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Bold Predictions You’re Nuts: What is your boldest of bold predictions for 2021?

Is 2021 going to be a wild year for the freshmen?

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

All this week, LGHL writers will be bring you articles focusing on their biggest and boldest predictions. Check out all of our “Bold Predictions” articles throughout the week HERE. Whether you disagree, let us know what you think in the comments below and on Twitter @Landgrant33.

Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.

In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts. Much like last week, this week isn’t really much of a debate. Instead, we are just each making our boldest prediction for the 2021 Ohio State Football season.

This week’s topic: Bold predictions.

Josh’s Take: A true freshman will start at cornerback.

2020 was a rough season for Kerry Coombs and the Ohio State secondary. The loss of overall experience and players like Jeff Okudah and Jordan Fuller, combined with the surreal experience of practicing through a pandemic, undoubtedly hurt the Buckeyes. However, no one involved would say the the defensive backfield performed up to their standard or expectations last year, even given all of the hurdles.

2021 presents an opportunity to turn the page, and I do expect the secondary play to improve. The reason for my optimism stems from an infusion of new talent. I predict that DBs without a single collegiate snap under their belt will make an impact for OSU, and my boldest of bold predictions is that a true freshman will start at cornerback for the Buckeyes.

Sevyn Banks is locked in at one corner position, but nothing is set in stone elsewhere. Marcus Williamson started all eight games for the Buckeyes last year, but so what? The unit underperformed and Williamson’s play was just average. Cameron Brown was poised to compete for major reps in 2020, but unfortunately never made it past the second game due to injury. Williamson and Brown are very talented, and so are youngsters with time in the program like Lathan Ransom and Ryan Watts. They would not be at Ohio State if they weren’t. However, they have yet to make a real impact in their careers, and the Buckeyes have little to lose by embracing a youth movement.

Could it get any worse? Technically yes, but not by much. OSU finished near the bottom of the country in pass defense, and were embarrassed by Alabama in the title game. Fortunately, the team and the position reloaded, and I think there are three freshman capable of solving the secondary problems. Kerry Coombs and now Matt Barnes should be able to coach these guys up, and hopefully Ohio State will once again be referred to as “DBU”.

Which freshman, you ask? Who the heck knows! This is a bold, yet hedged prediction, alright Gene? That being said, there are a handful of highly rated four-star recruits to choose from. The highest-rated recruits (amongst DBs) in the 2021 class did not join the team until the summer, but I believe either Jakailin Johnson or Jordan Hancock will start sooner than later... and don’t count out Denzel Burke, who was an early enrollee.

Jakailin Johnson comes to Ohio State as the most highly touted of the 2021 defensive backs. He was the third-ranked corner, and a top-50 player nationally. At 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, Johnson has ideal size for an impactful corner. More importantly, he grew four inches in high school and did not lose any speed or footwork ability. If the tall-ish corner adds a few pounds to fill out his frame, he could provide real physicality.

Jordan Hancock finished right behind Johnson in recruiting rankings (No. 5), is similarly built at 6-foot-1, 170 pounds, and was just as coveted by programs across the country. The Buckeyes were able to flip Hancock’s commitment from Clemson, in part due to their reputation for developing defensive backs. He likely views 2020 as an outlier, and OSU is happy to have him. Sports Illustrated named Hancock their top H.S. nickel corner in August of 2020, and I could see him filling that role early in his career for Ohio State. He does not have the same top-end speed as Johnson, but coaches have praised his technique and ability to stay in the hip pocket of opposing wideouts.

Denzel Burke is my darkhorse for this prediction. His recruitment was settled during the height of the pandemic, and he enrolled at Ohio State in January having never met Kerry Coombs in-person! Like Johnson and Hancock, Burke has ideal size, but was not a full-time cornerback early in his football career. He has experience on the offensive side of the ball, but popped as a corner as he gained experience. If he transitions to safety — which is possible — my argument goes up in smoke. However, I think he also has nickel potential, and what gives him a leg up is the fact that he enrolled early. Burke has nearly a half-a-year head start on those other guys. Ryan Day, the most important man in Columbus, even took notice of Burke’s interception during the first spring practice. The coaches already know exactly what he needs to work on, and that can be his advantage over others.

It might not be bold to predict that a highly-ranked recruit has a chance to come in and start as a freshman. It is bold to do so when that freshman plays cornerback for Ohio State. “DBU” and “B.I.A.” are not nicknames earned in a single season. OSU has a tradition under Coombs of identifying and developing the best defensive backs in college football. Well, now the Buckeyes are essentially starting over, hoping to erase bad memories from 2020. There are no All-Big Ten performers in the secondary. No All-Americans. Sevyn Banks needs a running mate (or two), and the other experienced DBs have done nothing to cement their status.

While it may not happen early, I fully expect Johnson, Hancock, or Burke to be in the starting lineup by Week 4. They are the next ones in a long line of lockdown corners.

Gene’s Take: Jack Sawyer registers double-digit sacks.

I feel like so much of our content this offseason has been centered around the freshmen, but I suppose the unknown is always the most exciting part heading into a new college football season. All the attention this incoming class is getting makes a ton of sense at the end of the day, as the 2021 group features a whopping six five-star prospects, and an unbelievable 13 players ranked in the top 100 overall. One of those five-star guys is none other than defensive end Jack Sawyer, and he is the subject of my bold prediction.

Before Chase Young made it look routine, registering double-digit sacks in a single season was an incredibly rare feat at both Ohio State and in the college football world at large. In fact, it has only been accomplished by eight different Buckeyes throughout the course of history. It has happened 10 times total for the program, twice each by Young and Mike Vrabel. In the 2019 season — the last full season of college football — only 19 total players across all of FBS reached double-digit sacks, and almost every single one of them were well-established upperclassmen. The last person not named Chase Young to reach that total at Ohio State was Joey Bosa in 2014.

Now, before we move on to Sawyer, we cannot just gloss over what Chase Young did in his last two seasons in Columbus. After putting up a casual 10.5 sacks in 2018, his 2019 campaign saw him put up a program single-season record 16.5 sacks despite having to miss two games over a ridiculous NCAA violation. Young’s four sacks in perhaps his most dominant showing at Ohio State against Wisconsin also ties a single-game program record, and his 21 tackles for loss is good for fourth all-time in a single season for the Buckeyes. Young was truly a special player, and it would be unfair to expect any defensive end to reach that level in his time at Ohio State anytime soon.

But then again, here comes Jack Sawyer. The first player to commit to Ohio State’s stacked 2021 class, Sawyer was the No. 4 overall player in the cycle and the No. 3 defensive linemen. Standing at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, the five-star recruit out of Pickerington, OH has already drawn comparisons to Nick Bosa — and thats without even playing his senior year of high school football after opting out during the weird 2020 COVID-19 season. 247Sports national recruiting analyst Allen Trieu projects Sawyer as a first-round NFL Draft Pick, describing him as a, “high-level prospect who is ready to come in and compete as a freshman at the college level and has the traits of a future high draft choice.”

Even though it was a shortened season for the Buckeyes in 2020, their defensive end production was not quite up to par. Nobody on the team registered more than four sacks, with Jonathon Cooper leading the way at 3.5 on the year. In fact, two of Ohio State’s top three sack leaders were actually defensive tackles, with Tommy Togiai at three and Haskell Garrett tied with Zach Harrison with two each. The advanced metrics kept telling us that Ohio State was still getting good pressure on quarterbacks, but it didn’t exactly feel that way between the lack of actual sacks and with how poorly the defensive secondary played. They will have to improve this season, but luckily they seem to have the guys to do just that.

Harrison will return as a starter, and many expect the former five-star prospect to take that next step as a junior and really turn it on. At the other end will likely be Tyreke Smith, a senior who showed tremendous flashes last season and at times looked like Ohio State’s best edge rusher. However, on top of those guys and the likes of Tyler Friday and Javonte Jean-Baptiste, the Buckeyes are now also adding a pair of five-star talents in Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau to the mix. While the two freshmen won't likely “start” to begin the year, they will almost certainly be the pair included alongside Harrison and Smith when Larry Johnson rolls out his Rushmen package.

While Tuimoloau is the higher-rated prospect — albeit by one spot — Sawyer has the added bonus of enrolling early and going through spring practice, while Tuimoloau just arrived on campus a short while ago. Sawyer has spent all of 2020 working out and preparing to play college football as he sat out of his final high school season, and surely Mickey Marotti has provided him all sorts of training regimes so that he can be one of the most well-prepared freshmen Ohio State has taken on in quite a while. He won’t be at the No. 1 spot in the depth chart against Minnesota, but I think he is simply too good a player to not be in a starting role after just a few games.

Larry Johnson and the Buckeyes love to rotate their defensive ends and keep everyone fresh, so even during the time period where Sawyer isn’t technically a starter, he will probably see almost an equal amount of snaps as the guys above him as he will be an important part of that rotation. We could see him in a role similar to that of Nick Bosa during his early years, where he was used on third downs and obvious passing situations as the team’s clear top pass-rusher. The opportunities will be there for Sawyer, and I don't think it is entirely out of the question that he leads Ohio State in sacks in 2021 with somewhere between 10-12 in year one.