CHICAGO — Like all Big Ten teams, Ohio State could only bring three players to Big Ten Media Days to represent the entire squad.
For the Buckeyes, the representation was an accurate portrayal of what they’ll be relying most on this season.
On a team that lost 16 starters, including 12 selections in the first four rounds of the NFL Draft, the returning stars are few and far between. But the players they did bring to Chicago’s Big Ten kickoff — quarterback J.T. Barrett, center Pat Elflein and middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan — check off some pretty important boxes.
“A little bit like the baseball metaphor, you need to be strong up the middle. We’re very strong,” coach Urban Meyer said. “And that’s all eyes will be focused on the center and the quarterback. And if I had my draft picks, those are the two I’d pick.
“The same on defense. All eyes are on the center of your defense, and that’s the middle linebacker.”
In Barrett, Ohio State has a third-year starting quarterback in a Big Ten East division in which none of the other top five teams from last year have a starting quarterback returning. Barrett finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a freshman in 2014 when he led the Big Ten in completion percentage (64.6), touchdown passes (34) and yards per attempt (9.8).
He had an up-and-down 2015 after recovering from ankle surgery, but he finished the season strong with 252 total yards against Michigan and 307 yards against Notre Dame.
This year, he’ll be the glue that holds together an entire offense of new skill players, including a redshirt freshman running back in Mike Weber.
“This year, I’m trying to help the young guys to get up to our standard of how we play at Ohio State and make sure that they understand we don’t have rebuilding years,” Barrett said. “The expectations aren’t going to change because y’all don’t have experience.”
In Elflein, the Buckeyes have a third-year starter on the offensive line who will be moving from guard to center for his senior season. He was a second-team All-American last season, opening up massive holes in the running game for Ezekiel Elliott to surpass the 1,800-yard plateau for the second straight year.
This season, he’ll move inside to a position where he has a little more control of the offensive line, which has always been the strength of a Meyer offense but now has to replace three starters.
“Pat Elfein, in my opinion, is the best center in college football,” Meyer said.
And in McMillan, who is a junior but a strong candidate to enter the draft after the season, the Buckeyes have a third-year starter at the quarterback role on defense. He came to Ohio State as the No. 1 linebacker recruit in the country, according to 247sports.com’s composite average. He has only ascended from there, splitting starter reps as a freshman and then taking the job full-time last season, when he posted a team-high 119 tackles and earned a Second-Team All-Big Ten selection for the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense.
The softer-spoken junior admitted he hasn’t been asked to lead too much yet on an experienced defense, but he knows that is changing on a unit where he is one of only three returning starters. Like Elflein and Barrett, he knows he’ll be counted on not only to make big plays but to also get young players in the right positions to do the same.
“If you’re not strong down the core, then you’re not strong at all,” McMillan said.