when you throw in the likes of 2021 top-100 receivers Marvin Harrison Jr. and Jayden Ballard, while the passing game will look markedly different on Saturday, in my opinion, there should be more optimism about the possibilities of who will be on the field rather than dread (or anger) over who will not be.

The same is true for the absence of Haskell Garrett on the defensive line. While I have long loved the tough, courageous tackle, OSU’s d-line has been underwhelming this season, and, for me, they’ve looked closest to what we expect an Ohio State front to be when they’ve featured the younger talents, perhaps most notably true-freshman tackle Tyleik Williams.

Now, I don’t know if he will be the next man up in Larry Johnson’s interior rotation on Saturday, he still has to contend with veterans Taron Vincent, Jerron Cage, Antwuan Jackson, and others, but if LJ has an eye on the future, he should be looking to get Williams as much time against Utah’s often dominant offensive line as possible.

In very limited action, especially in comparison to his DT elders, Williams is just a half sack and half tackle for loss behind Garrett for the team lead with 5.0 and 6.5 respectively. In my mind, there is little doubt that he is the future of the OSU interior line, and, as the saying goes, there’s no time like the present to kick things off. With Garrett now out of the Rose Bowl mix, Williams should at least be the first guy off the bench at tackle — and honestly, should have been all season. But, if Day wants to give his in-coming defensive coordinator Jim Knowles a gift, getting an entire game on film with true-freshmen Williams, Jack Sawyer, and J.T. Tuimoloau featured prominently on the line would be it. That is the future of Ohio State’s defensive front, and in an exhibition game against a proudly physical offense, that would serve as an incredible litmus test to see how they stack up at the end of their first full season of their college careers.

Then there’s the mess on the offensive line. As a former high school and college baseball and softball coach, my philosophy was always to get the best players in the lineup first and figure out where to play them second. So I understand the impulse for Day and offensive line coach Greg Studrawa to go with their “all-tackles” offensive line this year. However, it just didn’t work, especially in terms of run blocking.

While their numbers ended up being pretty good (third in the Big Ten in both sacks [17.0] and TFLs [47.0] allowed), their deficiencies in this Frankensteined line were obvious in the most crucial of circumstances. They struggled to generate push in short yardage situations and rarely were able to get to the second level to seal running lanes for the backs. This is a deficiency that should never happen at Ohio State, but especially when they have a back as potentially dominant as TreVeyon Henderson.

In my mind, the lack of consistent line play was the most glaring issue with the offense’s play in 2021. Now with NPF moving on, Stud has the opportunity to start shifting the pieces back to a more traditional configuration.

Despite being the No. 1 offensive tackle in the 2020 recruiting class, Paris Johnson Jr. has been playing right guard this season, while NPF has been at left tackle. Now, I would expect that Thayer Munford would kick out from LG to LT for the Rose Bowl — opening a spot for Matthew Jones or Donovan Jackson to jump into the starting lineup at guard. However, I would love to see the offensive coaching staff find opportunities for PJJ to get some game reps at his natural position, and presumably the one that he will play for OSU in 2022.

After a rollercoaster season that ultimately ended in disappointment for the Buckeyes, there are a multitude of issues that will need to be untangled for the program to meet its goals next season, and in my estimation much of that process must revolve around allowing the young, talented players to just go out and do what they do best. And, if the coaching staff takes advantage of the opt-out opportunities presented to them at the Rose Bowl, the future should start as early as Saturday.