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.
This week’s topic: Which non-starter from 2021 should sit atop the depth chart in 2022?
Josh’s Take: Julian Fleming
Gene, you know those people who play the same lottery numbers week after week? Or investors who refuse to sell, even when a company is on the verge of bankruptcy? Call it relentless optimism or stubbornness, but I am one of those people — stubborn, not optimistic. That’s why I am predicting a breakout for this guy, for a second straight year. I’m going back to the well, and predicting that Julian Fleming will be a starter next year. A damn good one, too.
Fleming has been absolutely snake-bitten by injuries. Minor high school ailments rolled over, new injuries popped up, and as a result, his time in Columbus has been disappointing. Actually, “disappointing” is the wrong adjective. It’s unfair to draw conclusions from a 16-game sample size — especially when many of those appearances were in a special teams capacity only. By all accounts, Fleming is a great teammate, works his tail off, and has the full support of the coaching staff. So let’s say Fleming’s career deserves an “incomplete” grade at this point.
When healthy – which, again, has not been the case very often – Fleming has given us glimpses of his playmaking ability. As a true freshman playing in the Big Ten Championship Game last year, he stepped up with four catches for 53 yards. He graded out as a champion against Nebraska this season, and would have finished with an impressive stat line, had his skillful sideline reception been officiated correctly. Lastly, when given a healthy diet of practice time and reps, Fleming played well against Utah in the Rose Bowl. He finished with five catches for 35 yards, but also threw a couple of impressive blocks to free up Jaxon Smith-Njigba during his historic performance. The athleticism and the skills are all there. Unfortunately, if you blinked while watching a game during the last two seasons, you were likely to miss it.
Another reason I remain bullish on Fleming is his unique physicality. The wide receiver looks like a taller running back. Listed at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, he clearly weighs in at 210-215, and he is built like a brick... you know. I’m not comparing apples to apples here, but Fleming’s build is somewhat similar to that of Deebo Samuel, who we’ve seen ascend to superstardom in the NFL. The 49ers star does a little bit of everything, and I don’t believe Fleming will ever be used in the same variety of ways, but they share a compact and muscular frame, while still possessing an athletic wide receiver skillset. Fleming is the only Buckeye receiver who looks that way. It’s hard to describe, but I just think it sets him apart. And that physicality could give him a defined role moving forward.
JSN will return as the top wide receiver for Ohio State; that is indisputable. However, he will need running mates, and the rest of the WR spots are up for grabs. Marvin Harrison Jr. introduced himself to the CFB world with a huge Rose Bowl, so he is likely to receive a starting nod. But it’s not set in stone, is it? The son of an NFL Hall of Famer only had five catches prior to the game against Utah. He started because Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson were firmly out. When those guys were questionable or out previously, it was Fleming who started.
Even if Harrison Jr. does get the nod, we know that the Buckeyes start three wideouts, and he is more of an outside guy. We could also see more four wide receiver sets out of Ohio State this season without a clearly defined pass-catching tight end on the roster. I don’t know if Harrison Jr. is a perfect fit in the slot, whereas Fleming seems more interchangeable with JSN. He has proven to be an underneath guy, and a Ryan Day offense often relies on those types.
Emeka Egbuka is the wildcard here, and frankly, he could turn in a JSN-type sophomore season. Would you be surprised? I would not be, but I’m still hitching my wagon to Fleming. Don’t forget, this guy was the top wide receiver and number three overall player in his recruiting class — ranked higher than any of his teammates. And he hasn’t regressed! Fleming is the same player, with the same skills and ability. He’s just been banged up.
Going in to a season without Olave, Wilson, and Jeremy Ruckert, Coach Day and the Buckeyes will lean on their proven vets — especially early in the year. Fleming has a clear experience advantage over Harrison Jr. and Egbuka. You can argue with his track record, but I believe that the coaches believe in him. That’s why he started against Nebraska and Utah. It’s why he played over Jameson Williams in the 2020 Big Ten Championship game. Maybe Williams has/had greater talent, but it goes to show that OSU coaches do not lack faith in Fleming. This dude can play, and he’s going to show it when he is finally out of the shadow of a couple legendary Buckeyes.
Gene’s Take: Tyleik Williams
Ohio State’s roster is going to look a lot different in 2022. While many of the key pieces from last year’s team will still be in town, including a trio of key offensive pieces in quarterback C.J. Stroud, running back TreVeyon Henderson and wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, we should expect to see a ton of changes at almost every other key position.
As Josh discussed, the wide receiver rotation will see a bunch of new faces with Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson off to the NFL. The offensive line is going to require a ton of shakeup after a subpar 2021 campaign, which is obvious given a pair of key contributors in Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere are also moving up to the league and the position group is under new management with Justin Frye in the building. On defense, we all know that the secondary and the linebackers likely need wholesale personnel changes, and with Jim Knowles now in charge with almost entirely new defensive coaching staff, there should be lots of optimism on the correct decisions being made.
However, while a ton of the focus has been on Ohio State’s poor secondary play this past season, and rightfully so, the defensive line was also not up to par. Haskell Garrett was likely the unit’s most productive member even while playing through injury throughout the entire year, and he is now gone. Tyreke Smith, a talented but inconsistence edge rusher, is also headed to the draft. The rest of the unit largely underperformed, with Zach Harrison yet to live up to his five-star rating as a prospect and an exceedingly highly regarded freshman class not getting their full opportunity to shine.
I think we will see a lot of moving parts along the defensive line until the Buckeyes find their best front four, and even the scheme along the defensive front will look different under Knowles’ system with the introduction of the LEO position. While I think the obvious names like Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau will definitely see a heavy increase in their workloads, the guy I'm most excited to see crack the starting lineup is defensive tackle Tyleik Williams.
Williams, whose first name does not follow the “I before E except after C” grammar rule despite spellcheck’s numerous attempts to change it on me, was a bit of an afterthought in Ohio State’s 2021 class. In a ridiculous cycle where the Buckeyes brought in seven five-star recruits, Williams came in as a four-star DT rated as the No. 166 player in the country and the No. 25 DL in the class, according to the 247Sports Composite. Defensive tackles are never the flashiest position on the field, but it seemed like Williams got a bit lost in the shuffle of all the other talent on its way to Columbus.
While he may have been overlooked in the recruiting headlines, he was certainly hard to overlook when he was on the field — at least for everyone except Ohio State’s defensive coaches. According to Eleven Warriors’ final season snap counts, Williams played just 183 snaps for the Buckeyes in 2021. He played just the sixth-most snaps of all DTs on the roster, with Garrett leading the pack at 392 snaps followed by Taron Vincent at 370. Just as another comparison, Harrison played the most snaps of all defensive ends with 507, while Smith played 443. Playing almost a third of the snaps of his fellow tackles and a fourth of the snaps of the top edge rushers, Williams still showed out on the stat sheet.
Playing in only nine games total, Williams finished second on Ohio State with five sacks, behind only Garrett with 5.5 for the team lead. Obviously you dont rely on your guys up the middle to be big-time pass rushers, but to have only a half-sack less than the team’s best with over 200 fewer snaps played is pretty nutty. Williams also finished second on the team in tackles for loss with 6.5, once again behind only Garrett’s seven. He also recorded two pass breakups and a forced fumble to go along with 16 total tackles in limited playing time. Clearly a productive player, he was for some reason played most sparingly in Ohio State’s biggest games, earning just two snaps (2!!) against Michigan, three against Oregon and nine against Penn State.
It seemed like in the very fleeting moments we got to see Williams on the field, he was always making plays. In fact, even given his extremely limited opportunities, PFF named Williams the Big Ten’s top interior defensive lineman for 2021. His 22.1% pass rush win rate was the highest mark of all interior linemen in the B1G. It was pretty clear to anyone with eyes that Williams is a special player and clearly should’ve been on the field more often than not, but as we all know by now Ohio State’s defensive coaching staff this past season was anything other than what could be described as “smart” or “creative” or “fun”.
Williams is clearly in line for a massive leap in playing time in 2022. On top of his impressive numbers in just his freshman season, defensive tackles are a super important part of Jim Knowles’ defense, which often incorporates one true defensive end, two defensive tackles and a LEO, or an edge/linebacker hybrid. The most likely scenario would appear to be Tuimoloau as the end, Harrison or Sawyer operating at LEO, and Williams as the No. 1 guy at tackle with whoever wins the battle for the second spot between Taron Vincent, Mike Hall and Jerron Cage, among a few others. We know Larry Johnson loves to rotate his guys, but that combination would appear to be in line for the most significant playing time.
Defensive tackles aren’t the most flashy players and rarely stuff the stat sheet, but I am really excited for what Williams brings to the table. His skillset is very unlike what Ohio State usually showcases at the position, and his style of play reminds me of the kind of interior linemen you would see in the SEC at places like Alabama or Georgia. I’m not ready to crown Williams as the next Jordan Davis or Quinnen Williams, but I think he will play a massive role in 2022 and could quickly become one of the stars along the defensive front despite being the only non-five-star prospect among the projected starters.