COLUMBUS, Ohio — The journey to the next College Football Playoff already has begun.
And after being forced to sit at home and watch as the 2017 season wrapped up, Ohio State is making it clear that it fully expects to be involved on the biggest stage at the end of the 2018 season.
So, how do the Buckeyes get there? Obviously that effort will rely on the healthy amount of returning starters for the Buckeyes, and much of it will be determined by how smoothly the transition goes at quarterback.
But the real key will be identifying the next wave of stars or key contributors who were in the background this season as the Buckeyes claimed the Big Ten title. It’s extremely early and spring practice is about two months away, but here are five Buckeyes — not including Dwayne Haskins — who could be poised for major breakouts as the program plots a return to contend for the national crown.
The expectations were already sky high for this massive, gifted offensive tackle after his recruitment, and they’ve only grown based on the way he handled his freshman season. Thayer Munford drew nothing but glowing reviews for his reps during preparations for the Cotton Bowl, building on the excitement he had generated with just one eye-popping block off the bench to help spring J.T. Barrett for a touchdown run in the win over Michigan. With Jamarco Jones off to the NFL, Ohio State will need to fill that crucial left tackle spot. Whether that means some shuffling that puts Munford at guard, or whether he can win a job at tackle, he’s likely to be a key part of the Buckeyes line.
There was a clear step forward by the tall, springy wideout as a sophomore, and Ohio State shouldn’t complain much about getting 7 touchdowns from Binjimen Victor. But it’s clear there is even more potential waiting to be tapped, and the Buckeyes almost will certainly want Victor to finish higher than No. 6 on the team in receptions next fall. Haskins’ stronger arm means the offense could stretch the field more often. Add in another year for Victor to develop physically, and that should be the perfect combination for a huge season.
Isaiah Pryor paid his dues as a freshman reserve, chipping in on special teams and turning heads during practices in December. That’s the process that generally leads to more responsibility for players with Pryor’s athleticism, particularly when coupled with the need for Ohio State to replace Damon Webb at safety. Pryor chipped in 13 tackles and a sack during his debut season, and the Buckeyes have made no secret about how high they believe his ceiling is in the secondary. If Pryor keeps developing, he could be part of a tantalizing safety tandem with Jordan Fuller.
The Buckeyes got a sneak peek at the future when outside linebacker Malik Harrison was pressed into the starting lineup when Jerome Baker was injured for the crucial Michigan State game in November. They had to love what they saw from Harrison. The Buckeyes were dominant defensively in that game, and Harrison proved he wasn’t out of place in a high-stakes, physical battle. The standard is high with Baker off to the NFL, and there will be pressure now that Harrison has to fill that role on a full-time basis, but he has the tools to be the next star at that position for the Silver Bullets.
There is plenty of production to replace for the Rushmen with Tyquan Lewis, Jalyn Holmes and Sam Hubbard all heading to the NFL, and odds are Nick Bosa won’t be able to fill it by himself. Chase Young will help the cause, but Jonathon Cooper is going to be a key part of that effort as defensive line coach Larry Johnson tries to keep his system of rotating pass rushers in place. Heading into his junior season, Cooper already has added more than 25 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame after initially being considered as an option at linebacker. But he’s found a home at defensive end and will have a chance to leave a mark there next season.