Ohio State Buckeyes football 2017 season preview, schedule, players to watch

By Doug Bean, The Sports Xchange  |  Aug. 16, 2017 at 8:11 PM
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer has set the bar so high at Ohio State that anything short of a Big Ten championship and a berth in the College Football Playoff is considered a disappointment.

If the pollsters and pundits are right, Ohio State fans and players won't be disappointed this season after the team finished 11-2 a year ago, losing in a CFP semifinal and to Penn State during the regular season.

"Obviously, we weren't at the top a year ago," Meyer said. "We were near the top. And Ohio State is always going to be there. I mean, it should be one of the top schools in our conference. And other than that, I think (preseason rankings), that's just respect for our players, respect that we recruited some good players and means no consequence at all in how we do our business."

As the Buckeyes prepare for their Aug. 31 opener on the road against Indiana, they are considered one of the most talented teams in the country, a favorite along with Penn State to win the tough Big Ten East Division and a candidate to make it back to the CFP, where they were embarrassed by Clemson last year in a 31-0 loss.

The talent that Meyer has continued to stockpile through highly-ranked recruiting classes is bearing fruit. Even though the Buckeyes keep losing first-round NFL draft picks each year, they're replacing them with gifted athletes who also are destined to play in the pros.

Everywhere you look this year, the Buckeyes again have either a returning starter or a pro-caliber player. One of those position groups is the defensive line.

Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano turned some heads earlier this summer when asked if Ohio State's defensive line was the best he has coached in his career, which includes two years as head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL.

"It is, and that's not a joke," Schiano said. "We had a great player in Tampa by the name of Gerald McCoy, a tremendous player, but that was one guy. I go back to my days at Miami (as defensive coordinator) in '99 and 2000, this is clearly a better group than those guys, so that's saying something."

That might not be an exaggeration. The line is so loaded that sophomore defensive end Nick Bosa, the younger brother of former Ohio State standout Joey Bosa, is a NFL prospect but not projected as a starter for Ohio State.

Senior defensive end Tyquan Lewis and junior defensive end Sam Hubbard are possible first-round draft picks in 2018. Lewis had eight sacks last year.

Dre'Mont Jones, Jalyn Holmes, Michael Hill and Robert Landers are also potential future draft picks. And freshman defensive end Chase Young has been one of the most impressive players in preseason camp.

The linebackers also have plenty of experience and ability. Quick and athletic Jerome Baker is another possible first-round draft pick and Dante Booker is ready for a breakout year coming off a season-ending knee injury.

Most teams would have trouble absorbing the loss of two defensive backs and a safety who were picked in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft, but others are ready to step in. Cornerbacks Damon Arnette and Denzel Ward and safety Damon Webb saw playing time last year, and five-star cornerbacks Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade and four-star safety Isaiah Pryor are ready to go.

But the biggest topic of conservation around Columbus is the quarterback position. Despite J.T. Barrett's success during the past four years, there are critics who believe he could be better, particularly after the disappointing loss to Clemson in the CFP semifinal in January.

Meyer went out and hired offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, the former Indiana head coach, and Ryan Day to give the offense a reset. As a result, the Buckeyes expect to be more explosive this year and utilize Barrett more as a passer than a runner.

"We'd rather not use (Barrett) as much (to run the ball)," Meyer said. "That's not an indication things are going well. Sometimes you need to do it. But that's also a get-out-of-jail-free card when things aren't going as well. So, right now the receivers are playing at a fairly high level. At times when we use (the quarterback run) too much, that's when things aren't clicking at other spots."

The receivers were underwhelming last year, Meyer said, but that's expected to improve with a rotation that includes K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, Johnnie Dixon, Austin Mack, Terry McLaurin and Parris Campbell.

At running back, Mike Weber is back after rushing for 1,096 yards as a redshirt freshman last year and the offensive line, led by center Billy Price, is solid and experienced.

As for the schedule, the marquee non-conference matchup is against Oklahoma on Sept. 9. In the Big Ten, the Buckeyes play Penn State at home on Oct. 28 and travel to Michigan for the annual finale on Nov. 25.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB J.T. Barrett -- Barrett is the unquestioned leader of the Ohio State offense as a senior beginning his fourth year. Barrett is 26-4 as a starter during his career. Last year, he was the Big Ten Player of the Year while setting an Ohio State record with 233 pass completions. The Texas native holds numerous school records and a Big Ten record of 45 touchdowns responsible for in a season. But as well as Barrett has played during his career, he could be improved this year and that's a scary thought for opposing defenses. New co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ryan Day has worked with Barrett on his accuracy and he should excel in new coordinator Brian Wilson's offense. Barrett should remain one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. Last year, he accounted for 3,275 yards of total offense (2,428 passing, 847 rushing). Head coach Urban Meyer has been impressed in preseason camp. "His accuracy and his energy level is incredible," Meyer said. "He's got complete ownership of everything going on in that offense. He's a very accurate player."

BREAKOUT STAR: LB Dante Booker -- Last season, Booker was poised to emerge as one of Ohio State's great linebackers until he went down with a knee injury in the season opener against Bowling Green. He had waited his turn behind Joshua Perry for two years and suddenly the season was taken away from him. But he rehabbed the knee and rejoins a talented linebacking group that includes NFL first-round prospect Jerome Baker. Booker could be ready to do something similar to S Malik Hooker, who waited his turn at safety and was rewarded as a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft after one standout season. It remains to be seen whether Booker plays himself into a high draft pick, but at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds he certainly has the physical tools. "He's a big explosive athlete and he's out in space," linebackers coach Bill Davis said. "So, if you want to put a receiver on him, he can run good enough to cover. If you want to block him with a receiver, it's a long day. When you have the combination of size and speed like he has, you can take advantage of it."

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: RB J.K. Dobbins -- Ohio State has a wealth of talented freshmen this year and Dobbins is near the top of the list. The Texas native has impressed coaches so much since enrolling in January and in the preseason that he has moved up to No. 2 behind returning starter Mike Weber on the depth chart alongside Demario McCall. Head coach Urban Meyer hasn't hidden the fact that he expects Dobbins to contribute to the offense right away. "He's going to play," Meyer said. The 5-foot-10, 208-pound Dobbins missed his senior season in high school after breaking a bone in a leg, but rushed for 5,149 yards and 74 touchdowns in his first three years.

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