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You’re Nuts: Which true freshman will make the biggest impact for Ohio State in 2023

As part of bold predictions week, we’re narrowing our focus to the first-years.

Ohio State tight ends Cade Stover and Jelani Thurman
via @OhioStateFB on Twitter

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 making predictions that may or may not be reasonable, in fact, some might say they are bold. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”Bold Predictions” articles here.

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: The true freshman that will make the biggest impact for Ohio State in 2023.

Josh’s Take

It is Bold Predictions week here at LGHL, which essentially gives us creative freedom to embrace our inner Skip Bayless and/or Colin Cowherd, right Gene? Just fire off hot takes left and right, no interest in sounding rational? Sounds right up my alley.

In all seriousness, making these bold predictions is always a fun exercise. And some of us can end up looking or sounding like geniuses, while others... not so much. But who cares!? Fortune favors the bold, right? So why not go out on a limb? Within reason of course, because LGHL is a respectable and dignified group.

Gene and I are a little less respectable and dignified though, so we wanted to go off the beaten path with our predictions. Meaning we did not want to take a stab at Ohio State’s win-loss record or how many passing yards Kyle McCord will rack up in 2023, although those are fine, fine topics. But they felt a bit too mainstream. I mean, where’s the fun in making a prediction about the Buckeyes’ record when a thousand other people are likely to have the same opinion and/or make the same prediction?

Instead of focusing on the totality of the (OSU) team or any well-known players, we decided to make bold predictions regarding the impact of certain fresh faces. Not fresh faces in the starting lineup... Not those who are ‘just’ new to Columbus... No, Gene and I are looking at true freshmen and predicting which one(s) will make the biggest impact for the Buckeyes in 2023.

I usually bat leadoff, which means I usually get first dibs. And I think there is one obvious choice here, as far as impact freshman are concerned. However, I am not going to make that choice. I am going to leave Carnell Tate on the board, with the expectation that my partner will take him and thank me for making his (Gene’s) life easier.

I could be wrong, but after Tate’s impressive spring, he seems like the obvious choice to make a tangible impact early. I know that he recently experienced a tragic loss, which is much, much bigger than the game of football. But on talent and first impressions alone, he has to be considered the leader in the clubhouse.

Yes, I realize that I just made a baseball reference and a golf reference in close proximity, deal with it.

By skipping over Tate, I definitely backed myself into a corner. But again, we are making bold predictions. I did not want to play it safe. So not only am I going to leave Tate on the board, but I am also going to leave Brandon Inniss on the board and make my prediction about a less-heralded offensive player. One who plays a position that is often the butt of Ohio State fans’ jokes.

The position I am referring to is tight end, and the player is Jelani Thurman. A four-star recruit out of Georgia, Thurman was not just some throw-in for the Buckeyes. He was the third-ranked player at his position, as well as a top-70 national recruit. But because OSU does not typically feature the TE in Ryan Day’s offense, I feel like the massive freshman’s theoretical ceiling is being ignored. Or not talked about enough; that might be a better way to frame it.

But ignoring Thurman’s potential would be unwise. Because he is a freak, freak athlete, the likes of which you rarely see. He is tied for the second tallest player on Ohio State’s roster and weighs more than any other player who does not play on the offensive or defensive line(s). So the measurements alone set him apart. But then you just look at the guy and... yeesh. Thurman is ‘built different’ as the kids would say. Like a power forward or a damn cyborg. He offers up an athletic profile that no other Buckeye can match, other than perhaps Sonny Styles.

Of course, Thurman will need to learn the ins and outs, the intricacies, of playing tight end at the next level. And that is no easy task. He was essentially a glorified, over-sized WR in high school, so Keenan Bailey has his work cut out for him. But coaches, including Bailey, raved about Thurman’s maturity and work ethic during the spring. The latter earned rave reviews all around, setting up to potentially earn real playing time in 2023.

Cade Stover is the incumbent TE, and he will obviously hold onto his starting role. But behind him, I think playing time could be up for grabs. Gee Scott Jr. has been a solid role player and Joe Royer has flashed on occasion, but neither should be guaranteed snaps. Neither has proven to be a tremendous blocker, so it’s not as if Thurman is far behind in that area. And if OSU coaches are looking versatility and upside, I believe the latter offers it up in spades.

Getting down to brass tax, my bold prediction is that Thurman makes the largest and most significant impact of all the true freshman. I think that he will see the second-most snaps at TE and earn a consistent role in the Buckeyes’ passing game, particularly in the red zone.

While Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, and the rest of Ohio State’s wide receivers are likely to soak up most RZ targets, they simply cannot match the physicality of Thurman. Nor can Stover. And sometimes you just need a massive, massive target in or around the end zone. Taking it a step further, I also predict that Thurman will score at least five touchdowns in 2023, matching or even exceeding Stover’s 2022 total.

Call me crazy, Gene, but I have heard much, much worse. I have high expectations for the freshman, and this is me planting my flag on Thurman Island.

Gene’s Take

Josh, I know you tried to give me a layup here with Tate and Inniss, but this is bold predictions, and picking either of the stud freshman receivers just feels too easy.

Plus, while both of these guys are incredibly talented and will almost certainly put together big careers for Ohio State in the future, I’m not quite sure just how much they will factor into the rotation with Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, Julian Fleming, Jayden Ballard and even Xavier Johnson all likely ahead of them and battling for reps.

Instead, since you picked a different offensive player, and one that I do really like at a position of need in Thurman, I am going to take my talents to the defensive side of the ball.

Were we looking at just fresh faces and not freshmen, I would’ve definitely taken a stab at either Davison Igbinosun or Tywone Malone. Igbinosun, the Ole Miss transfer, is a lock in my eyes to start at corner opposite Denzel Burke, and Malone, also by way of the Rebels — will factor into the two-deep at defensive tackle. But, since we are just factoring in the first years, my eyes revert back to that defensive backfield at the same position as Igbinosun, but a different name.

My bold prediction for 2023’s biggest impact freshman is cornerback Jermaine Mathews Jr. out of Cincinnati.

Mathews comes to Columbus as the No. 14 corner in the cycle and the No. 3 player in Ohio as the nation’s No. 148 overall player. He isn’t the highest-rated corner for the Buckeyes in this class — that would be Calvin Simpson-Hunt, the No. 7 corner in 2023 — but Mathews has the leg-up on Simpson-Hunt as the former went through the spring with Ohio State and the latter is a summer enrollee.

A two-sport athlete in football and basketball, Mathews was a late-bloomer as he rose up the recruiting rankings. His best attribute coming out of high school is athleticism, as he has been clocked at running a 4.35 40-yard dash. In addition, 247Sports’ Allen Trieu lauds Mathews’ change of direction and closing speed, noting that he’s shown the ability to play in both man and zone schemes and plays the ball well in the air. If you watched Ohio State’s corners last season, closing speed and playing the ball in the air were two areas where DBs did not exactly excel.

Speaking of last year’s corners, that is a big reason why I think Mathews will have a chance to contribute in his first season on campus. With Burke and Igbinosun almost assured to be your top two names on the depth chart, the reps behind that duo are largely wide open. While guys like Jordan Hancock, Jyaire Brown and Ryan Turner are also competing for reps, none of those guys have really shown all that much in limited playing time to this point. Lorenzo Styles Jr. from Notre Dame is here as well, but this year will likely be a transition for him as he moves from receiver to DB, so I don’t think he factors in just yet.

Both Mathews Jr. and Simpson-Hunt will have a chance to earn themselves some reps this year, but as mentioned earlier, a strong spring from Mathews has him in the driver seat to earn real reps at a position where Ohio State could really use some fresh faces to step up. By year’s end, I would not be surprised if Mathews Jr. is the No. 3 guy at corner, and potentially even No. 2 if Burke or Igbinosun struggle.