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Unpopular Opinion: The key to Ohio State’s 2021 season are the freshmen

If the Buckeyes want to compete for a national title this season, they must hand the keys over to the young guns.

NCAA Football: Ohio State Spring Game Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

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At a program as talent-rich as Ohio State is on a year-in, year-out basis, it is usually quite tough for anyone to make a significant contribution as a freshman. The roster generally requires players to earn their keep, as nearly everyone on the docket is a former blue-chip prospect who has put in their time. However, after a weird pandemic season in 2020 where a number of position groups underperformed or lost key players this offseason, that may not be the case in 2021.

We start at the quarterback position, where the only options for the Buckeyes this season are a pair of redshirt freshmen in Jack Miller and C.J. Stroud and a true freshman in Kyle McCord. Many have pegged Stroud as the heir-apparent to Justin Fields, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if McCord were to earn the job in his first year on campus. Regardless of who emerges from the competition victorious, Ohio State’s starting quarterback this season will have never before attempted a pass in a college football game. On top of that, there is a chance this year’s starter will only see the field for one year, with the highly-touted Quinn Ewers set to step foot in Columbus in 2022.

We then move to the running back position, where this year’s freshmen obviously have one of the biggest opportunities to make an impact. Trey Sermon is now a member of the San Francisco 49ers, and Master Teague returns after a so-so campaign in 2020. Now added to the roster is the five-star RB TreVeyon Henderson — the nation’s No. 1 RB in 2021 and the first five-star back to commit to Ohio State since Beanie Wells in 2006. There is every chance in the world that Henderson earns the starting running back job by years end, and behind him is fellow freshman Evan Pryor who could play a valuable role as more of a pass-catcher out of the backfield.

The wide receiver room is incredibly deep, but even still there may be some important snaps to be had with the quality of incoming freshman Brian Hartline has been able to land at the position. Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba will be your starters, but look for freshmen Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr. to see some real playing time. Egbuka was the nation’s top-ranked receiver in the 2021 class and looks every bit like it, and Harrison Jr. has drawn nothing but praise after just a few practices this offseason and a strong showing in the Spring Game. Ohio State likes to rotate its receivers, and those two guys will certainly be in the rotation sooner rather than later.

We can then flip to the defensive side of the ball, where there is potential for freshmen to make a big impact at nearly every position. The defensive line is obviously where everyones eyes will be drawn, where Ohio State is bringing in two of the top edge-rushers in the country in Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau. The Buckeyes have been known for their elite defensive line talent in recent years, but never before have they had two players of this caliber come in in the same class. The famous ‘Rushmen’ package puts four defensive ends on the field at once on obvious passing downs, and a front four of Zach Harrison, Jack Sawyer, J.T. Tuimoloau and Tyreke Smith will be a terrifying site for opposing offenses.

The secondary, which struggled mightily in 2020, could see an injection of youth this season with some top-tier freshmen cornerbacks now donning the Scarlet and Gray. Jordan Hancock and Jakailin Johnson both join the roster as top-five corners in the 2021 class, and the duo will have every opportunity to see the field in year one as cornerback is another position where Ohio State likes to rotate when they have the talent to afford it. On top of the true freshmen, redshirt freshmen like Ryan Watts and Lejond Cavazos also appear primed to make the leap this year as Kerry Coombs will need to make significant improves to the pass defense.

The Buckeyes also have the luxury of a number of young guys who could potentially bounce between corner and safety before finding their true role at the collegiate level. Redshirt freshman Cameron Martinez is a tremendous athlete who could likely function at nearly any spot in the defensive secondary, while freshmen like Denzel Burke, Jantzen Dunn, and Andre Turrentine are more likely safeties — a position Ohio State is still searching for answers at. You also have redshirt freshman Kourt Williams and true freshman Jaylen Johnson who would likely be best suited for the Bullet position.

Ohio State’s 2021 class is absolutely stacked with talent at nearly every position, and especially so in spots where the Buckeyes really struggled at times in 2020 — i.e. cornerback and defensive line. We obviously all know the returning faces who are expected to play the biggest roles for Ryan Day’s squad this fall, but if Ohio State is going to once again prove to be one of the best teams in the country, the season will come down to the contributions of this stellar group of freshmen.