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Column: Who are the breakout performers for Ohio State this year?

Some surprising stars emerge in the first two Buckeye games.

NCAA Football: Arkansas State at Ohio State
Freshman running back Dallan Hayden gets into the action
Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Early last year there had already been a number of Ohio State players whom we had declared to have had “breakout” games. Guys like TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams at running back, cornerback Denzel Burke, wideout Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ronnie Hickman in the defensive secondary. And, of course, first-time starter C.J. Stroud had flashed some early magic.

What about this season? To be honest, we haven’t gotten much of a chance to see first-year Buckeyes on the field. But there are a couple of second-year players (and at least one older one) who have turned up as surprises.

New faces from the 2021 recruiting class

The Buckeye recruiting class in 2021 ranked second nationally. It was loaded with five-star players, and many of them played a lot of snaps for OSU last season. We expected strong performances from the top recruits, and we got them. Henderson, J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer all played well. Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka previewed in the Rose Bowl what they’re doing this year. Donovan Jackson did a good job when he played. And Burke and Tyleik Williams were very pleasant surprises on defense.

Heading into this season, I was figuring that maybe wide receiver Jayden Ballard would emerge as a genuine receiving star. My hopes for running back Evan Pryor were dashed (and so were his) with his season-ending injury. And I still think that Kyle McCord will get a chance this year to show us a breakout moment. I must say, however, that more surprises were in store for us this year from that 2021 group.

Mike Hall, Jr.: I admit that I didn’t know much about this guy until he stood out against Notre Dame in Week 1. His play had me going to the internet to get some info. I was expecting Tyleik Williams (who really impressed me last year) to get more snaps in 2022. But it’s been all Mike Hall, Jr. Wow! It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Hall was the higher rated defensive lineman between these two in the class. Hall, in fact, was the No. 53rd-ranked player overall nationally (247Sports Composite) and the No. 10-ranked DL. At 6-foot-2, 290 pounds, he’s quite a bit lighter than Williams’s listed 330, and may be undersized for a nose tackle, but he moves really well.

Hall Jr. burst onto the scene against the Irish, playing 30 snaps (T. Williams had 15) and recording four total tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, and one quarterback hurry. Against Arkansas State, Hall played 28 snaps and made three tackles, all of them for losses, one a sack. The Buckeyes had 12 TFL against the Red Wolves, and it’s really good to see the Buckeye D so much more aggressive than they were a year ago. And Hall, Jr. looks to be a primary reason for that change.

J.K. Johnson: Just as Williams attracted our attention on the interior defensive line last year, Denzel Burke was the star in the backfield. After only a couple of games, Burke was touted as All-American material. But, again, there was a more highly rated player in the 2021 class at Burke’s cornerback position – J.K. Johnson. Johnson, from St. Louis, was the No. 3-rated corner in the class and the No. 50-rated player overall. Talent, speed. But we didn’t see him last year, as he played in a single game – Akron – for only seven snaps.

To be honest, Burke struggled against Arkansas State, blowing coverage, missing tackles, committing penalties. Enter J.K. Johnson. Johnson was on the punt return team, deep, as a returner and as a blocker; he needs some more practice there, obviously. But he also played 50 of the 78 defensive snaps in the game. He was credited with three tackles, and, in my estimation, he played at least as well as Burke and Cam Brown. Probably better. Cornerback depth looked to be a problem in the spring. It still is, but look for Johnson to continue to get playing time. Now, he needs a pick-six.

Class of 2022 first-year players

The high-stakes Notre Dame game didn’t provide an opportunity for Ryan Day to insert his first-year blue chippers. And even in the Arkansas State game we didn’t see reserves enter until midway through the fourth quarter. I don’t think that the outcome was in doubt at that point; the coaches just had some more things that they wanted to see from the starters. The two five-star recruits from the class, Sonny Styles and C.J. Hicks, haven’t yet seen action, nor have we seen quarterback Devin Brown. But a few first-year players have made some waves.

NCAA Football: Arkansas State at Ohio State
Caden Curry against Arkansas State
Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Caden Curry: Seeing Curry sitting on the Buckeye bench, with his scruffy beard and his headband, I thought for a moment that yet another Bosa brother was playing the edge for the Bucks. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Curry got 12 defensive snaps toward the end of the game – and made them count. On those 12 plays, Curry made four tackles, one of them for a six-yard loss. He looked quick and tough.

I know that the edge rusher position is a rich one for the Buckeyes. Not only did four really good ones return, but Curry’s classmate, Omari Abor, also played against the Wolves. The competition is keen, but Curry has to find his way into the rotation.

Dallan Hayden: Hayden wasn’t all that heavily recruited as a running back in the 2022 class. The Buckeyes had three returning running backs and were glad to add Hayden to the room, though. He played eight snaps toward the end of the game and saw a lot of action on those plays. While Stroud didn’t pass much to his backs, McCord did throw to Hayden, who caught two passes for 13 yards and rushed for another 13 yards on his four carries.

It appears that the coaches aren’t reluctant to give Hayden the ball, nor is McCord averse to throwing it his way. Expect to see Hayden, not only after the outcome is decided but also on situational downs where a pass to a back might be just the ticket.

And, now, former walk-on, graduate student Xavier Johnson

Johnson stood out in the Buckeye spring game. I didn’t know who he was, but Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson were gone, so what the heck? Let’s see what he’s got. When JSN and Julian Fleming went down this season, Xavier Johnson became the true surprise of the wide receiver corps. It turns out that he’s big (6-foot-2, 215) and pretty fast, with good hands. His 24-yard touchdown pass from Stroud against Notre Dame was one of the game’s major highlights. He was on the field for 24 offensive snaps in that contest and played 37 snaps last week, where he caught three passes for 14 yards.

No doubt, when the two injured wideouts return, Johnson will see fewer plays, but will still have a chance to shine on special teams. My advice to the Buckeye staff: don’t forget about this guy. He’s got something to offer.

Still to come

I don’t know that we’ve had any true “breakouts” this year. Egbuka and Harrison, Jr. already seem like old-timers, though the former made his first start against Notre Dame and the latter his second. The players discussed above are off to good starts and may just breakout. Kye Stokes was in on seven defensive plays at safety last Saturday, and we have big expectations for him. And I’m sure that we’ll see Hicks and Styles and Brown at some point — maybe even this week against the Toledo Rockets.