COLUMBUS, Ohio — Now in his 15th season as a head coach, Urban Meyer has coached — and coached against — no shortage of future NFL draft picks.
So when the Ohio State head coach shared his assessment of Penn State running back Saquon Barkley earlier this week, it carried a certain amount of cache.
“A first-rounder,” Meyer said of the 5-foot-11, 223-pound sophomore. “That’s No. 1 on the hit parade as far as Penn State, to stop them.”
Meyer paused and corrected himself.
“You won’t stop him.”
Meyer would know — and not just because of the breakout game of Barkley’s college career came in Columbus a year ago when the then-true freshman gashed the Buckeyes defense for 194 yards in a 38-10 Ohio State win. Having had the likes of Alex Smith, Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and Ezekiel Elliott on his side, Meyer is well aware of just how valuable it can be for a team to have a future first-rounder at its disposal.
The advantage? An opponent can do everything it’s supposed to from a game-planning and execution standpoint and still find itself on the wrong side of a game being taken over by a highly touted pro prospect.
“That’s it,” Meyer said. “I talked to [OSU defensive coordinator Luke Fickell] right before going out [to practice] and I said, ‘Give me some of your thoughts, your biggest concerns’ and he said, ‘The tailback. You can have everything locked down and he still creates plays.'”
In his six seasons at Florida, Meyer game-planned against a slew of future first-rounders, including Jay Cutler, Joseph Addai, JaMarcus Russell, Dwayne Bowe, Matthew Stafford, Mark Ingram, Julio Jones and Sam Bradford. At Ohio State, he’s only added to that list, with the Buckeyes having faced Blake Bortles, Sammy Watkins, Marcus Mariota and Amari Cooper, among others, in the past four years.
In three of Meyer’s four losses at Ohio State, the Buckeyes’ opponent has possessed a future first-round pick.
Here’s a look at how Meyer’s Ohio State teams have fared against the future first-rounders they’ve faced:
While Meyer has faced his share of first-round talents who were capable of controlling the game with the ball in their hands, perhaps the most glaring example he’s seen of the impact a pro-caliber player can have came against a pro prospect on the defensive side of the ball.
In the days leading up to the Buckeyes’ 2013 season opener against Buffalo, the then-second-year Ohio State head coach expressed concern about a Bulls linebacker he referred to simply as “No. 46.”
By the end of the Buckeyes’ closer-than-it-appeared 40-20 win, Meyer knew Khalil Mack’s name.
Keeping an undermanned Buffalo team in contention with the high-powered Buckeyes almost entirely on his own, Mack’s ability was apparent in extended stretches against Ohio State. By the end of the day, the future No. 5 overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft and Oakland Raiders All-Pro had tallied nine tackles, including 2.5 sacks, as well as an interception, which he returned 45 yards for a touchdown.
At the time, the Buckeyes’ offensive line was one of the best in college football and included four future NFL starters, including a first-round pick of its own in Taylor Decker.
It didn’t matter. Sometimes a first-round talent is just too much to handle.
“Great players, that’s what makes them great is even when it’s not there,” said Meyer. “A lot of guys can do it when it’s wide open.”
That’s the challenge the Buckeyes find themselves facing on Saturday with Barkley — now just a sophomore — already being projected as a first-round pick not just by Meyer, but WalterFootball.com, as well. Perhaps fittingly, it was Barkley’s breakout game against Ohio State a year ago that first put him on the NFL’s radar, with this weekend’s battle with the Buckeyes giving him an opportunity to solidify his status as a future first-rounder.
“He’s one of the top running backs in the nation, if not the top running back in the nation,” said Buckeyes safety Malik Hooker, who’s beginning to generate some first-round buzz of his own. “We gotta go out and stop the run game. That’s the key to this game.”
Ohio State may very well be up to the task.
The last time the Buckeyes faced a future first-round running back came in the 2014 Big Ten title game, which Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon III entered as a bonafide Heisman Trophy candidate. But despite his gaudy numbers coming into the game, Ohio State shutdown the future San Diego Charger, holding Gordon to just 76 yards on 26 carries—more than four yards fewer than his season average of 7.54 yards per carry.
The key the Buckeyes found to shutting down Gordon will likely be similar to what Meyer attempts to implement against Barkley in State College this weekend.
“I’m going to give you the coach-speak answer,” Meyer warned. “You got to tackle well and make sure your gap’s sound.”
But even then, he knows that might not be enough.