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Checking in on the 2022 Buckeye freshmen

Are they seeing as much playing time as last year’s class? Are they as good?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 08 Ohio State at Michigan State
Freshman running back Dallan Hayden breaks through a hole against Michigan State.
Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last year several Ohio State freshmen made really big impacts. A couple of them earned starting positions very early in the year, and others flashed not only potential, but genuine greatness when they were on the field. Obviously, the two that stand out most were running back TreVeyon Henderson and cornerback Denzel Burke. Both had outstanding years, and Henderson’s was record-breaking.

Henderson, who played in all 13 Buckeye games, became a starter in the Tulsa game and drew national attention when his 23 carries netted 270 rushing yards and three touchdowns. He would finish the season with 1,248 yards on 183 carries (6.8 yards/carry average) and 15 rushing TDs. He also caught 27 passes for 312 yards and another four touchdowns (Why aren’t the Buckeyes passing to him this year?). He broke the OSU record for touchdowns in a season by a freshman.

Burke wasn’t nearly as heralded coming out of high school as was the five-star Henderson, but he became a starter at cornerback quickly and enjoyed a season that would produce predictions of All-America status this year. In 2021, Burke was eighth on the team in total tackles with 35 and had 12 pass breakups with an interception.

Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, and Tyleik Williams also made names for themselves as first-year Buckeyes. Harrison Jr. didn’t really shine until the Rose Bowl game against Utah. Then, he really shone – to the tune of three touchdown receptions. That game was just a showcase for the kind of performances that he’s putting in this year, game after game.

Egbuka didn’t have the kind of breakout that Harrison enjoyed on New Year’s Day, but he showed his speed on several big plays and on kickoff returns that we kept expecting him to break. Egbuka finished the 2021 season with nine catches for 191 yards. Do the math: that’s a 21.2 yards per reception average!

Then, there’s Tyleik Williams, who seemingly came out of nowhere to become one of my favorite 2021 Buckeyes. While he would start plays in the middle of the OSU defensive line, he usually finished them in the opponents’ backfield. His 6.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks were second in each category only to Haskell Garrett.

Additionally, J.T. Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer, Kyle McCord, and Evan Pryor all saw meaningful playing time during the year. It seems to me, after seven games this year — all of them at the very least double-digit wins — that we haven’t seen that much of this year’s freshmen. They’re simply not playing as much and not making the same sort of impact. Why is that? Is it good or bad?

2022 Buckeye freshmen

Ohio State’s 2022 recruiting class had 21 players. So far, all but four of them have seen some playing time. Of the 17 who have played, I believe that cornerback Jyaire Brown is the only one to have started a game, and he was pulled into that starting role because of injuries at an already thin position. I want to take a look at six players in the class and assess their contributions.

Jyaire Brown, CB. I’ll start with Brown since I’ve mentioned him. Although he was pretty far down on the recruiting ladder – 24th at his position and 192 overall — he’s played defense in six of the seven OSU games for a total of 116 snaps. He’s collected six total tackles, two pass deflections, and a forced fumble. With Burke, Cam Brown, and Jordan Hancock all missing games, Jyaire Brown has filled in capably. He’s not getting the acclaim that Burke received last year, but I think that he’s played pretty well. He’s also played (39 snaps) on various special teams, so he sees a fair amount of action.

Caden Curry, Edge. Staying with the defensive side, I look next at Curry, a player who has really stood out. He makes a difference when he’s in the game, even though the Buckeyes are loaded at his position. He’s played in all seven games, accumulating 73 snaps on defense and 78 on special teams. We saw his work on the punt return team this past Saturday when he stopped Iowa’s silly fake punt. Curry is tied for 12th on the team in total tackles with 11; one and a half of them were for a loss. About in the middle of his class in terms of rating, Curry was the No. 123 player overall. Next year, he should see more time as he moves into the regular edge rotation.

Kye Stokes, S. When he was recruited, Stokes was considered an “athlete,” but he’s found a home at safety for the Bucks. I first became aware of him during the spring game, when he was making plays all over the place. Talk about a motor. This season he’s played some defense (74 defensive snaps) in every game but Notre Dame. He’s also frequently on the field during punts and kicks (40 snaps) and has recorded nine total tackles, one of them for a loss, and has forced a fumble. He’s going to be a good one, yet was largely below the recruiting radar at No. 351 overall nationally.

Dallan Hayden, RB. When Pryor was lost for the season, Hayden moved right into the third running back slot. I doubt that he expected that or that he’d see action in every Buckeye game (So much for a red shirt). Although he generally enters the game in mop up time, when everyone is expecting a running play up the middle, he’s still managed to average 4.7 yards on his 54 carries. He has a touchdown and a long run of 45 yards, where he was able to show his speed. He’s got 255 net yards for the year and could easily hit 500 before season’s end.

C.J. Hicks, LB. Hicks, one of two five-star recruits in the 2022 class, was the top-rated player among OSU’s freshmen. This year, he’s played in six games but almost exclusively on special teams. He’s seen 86 snaps and has made five tackles on those plays. Yes, the Bucks have a lot of linebackers. Steele Chambers, Tommy Eichenberg, and Cody Simon have all played really well. And, in the new defensive alignment, there are often only two backers on the field at a time. Still, I would have thought that we’d see more of Hicks.

Sonny Styles, S. Styles reclassified from 2023 to arrive in Columbus a year earlier. He’s the other five-star player in the class. He’s played much more than Hicks. While he’s been in on 97 special teams plays, he’s also been involved in 49 defensive snaps. Styles has six total tackles and one TFL. There’s no question of his talent, but there are a lot of good safeties ahead of him on the Buckeye depth chart.

Bottom line

Well, it’s not just my perception. Freshmen did play more in 2021 and made a larger impact. The question is “why?” Were the players better in 2021? Well, the 2021 class ranked second nationally, the 2022 class fourth. Both are outstanding numbers, and you would think that there might not be that much difference between the two.

While the 2022 class had two five-star players, the 2021 class (after Quinn Ewers reclassified into it) had seven. Ewers is gone, and McCord is biding his time behind C.J. Stroud. The other five, however, are all starting or, in the case of J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer, seeing about equal snaps in a rotation. Egbuka and Donovan Jackson didn’t start as freshmen but are well-entrenched in the starting lineup now, as is former four-star recruit Harrison Jr. Mike Hall Jr. and J.K. Johnson, from the 2021 class, also see considerable playing time and occasional starts.

Are these 2021 players simply better than this year’s group? Maybe so. But to be fair, we should wait until next year to make that call since many of them didn’t really stand out until their second year.

Or is the team better this year, with more returning players? Face it, Ohio State is much more experienced (at nearly every position) and deeper this year than last. It’s one of the primary reasons that the team is superior. That experience and depth make it much harder for guys like Hicks or Curry to crack the lineup. Hayden and Jyaire Brown have gotten playing time through injury.

On the other hand, that freshman class last year was special, and they’re really showing their stuff now. Let’s hope that, when midseason next year rolls around, we’ll be saying the same things about the 2022 class.