Recently, Jerry Emig - Associate Sports Information Director at Ohio State and primary media relations contact for the football team - shared a rather impressive list of OSU players named to national preseason award watch lists. These preliminary lists are media-driven prognostications about the upcoming NCAA football season. Returning players with strong stat lines and high-profile names from top teams are added, and they change throughout the season as stars falter, teams disappoint, and surprising performances pop up.
Players listed on preseason watch lists can (and will) be removed, and unlikely or overlooked stars become new frontrunners with a handful of great games. The watch lists are similar to preseason rankings, in that they don’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of the season – but a player who receives early recognition is more likely to stay near the top of voting if they perform well.
Think of it like this: Notre Dame is often over-hyped before the season begins, and then fails to really impress throughout… however, since they receive the benefit of the doubt in preseason rankings, they can cling to a top-5 or top-10 spot. We all know how they typically perform in the postseason, so they are sort of like the guy who gets invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony, but finishes a distant fourth.
As likely as these lists are to drastically change, it is still fun to see which Buckeyes have been identified nationally as potential (or current, in the case of Olave) stars and strong candidates for these prestigious individual awards. Ohio State position groups are well-represented, with the exception of quarterback, running back, and linebacker.
Once a starting QB is named, I think there is an outside chance his name is added to the list. If not, fans should understand that this is the first year in a while that the Buckeyes do not have an established or much-hyped star taking snaps. Running backs will likely rotate this year, and there are no linebackers with enough tape to warrant consideration. None of the nominations jump out as a big surprise, although I must admit that I had to look up the Wuerffel Trophy.
Once I read the criteria, I was completely in agreement with this OSU player’s candidacy. Below is a continued ranking (from least to most) of likeliest Buckeyes to take home hardware for which they are currently nominated.
Zach Harrison – Lott IMPACT Trophy
Harry Miller – Wuerffel Trophy (tie)
Let’s kick off Part 2 by highlighting some good dudes, shall we? Zach Harrison and Harry Miller have been impactful members of the Ohio State football team, both on-field and off. Anybody on or around the team can vouch for their maturity, leadership, positive attitudes, and desire to make a difference. The nominating committee(s) for these awards absolutely nailed their selection(s) of the two OSU juniors. The Lott and Wuerffel trophies recognize great football players who also demonstrate excellence off the field. I believe that off-the-field impact is of greater importance to Harrison and Miller than football ever will be, and that should be appreciated more than any sack or pancake block in The Shoe.
The Lott IMPACT Trophy specifically honors players on the defensive side of the ball. Their acronym stands for: Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community, and Tenacity — all of which must exemplified by a heck of a defensive player. Zach Harrison could be a darkhorse contender for the award. Going back to high school, he has consistently received praise for his involvement in community service, volunteer work, and other outreach activities. In 2018, he was a finalist for the All-American Bowl Man of the Year (essentially a Lott or Wuerffel-esque trophy for high school football players). Since enrolling at Ohio State, he has remained active in numerous off-field activities, while concurrently prioritizing football and academics.
In 2020, Harrison was named to the Big Ten Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition, along with earning OSU Scholar-Athlete recognition. He has been a vocal leader throughout all of the various issues the Buckeyes have dealt with as football players, but more importantly, as young men living through an unpredictable 2020/2021. If Harrison wants to take home the Lott Trophy, he will need to elevate his game, which all Buckeye fans believe he is capable of. The award emphasizes equal weight given to personal character and athletic performance, and recent winners include first round NFL draft picks Josh Allen and Derrick Brown.
Named after former Florida Gators QB Danny Wuerffel, the trophy bearing his name is given as the premier award for community service. Former Buckeye Joel Penton won it in 2006. Many previous recipients have been vocal about their faith and various mission trips — topics of great importance to Harry Miller. The award makes no specific mention of faith or religion, but it is a common theme amongst past winners. The Wuerffel Trophy primarily aims to recognize community involvement, leadership, and paying it forward. Miller epitomizes all of the characteristics sought out for this unique award.
While Miller has yet to come anywhere close to his ceiling as a player, count me as one of many who believe that he will be a strong anchor for the interior of Ohio State’s offensive line in 2021. He has shown versatility and a nasty streak; now he just needs to play well consistently. Miller’s performance off the field is more impressive than anything he has done on it, and that is a compliment to the highest degree possible. He has made numerous mission trips, is active in nonprofit organizations, created an apparel shop with proceeds going to charity, and is a two-time OSU Scholar-Athlete. This kid is destined for success in football or whatever he pursues in the future, and Buckeye fans should appreciate him while he’s here. The Wuerffel Trophy could definitely be his by the end of the year.
Nicholas Petite-Frere – Outland Trophy
Like Banks, Harrison, and Miller, Nicholas Petit-Frere is poised to receive increased national attention this season. The former 5-star recruit patiently waited his turn, and was sneaky good in 2020. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), he allowed pressure on less than one percent of Ohio State pass plays, which was best in the country for offensive tackles on Power 5 teams. While he did earn Second Team All-Big Ten Honors, he seemed to fly under the radar nationally. As a fourth year junior, expectations are extremely high.
Petit-Frere will be competing for the Outland Trophy against the best interior lineman in the country — including teammates on both sides of the ball. This trophy recognizes the best interior lineman in college football, which can include any offensive lineman and those who play inside of the ends on the defensive side… confusing, I know. Ohio State has had four players win the trophy, but none since 1996 (Orlando Pace). We will get to the rest of the nominated trio very soon.
Petit-Frere’s chances for this honor are seemingly lower than that of his teammates, but I am not counting the big tackle out. All he has done since coming to Ohio State, is improve. 2020 was a potential precursor to his real breakout. In addition to his stellar PFF grade, Petit-Frere was recognized as a “champion” by coaches six times in 2020, good for second amongst offensive players. After the Buckeyes dismantled Rutgers, he was named Player of the Game. You read that correctly: the right tackle was named Player of the Game. Coaches rave about Petit-Frere, and his continued improvement could put him in a position to win the Outland.
Thayer Munford – Outland Trophy
Fortunately for Ohio State, the Buckeyes currently have two solid offensive tackles to help protect the new starting quarterback. Thayer Munford is the more experienced tackle, and that is saying a lot, considering his counterpart is a fourth-year junior. He is entering his fifth year as a veteran of 46 games! He is one of the safest bets on the team to perform well this season, and if you are a gambler, he could be a safe bet for the Outland Trophy as well.
Munford has been a stud for the past three seasons, now finding himself in the first round of many 2022 NFL mock drafts. If not for some nagging injuries and a tough-to-swallow defeat last year, he may have been selected in the first round of the real 2021 version. The Cincinnati native has prototypical size, experience has taught him all the tricks, and now he will be looking to put it all together for his best season yet.
Munford has earned All Big-Ten recognition in each of his three years as a starter, progressively moving up the ladder: Honorable Mention in 2018, Second Team in 2019, and First Team in 2020. It seems inevitable that he will elevate his game once again this year. He is strong in both the run game and pass protection, and rarely loses a one-on-one matchup. PFF gave him a 91.8 grade for 2020, which is the highest among returning tackles. PFF also has him as the top-ranked tackle coming into 2021, and second-ranked lineman overall. It is not a stretch to say that Munford might be the best OSU tackle of the last decade, as he is definitely in the conversation with Taylor Decker. If he is able to win the Outland, he would potentially be viewed as the best to play his position since Orlando Pace.
*There are rumors out of camp that Munford could move inside to guard, in order to get Dawand Jones on the field as a starting tackle. I would be mildly surprised by the move, but Munford should thrive anywhere along the offensive line. At guard, he would still be a strong candidate for the Outland Trophy.
Jeremy Ruckert – John Mackey Award
This is the year! The tight end position will blossom at Ohio State. The coaching staff has alluded to the fact that they are going to utilize the tight end in the passing game, and Jeremy Ruckert is probably the most talented pass-catching threat the Buckeyes have had at the position since Rickey Dudley. He is already viewed as a potential high draft pick, despite averaging less than ten catches per season. The Mackey Award has been around since 2000, and is given to the nation’s top TE. A Buckeye has never won the award, let alone been a finalist. That could change in 2021.
Putting Ruckert among the most likely Buckeyes to win an individual award is all about projection and what we have seen in flashes. He only has 28 career catches, for 306 yards, and nine touchdowns. While not overwhelming by any means, he has shown off his athleticism and catching ability when given opportunity. Ruckert passes the eye test in a major way. In 2021, after playing behind Luke Farrell and Jake Hausmann, he should finally be given ample opportunity to pair with his talent.
As long as Ruckert continues his upward trajectory, he will see a lot of targets. He is the unquestioned leader and veteran of the position room, and faces very little competition for snaps. Cade Stover and Gee Scott Jr. have converted from other positions, and the duo of Joe Royer and Sam Hart are a year away from being a year away. When Ruckert does touch the ball, historically, good things have happened. One of out every three catches in his career have resulted in a touchdown, and if he were double his catch total, we could be talking about a double-digit TD season. Ruckert winning the Mackey Award might sound like a stretch, but I think he could nearly double all of his career totals in 2021. He is not the only Ohio State pass catcher I see as a favorite for individual honors…
Haskell Garrett – Outland Trophy, Nagurski Trophy, Bednarik Award
This guy has to win something, right? If there was an award given for toughness, he would be the runaway winner after bouncing back from a gunshot wound to the face prior to last season. Haskell Garrett has been named to just about every possible preseason watch list and All-American Team for the 2021 season. His name consistently gets thrown out for good reason. Garrett is a menace in the middle of the defensive line, and impacts the game in a number of ways. He was named First-team All-American by CBS Sports after a strong 2020 campaign, and the fifth-year senior could take home multiple individual honors if he is able to build off last season.
Garrett does not put up a lot of traditional stats for a defensive lineman. That may work against him in the competition for outstanding interior lineman (offense/defense) or best defensive player in the country. However, he is widely recognized as an impactful player. He plays the 3-technique perfectly, focusing on penetration and taking on multiple blocks. The opposition feels Garrett’s presence and must account for him. Being on the mind of opponents each and every play is a skill in and of itself. Garrett is one of the most intimidating defensive lineman in the country, and should be considered a frontrunner for at least one of these honors.
Due to the nature of the three awards, I believe Garrett is most likely to win the Outland Trophy. While he is a dominating physical force on defense, the Nagurski and Bednarik often go to players who make a statistically recognizable impact: sacks, interceptions, TFL, etc. The OSU defensive tackle will continue to make life easier for teammates, but likely fall short in those statistical categories. The Outland seems much more subjective and based on the appearance of dominating the line of scrimmage. Offensive lineman have taken home seven of the last ten, but DT’s Ed Oliver (Houston) and Quinnen Williams (Alabama) won in 2017 and 2018. I would be shocked if Garrett is not a finalist for the Outland Trophy, and not at all surprised if he wins it.
Chris Olave/Garrett Wilson – Biletnikoff Award
How’s this for anti-climactic? I am not choosing a winner! I firmly believe that the best wide receiver in college football currently plays for Ohio State, and one of the returning upper classmen will bring home the program’s first Biletnikoff Award since 1995, when Terry Glenn became the first and only Buckeye to do so. I am unable to narrow it down any further than that. Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are both that good, and deserve to be on the short list of favorites.
The Biletnikoff has honored the nation’s best receiver since 1994, and past winners include DeVonta Smith, Ja’Marr Chase, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, and Randy Moss. Those names are among the best to do it recently, as well as ever. Who knows what the future holds for either Buckeye wide receiver, but they are both considered to be in the top tier of pass catchers in the country. While they will eat into each other’s opportunities, it should be easier to stand out exclusively in a group of other receivers. As previously mentioned, I do not see either pass catchers measuring up to what DeVonta Smith did in 2020. But unlike the Camp or Maxwell, which Smith swept along with the Biletnikoff, this award is more attainable.
I am not choosing between the two, because it is too damn difficult. It would be like choosing your favorite ice cream. Olave and Wilson are both projected to be first round NFL draft picks, and both possess tremendous upside. They face plenty of positional competition, but remain head and shoulders above the rest… for now. As long as Ohio State is steady at the quarterback position, these two should continue to elevate their game(s) — and elevate each other. We could see the OSU football version of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson shooting against each other in practice. I am ready to put my money on one of these Buckeyes to win the prestigious Biletnikoff, and watch them light up opposing secondary units all year long.