This past Friday, 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, then fails to 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 season in a while that the Buckeyes do not have an established veteran or star transfer taking snaps. Running backs will likely rotate in 2021, 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. The next few weeks will be a breakdown (from least to most) of likeliest Buckeyes to take home hardware for which they are currently nominated.
Chris Olave – Walter Camp Player of the Year
Olave is a heck of a player, and I expect him to end the season with plenty of accolades. He should be considered the absolute frontrunner for at least one award, but the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award is not one of them. The Camp Award is one possible alternative to the Heisman, with slightly less prestige. Many years, the Heisman winner will take home both — but occasionally, there is no consensus on the national POTY, and the Camp Award (or Maxwell) is given to the “other” guy.
Player of the Year awards have traditionally been dominated by quarterbacks. DeVonta Smith was a deserving exception last year, and he swept those 2020 POTY awards. However, in ten years prior to Smith winning, the Camp Award went to a quarterback in eight of them. I simply do not expect the Ohio State senior to replicate or improve upon Smith’s 2020 season. The former Alabama wide receiver had what was arguably the best WR season of the 21st century. He had more receiving yards and touchdowns than Olave has in his entire career. While I would be elated with 1,800 yards and 23 TD from our top receiver, I do not see it happening.
Spoiler alert: Olave will get his recognition one way or another. I believe he and Wilson are co-favorites for a different award. However, only two wide receivers (Smith and Larry Fitzgerald, 2003) have won the Camp POTY award since they took three out of five between 1987 and 1991. In order for Olave to be considered, he would likely have to blow OSU’s best single-season performance by a wide receiver out of the water. The Buckeyes have two #1 receivers, and that is a great problem for a team to have. That same issue is what will negatively impact Olave’s chances of taking home a national POTY award.
Chris Olave/Garrett Wilson – Maxwell Award
I am not anti-Ohio State wide receiver, I promise. The Maxwell Award is similar to the Camp Award, in that it is a Player of the Year award. Just like the Camp, it is also dominated by quarterbacks. The recipient of both has been the same player(s) in each season for the last decade, with the exception of 2013. It takes a truly transcendent season for a wide receiver to take home a POTY award, and as previously mentioned, I think Olave and Wilson will eat into each other’s opportunity.
For as advanced as we expect Ohio State’s passing game to be, they will have a first-time starter and plenty of options. If Olave or Wilson goes for 1,500+ yards and 15 touchdowns, that likely means most of the other pass catchers disappointed. I do not expect that to be the case. I could see both Buckeye wideouts going for 1,000 yards each, but Jeremy Ruckert is due for a breakout, and there are plenty of young wide receivers ready to make an impact. Whoever starts at quarterback for OSU should have a solid season, but they will be able to spread the wealth around.
While a big season is in-play, I do not see a scenario where the starting quarterback for the Buckeyes goes nuclear to the tune of 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns... not in 2021 at least. Dwayne Haskins obviously put up similar numbers in 2018, but with Quinn Ewers entering the competition, the QB race could go back and forth prior to September 2nd — and then we may see multiple guys take snaps early in the season. Too much uncertainty for me.
Olave and Wilson should both be great, but they are both 1A targets (or Batman). If Ruckert has an increased role as expected, and the young receivers show promise, it will all work against Olave and Wilson. There is only so much meat on the bone. Ohio State will put up numbers in bunches, and lots of players will be involved, leaving none with an upside as high as DeVonta Smith’s 2020 season.
Garrett Wilson – Paul Hornung Award
I told you I don’t hate Ohio State wide receivers… and I really, really mean it! During Land Grant Holy Land’s “Bold Predictions Week”, I predicted that Wilson would become the alpha amongst OSU wide receivers. I believe that will be the case, but the relatively new (created in 2010) Hornung Award recognizes versatility. Wilson’s importance to Ohio State as a top receiving target may work against him in that respect.
Wilson has returned punts during his first two seasons in Columbus, and there is a chance he will continue to do so. However, it is by no means a guarantee. The Buckeyes are loaded will skill position talent, and special teams are a good way to get them onto the field. Wilson has returned one punt for every career game played, and one total kickoff. He is far from a return specialist. He is viewed as an essential part of Ohio State’s offense, and that should be his primary focus.
The Hornung Award has been given to players who show extreme versatility. DeVonta Smith won the award in 2020, but he was probably the least-versatile recipient thus far. His win was more of a “best overall” recognition. He had 237 punt return yards, including a touchdown, but not much else. In 2019, Lynn Bowden played QB, RB, and WR for Kentucky. In 2018, Purdue’s Rondale Moore was a productive wideout and kick return specialist, and he also racked up rushing yards. Brandon Boykin (Georgia) and Jabrill Peppers (TTUN) were past winners who regularly played on both sides of the ball. Derek Stingley Jr. of LSU will likely do a lot of that in 2021, and he could end up having a Charles Woodson at TTUN-type season. Garrett Wilson is likely to only be one hell of a receiving threat, and that’s all Buckeye fans should care about.
Zach Harrison – Nagurski Trophy & Bednarik Award
Sevyn Banks – Nagurski Trophy & Thorpe Award (tie)
Harrison and Banks are each nominated for multiple awards due to their potential. Neither Buckeye has truly broken out, but coaches, teammates, and fans are hoping that 2021 is their year. The Nagurski Trophy and Bednarik Award are given to the best defensive player, while the Thorpe is specific to defensive backs. Chase Young swept the Nagurski and Bednarik in 2019, and Malcolm Jenkins was the last Ohio State DB to win the Thorpe, all the way back in 2008. Harrison and Banks have yet to reach the rarified air of OSU greats, but I do think it is possible for them to take home an individual award (or two).
Harrison has been a breakout candidate since he enrolled at Ohio State. As a local kid and 5-star recruit, he was projected to be the next great OSU pass rusher. 2021 will be the next step in his development, which has been somewhat slowed by circumstances outside of his control. He played fairly well as a true freshman in 2019, seeing action in every game and finishing with 3.5 sacks. 2020 was a step back, but the pandemic wreaked havoc on all preseason activities. While it could have been the beginning on his ascent, last season was more of a dud. Surprisingly, he still got All-Big Ten recognition.
Harrison has added muscle to his already impressive frame, and he will have once again have the luxury of a full preseason in 2021. Under Larry Johnson, players typically don’t plateau or regress — they get noticeably better. That is why I have optimism for the junior’s third season. He is no longer viewed as a rotational player. Harrison is expected to be a veteran leader on the defensive line, and I think we see double-digit sacks from him. That should keep him on multiple watch lists throughout the season.
Sevyn Banks is officially being hyped as the next star from “DB U”. While that might seem like a stretch on the surface, especially for a cornerback with two career interceptions, Banks is deserving of the hype due to his combination of athleticism, cover skills, and ability to read plays. Lockdown corners are rarely targeted, so interceptions are often harder to come by. Jeff Okudah was a great example. Okudah did not register a pick until his junior season, but he had the ability to blanket receivers and limit their production.
Banks is viewed in a similar light. He has prototypical size at 6’1” and 200 pounds, 4.4 speed, and the athleticism to turn and run with any receiving threat on the other side. He will be matched up against most, if not all, of the opponent’s top pass catchers. NFL scouts love his potential, and they will love his play in 2021. Banks could shine even brighter if the secondary takes some time to gel and improve upon last year’s performance. He could be the “knight in shining armor” who keeps them afloat. Do not be surprised if he more than doubles his interception total, and becomes the first Ohio State Thorpe Award winner in more than a decade. I think Thorpe is much more likely than the Nagurski for OSU’s top cover guy.