Ohio State coach Urban Meyer will face a unique challenge during his fifth season in Columbus. The Buckeyes enter 2016 without 16 starters from last year, 12 of which went onto the NFL.
That’s an insane amount of talent the Buckeyes will be forced to replace this season and the program’s six returning starters is the fewest total in the Big Ten. But if anyone is able to fill in the missing pieces, it’s Meyer. It’s all about winning championships in Columbus and roster attrition won’t be a suitable excuse for anything less.
Here’s a look at the five most important players Ohio State must replace, along with a glance at the role players who could take on a starring role in 2016.
5. CB Eli Apple
Apple was named to the All-Big Ten second team after an impressive redshirt sophomore season. Apple was one of the best cover cornerbacks in the conference and parlayed a stellar season into becoming the No. 10 pick in the NFL draft.
Opponents respected Apple’s coverage skills and rarely targeted him last year. Apple broke up eight passes and picked off one pass last season. He also recorded 33 tackles and two tackles for loss.
Who can replace him: Junior corner Gareon Conley will be expected to become Ohio State’s top cornerback. Conley broke out during his redshirt sophomore season after recording two interceptions and breaking up five passes last season. He also finished eighth on the team with 49 total tackles.
4. OT Taylor Decker
Ohio State will be without its anchor along the offensive line. Decker was named to the All-Big Ten First Team and was honored as the conference’s best offensive lineman in 2015. An immensely talented player and co-captain, Decker was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the first round of the NFL draft.
Who can replace him: Junior Jamarco Jones has taken reps with the first team at left tackle and should be the guy to replace Decker in 2016.
3. LB Darron Lee
Lee was an indispensable member of Ohio State’s front seven and he was taken with the 20th pick in the NFL draft by the New York Jets. The converted safety played a variety of roles for the Buckeyes. He recorded 66 tackles, 4.5 sacks and picked off one pass.
Lee’s unique athleticism makes him an even tougher player to replace. The All-Big Ten third- team member was capable of rushing the passer and held up in coverage against wide receivers and running backs. There aren’t many linebackers with those athletic traits, even as players continue to get faster at the collegiate level.
Who can replace him: There really isn’t a player who can do exactly what Lee did, but the best candidate to replace him is junior linebacker Chris Worley. His build is nearly identical to Lee’s and he has some playing experience as a reserve. Worley recorded 17 tackles and one sack last season. Sophomore Jerome Baker also could get a crack at Lee’s spot as the Buckeyes attempt to replace eight defensive starters.
2. RB Ezekiel Elliott
There’s no question Elliott will be missed in Columbus, even if Ohio State’s offense is conducive to kicking out` talented running backs. Elliott rushed for 1,821 yards and 23 touchdowns during his junior season and was taken with the fourth overall pick by the Dallas Cowboys.
Ohio State might not be capable of replacing Elliott, but that was said before Elliott stepped in for the departed Carlos Hyde in 2014. Life without the All-Big Ten first-team selection and the Big Ten’s running back of the year will be difficult for OSU.
Who can replace him: It appears to be a two-horse race between redshirt senior Bri’onte Dunn and redshirt freshman Mike Weber. Neither has much playing experience, but that doesn’t mean too much. Elliott was a relatively inexperienced sophomore when he broke out in 2014. Meyer has also hinted at the possibility of giving H-backs Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson some carries. A committee approach could be utilized.
1. DE Joey Bosa
Bosa is likely the hardest player to replace this season and could be a transcendent talent at the next level. He was named the conference’s Defensive Lineman of the Year and a first-team All-Big Ten selection.
Bosa recorded 51 tackles and five sacks last season while garnering a ton of attention from opposing blockers. The stat sheet might not properly reflect Bosa’s impact on the defense. Bosa’s presence helped free up teammates Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard, who combined for 14.5 sacks. He will likely be a star in the NFL after being drafted third overall by the San Diego Chargers.
Who can replace him: Lewis will likely fill in for Bosa next season and could be the program’s next menacing defensive end. Lewis is recovering from offseason surgery, but should be ready by fall practice. Junior Jalyn Holmes also could see increased playing time as a pass rusher after tallying one sack last season.