We are a mere three days away from fall camp starting. I tend to get a little excited every year but this year seems different. The Buckeyes lost a bunch of big name players, but there just seems to be up-and-coming five-star after up-and-coming five-star ready to step in.
Take a look at the defensive line where Ohio State lost five experienced players in Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis, Jalyn Holmes, Tracy Sprinkle, and Michael Hill. Is there anyone out there who has any doubt the defensive line will dominate even with these massive losses?
Offensively, you have so much talent on this team that guys like Demario McCall and C.J. Saunders will struggle to see the field. At running back, the Buckeyes have two big time players in J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber and they still have Master Teague and Brian Snead waiting in the wings.
With all of the excitement building around this team, I wanted to take a look at the five things that must happen for this team to win a national title.
Dwayne Haskins Limits Mistakes
This Buckeye offense has enough talent to compete with any defense in the nation. There is no reason why it would ever cross your mind for this team to lay a goose egg in a playoff game. With that said, one of the keys for this offense to consistently score a lot of points against good and bad teams will be if Dwayne Haskins can take care of the ball.
Last year as a redshirt freshman, Haskins showed a tremendous amount of potential, but he also showed that he may be prone to a turnover here or there. I’m not sure anyone expects Haskins to throw less interceptions than J.T. Barrett did, but you have to take the good with the bad. As I wrote in June for my projection series, I expect Haskins to dominate, but throw 14 interceptions in the process.
The big questions become this — when does Haskins throw those 14 interceptions? Does the end result of taking so many chances take the Buckeye offense to a different level than we have seen in the past?
I am all for Haskins taking chances down the field in an effort to stretch the defense out a little. If a few of them turn into interceptions, so be it. There are very few teams on the schedule that have the guys in the secondary to out-athlete the Buckeye wide receivers. Get the ball down field and let your great wide receivers make a play over the defensive guys. One of my biggest complaints about Barrett was that he was afraid to take chances, especially down the field. I will take 14 interceptions if they don’t occur in high-pressure situations.
If Haskins is able to limit turnovers in key situations while maintaining his confidence to throw the ball, the Buckeyes should be able to move the ball at will on the ground. You can look at what Dobbins and Weber accomplished last year with the defense crowding the line and imagine how great they could be when the defense has to worry about covering the entire field.
Run the Damn Ball
Every single person reading this article can pinpoint one game in recent memory where the Buckeye coaching staff inexplicably forgot to run the ball. Think back to all of the running backs that have come through with Urban Meyer and there will always be at least one game that comes to mind. For me, it’s pretty simple. Hyde against Michigan State in the 2013 B1G Championship game. Zeke against Michigan State in 2015. Weber against Clemson in 2016. Dobbins against Oklahoma last year. In every one of those games, the Buckeyes had a great back that they should have relied on throughout the game and/or at critical points, but didn’t for some reason.
Fast-forward to this year, the Buckeyes have two studs in Dobbins and Weber. They also have three incredibly tough road games against good defenses with TCU, Penn State, and Michigan State. Additionally, you have an incredibly tough game against Michigan. The Buckeyes will need to trust the process and just feed them the ball to Dobbins and Weber to allow Haskins to feast on the defenses when they sneak up to take away the run.
Linebackers Return to Dominance
Just like the offensive line in State College back in 2016, you can pinpoint when the linebacker crew officially hit rock-bottom and it was in Des Moines, Iowa last season. Sure there were numerous warning signs leading up to that. They looked pretty bad against Oklahoma when guys like Dmitri Flowers streaked wide open, but you could just chalk that up to early season struggles. Numerous other times, they just weren’t what you expected a Buckeye linebacker crew to be.
The Buckeyes tried to make Chris Worley a middle linebacker and that didn’t work. They tried to give Dante Booker the reigns to take the next step and that failed. The staff expected Jerome Baker to be a dominant play-maker and that failed. By the end of the season, they shuffled some guys around and it all came together to be respectable. The Buckeye linebackers should not simply settle on “respectable”.
This season, a youth movement is coming to the linebacker corps. Super-talented guys like Baron Browning, Keandre Jones, Pete Werner, and Justin Hilliard will finally get their chance to step up. They join fellow youngsters Tuf Borland and Malik Harrison who got their feet wet last year. If those guys don’t cut it, freshmen like Teradja Mitchell and Dallas Gant will have no problem taking over.
Simply put, the Buckeye linebackers are set up to succeed this year. This unit is too talented as a group not to succeed. They have an extremely deep and talented defensive line in front of them to occupy bodies. Behind them is a talented defensive backfield. They have one of the most talented and experienced defensive coaching staffs the Buckeyes have ever seen. The talent is not only in their group, it is all around them. There is simply no reason to fail and all of these unproven youngsters need to step up.
Injuries…We Ain’t Got No Time for That!
While I’ve mentioned the depth numerous times, there are certain positions where one or two injuries could affect the overall outcome of the season. As much as I like Haskins and Tate Martell, and as much as Paris Campbell loves him some Matthew Baldwin, even just one injury at the QB position makes me nervous.
On the offensive line, they are already replacing two leaders in Billy Price and Jamarco Jones. While they have a lot of young talent there, I’m not sure how comfortable any of us would be with a freshman having to step in against Penn State or Michigan. With all of the turnover in the defensive backfield over the past couple of years, this position makes me nervous too. An injury to Jordan Fuller or Kendall Sheffield could dramatically alter the course of the season.
Another thing to consider with injuries is the Buckeyes schedule. They don’t exactly have any long stretches where they could get by with someone else filling in at these spots. Early in the season they have TCU and Penn State over a three week period. In November, when the SEC is resting, the Buckeyes finish up with Nebraska, Michigan State, Maryland, and Michigan. All four of these teams should be pretty good. The closest thing you have is a three-week window in October against Indiana, Minnesota, and Purdue. Even with that, Indiana and Purdue are not slouches by any means.
Simply put, injuries are bound to happen. With everyone healthy, I can sit here and honestly say I think Ohio State will win a National Championship. What happens injury-wise between August 1st and January 7th will really be one of the biggest deciding factors.
Trust Your Team
It was kind of discussed earlier but the coaching staff needs to trust the team. There is not a single team on the regular season schedule who has as much talent as the Buckeyes. This is the case most seasons. Even with this being the case, there are a few times every year where the coaching staff almost seems to coach scared. They go into the game playing not to lose. As a guy with numerous EA Sports NCAA Football championships to his name, I’m going to let you in on a secret — this is not the way to do it.
I’m all about running out the clock a little bit when it’s late in the fourth quarter and you have a team like Penn State on the ropes at home. What I have a problem with is running a conservative first half in fear of making a mistake. Trust your team. Trust Paris Campbell to break one 70 yards on a quick crossing route. Trust Binjimen Victor to go up and get a deep ball. Trust Austin Mack to be a legitimate WR1.
The pressure should be on the opposing defense to shut down a high-powered offense. It should not be on your defense to completely shut down an offense. Just like Ohio State did against Michigan State last year, the quickest way to completely alter an opposing team’s game plan is to punch them in the mouth with your offense.
This offense is talented. Probably more talented than we have seen in a while. Make them a dominant force and trust the elite players to make elite plays.