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‘This or That’: Which player improving would make the biggest difference for Ohio State in 2023

Ohio State returns talent, but some players will need to take a significant step forward in more prominent roles.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 31 Semifinal Game Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about taking sides in head-to-head debates. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”This or That” articles here.

Ohio State came into last season with a lot of questions at key positions, many of those questions were answered with incredible production at important positions. This season is no different with the Buckeyes having a new starting quarterback, three offensive linemen, and two safety spots on defense. Even with all these questions, the expectation is still the same at Ohio State.

Players are expected to translate their recruiting rankings to on-field production, and if a player did, there is always a thirst for more from anyone on the field. Tommy Eichenberg turned in a strong Rose Bowl performance into a dominant year at linebacker, Marvin Harrison Jr. had three touchdown catches in that same game which translated into a breakout season, and many other Ohio State players previously have followed an incredibly similar trajectory

The importance of improvement is exactly how a team goes from missing out on a national championship game by a field goal and leaving no doubt that they are the team to beat. Ohio State’s roster is once again one of the best in the country, the stars obviously need to take another step. But a national championship will be won by the guys not talked about nationally taking a step forward.

This player taking that step forward could be the difference between having the depth to win a title, or just having another season come up just short. Looking at both sides the ball, the improvement of these players is what will take this Ohio State team to that national championship level again.


Offensively the importance of players taking a step forward is significant for one reason, Ohio State will have a first-year starter at quarterback. The offensive line will also have some significant questions, so players will need to step up to bridge the gap until all parts are equal. With Brian Hartline in his first year as the offensive coordinator, these challenges will be amplified for the Buckeyes as they navigate through this season.

The big names will be expected to not only excel, but lead the way for everyone involved on this side. Those guys are Marvin Harrison Jr., Donovan Jackson, and the running back room. First-year starters cannot improve, so that leaves a list of players who need to enter the elite category. If Ohio State’s offense is going to maintain the elite level with all the question marks, these players’ improvement can make the biggest for the offense in 2023.

Emeka Egbuka

Emeka Egbuka was solid and reliable last season, he was often the safety valve for Stroud early in the year as a matchup nightmare out of the slot. Watching last season, he was vital in almost every way for the Buckeyes with his 74 catches, 1151 receiving yards, and 12 total touchdowns. The reason Egbuka needs to improve is because of what happened against Georgia when his running mate Marvin Harrison Jr. was knocked out of the game.

This story really starts at the beginning of the 2022 season, Ohio State had a projected three-headed monster led by Jaxon Smith-Njigba who was returning after leading the team in receptions and receiving yards. The Buckeyes star returnee ended up getting injured in the first game of the season, and never truly returned to form. This injury led to the Buckeyes needing an immediate maturation of two first-year starters at receiver.

There is no perfect world in football, but we recently saw the two most dominant offenses of all time — LSU (2019) and Alabama (2020) — use elite receiving groups to lay claim to a championship. Alabama was even able to overcome the loss of future first-round pick Jaylen Waddle due to the depth of the room.

For Ohio State’s offense to best equip itself to take on the ups and downs of a new quarterback, Egbuka taking the step into the truly elite tier of receivers can be the difference next year. That starts with consistency, and making defenses pay when they don’t give him the respect he deserves. Having two number ones is better than having one and two, that is what Egbuka can bring to the table in 2023 if he takes another step forward.

Matt Jones

Matt Jones has a ton of experience at this point in his career and due to his seniority will be seen as an offensive leader. Jones did not rank far behind Jackson in player grading by PFF, but the general feel of the two players could not be on different ends of the spectrum. Looking at the offensive line, the only real sure thing is Donovan Jackson who could end up being a first-round pick.

Jones has an opportunity to be a lynchpin, when it comes to getting the best five linemen on the field, he definitely fits into that category. Most assumed he would play at left guard, but center is an option that so recently came to my mind as a possible place to play. For those who forgot, Jones was the 69th-ranked recruit according to the 247Sports Composite Rankings at center out of high school.

Regardless of position, last season Jones had two draft picks surrounding him at center and right tackle. Jones did his part, but a lot of Ohio State’s run game was held up by the interior offensive line as well as Jones being slow up to the second level. If Jones can make improvements in his foot speed and consistency, Ohio State can have two linemen anchoring their three new faces.

A Tight End

Let’s face it, Ohio State is going to run 12-personnel a lot. Since Ryan Day has taken over this has been the formation they have used the most outside of 11-personnel. This means the emergence of a second tight end to roll with Cade Stover is not only a need but a necessity. Last season, Gee Scott Jr. was often the third tight end used after Stover and Mitch Rossi.

There are expectations that Joe Royer with a full offseason training for real play time could be next up at tight end. With new tight end coach Keenan Bailey, he discussed the same prerequisites at Ohio State’s coaching clinic that Kevin Wilson did previously. The second tight end needs to be able to block. This is the challenge whoever is challenging for the role needs to overcome, and this is for good reason.

Stover struggled to block in space, and Rossi was unable to consistently block as an inline tight end. Ohio State’s offense can truly level up with an elite blocker, they have plenty of athletes at the position who can catch. This was another position that could have used that one more reliable option.


Last season began the rebuilding of Ohio State’s defensive reputation, despite how the year ended the defense improved significantly in year one under Jim Knowles. Year two should be even better for the Buckeyes with additional experience, but there is immense pressure to take the defense from good to elite.

The pressure is going to be on the J.T. Tuimoloau, Mike Hall, and the cornerbacks to really take lead the defensive success in 2023. This group is expected to take that step and reinvigorate the silver bullets. If they’re great the Buckeyes are set up for success, but they can not do it alone. Across the field, there is a long list of players who need to take steps forward that can truly make that major difference in the defense becoming truly the best.

Jack Sawyer

Sawyer is playing defensive end again, that is the only place to start here. The “Jack” linebacker experiment had high expectations, but never unlocked Sawyer or took the defense to a higher level. Splitting time between the “Jack” role and defensive end led to little production. He had 24 tackles and 4.5 sacks, his sacks came against Toledo, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland.

Those are great sacks to have, but only one of those sacks came in a game where Ohio State did not have it in hand. Sawyer’s return to his role as a full-time edge rusher should lead to more production in the pass-rushing categories which is needed. One way to help the secondary is more pressure, and if Sawyer can be dangerous as a rusher teams won’t be able to commit slides and running back help to one side.

Sawyer has not lived up to the billing, this year is the year he can reignite the edge rusher lineage at Ohio State. His recruiting ranking gave him Bosa expectations, those are lofty and should not be the bar he has to clear. If he can double his sacks and tackles, and have impactful moments more consistently, the Buckeyes defense can find its highest ceiling.

Jordan Hancock

This might be unfair to Hancock due to his unfortunate run-in with injuries before the season even started. Coming into Fall camp expectations, the Georgia native was supposed to be the guy across Denzel Burke. The Buckeyes struggled at the position, injuries and inconsistent play plagued the secondary.

Hancock has the talent, there is no other reason the coaches talked about his talents so much leading up to the season. He needs to be on the field, for his team and himself. The Buckeyes brought in Davison Igbinosun to hedge their bets at the position, but the last two seasons have shown that more than two corners will need to step up.

If Hancock can stay on the field, and provide the physical man-coverage his recruiting profile talks about, he can solidify the secondary. Questions about the corner position will need to be answered on the field, but Hancock can be the difference in those final improvements needed in the secondary to make the defense truly elite.

Tyliek Williams

Consistency is the only part of Williams’ game that is missing, in his young career at Ohio State he showed a rare size of strength, explosiveness, and ability on the defensive line. Last year he only had one sack, the year prior he had five which means there was a significant drop-off.

Williams was challenged all year about becoming more consistent in the pass rush and against the run. This offseason he has said to be getting into better shape, and he even talked about the need to be more consistent. If he can contribute in a more profound manner, Ohio State has the potential to have the most dominant defensive line in the country.

If Williams wants time in more key moments, he needs to show he can do the dirty work in less high-pressure situations. There is a reason Ty Hamilton and Mike Hall are seen as the starters. There will obviously be a rotation, but if Williams earns an increase in snaps, his ceiling might be the highest upfront. That would make for an incredibly fearsome defensive front, and that might be the difference in having a good season or contending for a national title.

If these Buckeyes become what is expected of them, Ohio State should have little worry about the rest of the holes on the roster. Egbuka stepping up further would make the first-year quarterback that much more comfortable, Matt Jones can help anchor the fresh faces on the line, and the defenders can take the defense back to that nationally dominant level.

This is not a team that can afford steps backwards with the expectations being as high as they are for the program. Even the players with a lot of production on their resumes are expected to improve year-over-year. That improvement is what makes all the players returning from last year’s team a national championship team this year. The stars obviously have expectations to add to the legacies before them, but championships are won on depth.

Ohio State has a few questions, they have a ton of returning talent, but taking that step forward is always a challenge. For this team to be national champions, that list of players can not only be difference makers, but they can be the difference in getting back to champion status. The player who makes the biggest difference, in the end, can be anyone, but it starts with the roster improving top-to-bottom.