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Column: Looking at the importance of Ohio State’s key draft decisions

With the draft decision deadline approaching rapidly and the transfer window closing, we’re starting to get clarity on Ohio State’s 2023 roster.

NCAA Football: Peach Bowl-Ohio State at Georgia Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The deadline to declare for the NFL Draft for eligible players is Jan. 16, and many Ohio State Buckeyes have already announced their decision. With the first transfer window period closing in a less than week, the Ohio State roster is all but confirmed with a few decisions still on the horizon.

Looking at the level of importance of each decision will give a first look at the roster next year, and we can dive into how much these decisions will impact the Buckeyes entering the 2023 offseason. There are significant shoes to fill, and the expectations won’t change for Ohio State — who was a field goal away from playing for a national championship.

The Buckeyes have already gotten some significant news in some surprise returnees, but the losses they are taking are at key positions.

Key Draft Departures

Ohio State has had four players forego eligibility and leave the program. The remainder of the players on the way out either aged out or transferred. Either way, they don’t fit the criteria of this article, which is players who had a decision to make and would have made a significant impact if they returned.

Paris Johnson Jr.

Paris Johnson Jr. was always a long shot to return, and his talent was recognized early by draft experts as well as NFL talent evaluators. Starting two years on the line, Johnson was named a consensus All-American at offensive tackle. Turning down first round money to return is not something anyone should be asked to do, but that still doesn’t change the fact this leaves arguably the biggest hole on the roster to fill.

Why this is important: Replacing offensive linemen of Johnson’s caliber is hard enough, and to add to that, the position he played is most connected to protecting the quarterback. With a new quarterback starting next year, this loss means there will be new starter responsible for protecting the QB’s blindside. That is not the most ideal situation.

Dawand Jones

On the other side of the line was right tackle Dawand Jones, who was also an All-American tackle in his own right. Coming into Ohio State, Jones was ranked 1043rd in the country by the 247Sports Composite. His development into elite college linemen happened an unforeseen rate by everybody involved — except probably Jones himself.

As a projected Day Two pick in the Draft, Jones could have come back and helped his stock by potentially switching sides. The other side of that coin is returning and hurting the respectable draft grades.

Why this is important: Jones being ahead of schedule in his development means he’s leaving a year early. Now Ohio State has to replace both tackles, with limited experience behind them due to the number of snaps both Jones and Johnson Jr. played. The Buckeyes will be testing their new starting tackles in a trial by fire.

Josh Fryar played 231 snaps – most coming as an extra lineman – and Zen Michalski played 79 snaps. Both players will have a huge opportunity, but will also have big shoes to fill.

Luke Wypler

This decision was seen as a surprise from most, but Luke Wypler is still heading to the NFL. The 5th rated center according to PFF and Day-2 projected pick by most draft experts had another solid year starting for the Buckeyes. Once again, Wypler was ahead of schedule, starting a year earlier than expected due to some unforeseen circumstances. Holding his own, he retained the job and excelled this year.

Why this is important: Losing three offensive linemen out of the four who could have stayed puts a lot of pressure on the coaching staff to develop a unit that can maintain the standard. Looking at Wypler’s decision, the line looks a lot different with the middle three set. Now the Buckeyes have to fill in holes at the three most crucial positions on the offensive line.

Ronnie Hickman

This decision should not come as a surprise, since Hickman was one of the youngest players to walk at Ohio State’s senior day. Hickman had a solid career and was the most consistent safety for the Buckeyes over the last two seasons. Losing him is not necessarily the most significant loss, but replacing his level of consistency mounts a challenge.

Hickman’s NFL Draft range will depend a lot on testing and how much positional versatility he can bring to the table. He is not a sideline to sideline guy, and he does not have the ball hawk nature, but in a zone heavy scheme he can be a solid fit.

Why this is important: Hickman’s decision is important because there are a lot of questions in the back end with both him and McAlister moving on. The Buckeyes added Ja’Had Carter from Syracuse, who can play in the Adjuster role that Hickman did. The question then turns to who fills out the remaining two safety slots, and how consistent can they be.

There is youth in Kye Stokes and Sonny Styles, and there is still a decision for Josh Proctor and Lathan Ransom, as both could return. The Buckeyes have a lot to think about with the safeties moving forward.


On the other side of the decisions, the Buckeyes have three guys coming back who were key contributors in the success of the 2022 team. The Buckeyes had some big decisions made before the bowl games, so those names will not be included here, but the three below will have be looking to improve with another year while also having a similar impact.

Cade Stover

Stover had his moments of excellence, which included hurdling defenders, stretching out for a touchdown, and making his share of catches. Don’t go read any of my articles detailing Ryan Day’s excessive use of Stover in key moments; This is a positive article.

Stover needs to improve on his blocking in space and consistency in the passing game, but he showed he can be a No. 1 tight end. Adding him to the mix with the three headed monster at receiver in Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, and Julian Fleming, and the next starter at quarterback should be in good hands.

Why this is important: Stover brings much needed boost to the tight end room for new tight end coach Keenan Bailey. Bailey will have a player who can be utilized in a multitude of ways and one who will set the standard for the rest. This takes a ton of pressure off the young tight end in Joe Royer, who can be a secondary option, and Gee Scott Jr. will have the Spring to take some more steps to solidify himself with less pressure as well.

Matt Jones

The one returning offensive linemen will most likely be asked to play center and use his wealth of experience to help lead an inexperienced group. Jones played consistently this season, but after suffering an early injury was often the weak link of a strong five on the line. In the run game, Jones will want to show he can be a consistent blocker in space and at the second level. This is also an opportunity potentially to get film at center which would add value to him as a player.

Why this is important: Justin Frye has a huge year in front of him, and having a leader in Jones back will pay dividends. If Ohio State lost all four draft eligible linemen, starting from scratch could lead to some early growing pains. Many of those will still occur, but at least the anchors are there in Jones and returning left guard Donovan Jackson. With all the other returnees at receiver and running back, the pressure will be up front to keep the offense playing at the same level.

Xavier Johnson

Using his sixth year, Johnson gives Ryan Day a Swiss Army knife type weapon to go along with all the other tools in the garage. Johnson had an inconsistent role in the offense this year, playing receiver, running back and also manning kick off return duties for the second half of the season. When he played he was magic, and that is something that will make the offense that much more dangerous.

Why this is important: When you look at key moments in Ohio State’s season, Johnson was a part of quite a few of them. His role probably won’t be expanded, but he definitely warrants his share of touches in a game. Even if his role doesn't result in more consistent usage, having a player that can be trusted in a variety of roles has immense value.

Still Waiting

These players aren’t here to keep your hopes up, but as of writing this article they have yet to make a decision on their futures. One of these guys seems like a reasonable returnee, while the other would come as a huge surprise. The talent and leadership combination would make Ohio State early title favorites – even with the remaining questions on the roster.

Tommy Eichenberg

Eichenberg got my All-American vote on this year’s FWAA ballot, and he was a tackling machine who was at times an eraser of opponents running game. Getting a second year of film has already raised his draft stock, and not many would blame him for professionalizing. That being said, if he chooses to return the defense will have two anchors in the middle. Getting back a leading tackler is not a small win, and Eichenberg seems to be the type of player who wants to right his wrongs.

Why this is important: Ohio State would return six key players in their defensive front, likely making them one of the best units against the run. In year two of Jim Knowles, having back the two starting linebackers will make Knowles even more dangerous in what he can do with the front-six. If Eichenberg leaves, Cody Simon has experience and C.J. Hicks is a blue chip prospect who can bridge the gap. But the return of Eichenberg would mean the world to a defense that needs as many consistent players as possible.

Josh Proctor/Lathan Ransom

These two are paired together. Proctor fell out of favor throughout the season, but still has an athletic upside most players could not dream about. Ransom was Knowles’ favorite player, but had a rough stretch in the final two games. If both guys return, they add experience and physicality to the room, and it seems like both will probably be back. Ransom excelled in the Bandit role, but once again struggled in man coverage, which means he could shift over to Adjuster.

Why this is important: Safety was a position of strength for 90 percent of the season, and returning players is not a bad thing especially with how much youth is in that group. In a year where Sonny Styles, Kye Stokes, and others can play key roles, having a baton passing could make the growth easier for those young guys.

C.J. Stroud

Don’t scoff — he has not made a decision yet!

This would be absurd if Stroud did return with the receiving group that is also coming back. Stroud is a definitive first round caliber quarterback, and will almost certainly head to the NFL. If he did return, Ohio State would be definitive national title favorites, Stroud would be the Heisman favorite, and would also likely walk away with every passing record in Ohio State’s record book.

Stroud would also have the opportunity to rid the one albatross on the his resume with a win against the rival up north. He’s probably going to declare, but the last time I was this sure, Chris Olave announced he was coming back.

Why this is important: There is nothing but faith in Ryan Day’s ability to develop a quarterback, but having a sure thing is always better than traversing the unknown. It is unlikely, and the quarterback room at Ohio State is definitely talented enough to continue the new tradition of Ohio State having first round picks at the position. Stroud returning would be crazy, but until he decides slim possibility remains.

Ohio State has already lost a significant chunk of their roster due to eligibility and players leaving in the transfer portal. With both deadlines approaching rapidly, the roster for the spring is likely going to be finalized here shortly. The key decisions remaining can change the outlook of the team significantly.

The departures on the offensive line are the most worrying. Needing to replace both tackles and the center is no small task, especially given the recruiting misses of the prior position coach. Add to the mix a new quarterback, and all those weapons at the skill positions mean very little until we get the answers about those other two position groups.

On defense, the Buckeyes return most of their key contributors outside of Tommy Eichenberg, who still has to decide. If the Buckeyes get Eichenberg back, year two under Knowles can be even more dangerous.

With the few key decisions remaining, we can finally start diving into what Ohio State will look like next year. Once we get those answers, it will be full steam ahead into preparing for the 2023 season.