Big 10 football commences in eight days with the Buckeyes kicking off at noon, against Nebraska, a day later. For too long it felt like we were never going to see our beloved Ohio State on the field this side of Thanksgiving. Many fans had given up hope of ever seeing Justin Fields in the scarlet and grey again. And what an absolute tragedy that would have been after the Georgia transfer tantalized fans so spectacularly in his first season in Columbus. But thanks to the very public efforts, and the perseverance, of the coaches, players and families of the Ohio State, Nebraska and Iowa programs, the conference was forced to do a volte-face and layout plan for a delayed fall football season. A season that promises one of the all-time greatest offenses in program history.
Over the past two seasons, Ohio State balanced spread & under center formations with such virtuosity that the starters barely saw the field in the second half of games. Opponents were ruthlessly torched to ashes as the Buckeyes coasted through the regular season.
Ryan Day’s first full season as head coach delivered a season that saw the Buckeyes offense finish top-four in the country in points per game, while also ending the season third in total yards per game and led all of football in first downs per game. They were the only offense in the FBS to finish top-four in all those categories.
That booming production looks primed to become even more explosive with top QB Justin Fields & WR Chris Olave entering their junior seasons. Alongside them is a deep crop of supremely talented and young wide receivers, headlined by Olave’s fellow breakout candidate in WR Garrett Wilson, who showed out well in his limited playing time as a freshman.
Fields is, rightly, already tabbed to once again be in hot pursuit of the Heisman Trophy in 2020. He’ll also likely strengthen an already bulletproof case to be the number one overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. And if Olave builds on his 2019 performance, he will make his own case to be taken off the board on Day One.
Fields has a legitimate chance to finish his college career as the best QB to ever do it for Ohio State. And the offense, as a whole, might give the 2019 LSU juggernaut a run for its money. So how does the much-vaunted offense for the Buckeyes shape up?
It doesn’t get more stable & dependable than the o-line that exists in Columbus. The Buckeyes will, again, be trotting out one of the best offensive lines in the country. And possibly the best in program history. A starting line characterized by talent, experience & chemistry.
The line will bring back three starters from 2019. Those three were all part of the same high school class: left tackle Thayer Munford, center Josh Myers & right guard Wyatt Davis (the latter two both redshirt juniors). The other two positions are set to be manned by two first-year starters who were both former five-star recruits: Harry Miller, at left guard and Nicholas Petit-Frere at the right tackle position.
Both Munford, who has over two thousand snaps under his belt, and Josh Myers earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last season. Myers is a solid bet to claim the Rimington Trophy – given to the best center in college football. Wyatt Davis, who is probably the most talented player among the entire position group, could end the season as only the third Buckeyes lineman with multiple All-American honors (Orlando Pace & Chris Ward). Davis was probably good enough last year to enter the draft and be selected in the first round but chose to come back and avenge the 2019 Fiesta Bowl defeat and get another crack at a national title. These three amigos possess an abundance of talent and a ton of experience playing together. All great indicators of a rock-solid line.
New Guys’ Time to Shine
Now for an eye on the fresher blood. Harry Miller looks to slide over from his more familiar center position to the left guard. Manning the spot left vacant by Jonah Jackson. His development as a true freshman last season impressed his coaches enough for Miller to earn the backup center job and line up for 181 snaps last year.
It became clear quickly during the early spring camp that the left guard job was Miller’s to lose. After all, in 2019 he was often the reserve lineman who shone brightest once the starters came out of games during blowout victories. For example, against Maryland, Miller threw the nose tackle around like a ragdoll. Most expect the transition to be smooth for Miller. Having a stalwart left tackle like Munford beside him will also help make that transition a lot easier.
The only real competition for a starting spot was seen to be at right tackle between Nicholas Petit-Frere and Paris Johnson Jr. Most commentators expected 2018 top offensive line recruit – Petit-Frere – to win the job outright and that appears to be confirmed as he is taking the majority of the first-team reps in practice just over a week before the season opener. Petit-Frere had served as the backup RT in each of the last two seasons. Now, he has the chance to put it all together in a starting role after the departure of Branden Bowen to the NFL. Petit-Frere, like many of the 2018 Buckeye recruits, has yet to make a significant impact on the field, but has the physical gifts that offensive line coaches crave – length, flexibility, quick feet, etc.
His first year in Columbus he took a redshirt as the Buckeyes’ defensive struggles kept opponents in games & limited the game time opportunities for reserve & freshman players. In 2019, he saw snaps in 11 games & made one start, for the injured Munford, at left tackle. The kid out of Tampa, FL, showed a great attitude & eagerness to learn, despite not seeing the field as often as he would have liked. Petit-Frere credited his teammates in the o-line room with helping him develop and get better despite the limited snaps. In 2020, he finally gets the opportunity to make his presence felt on the field.
Last year, the offensive line led the way in helping the team finish with 529.9YPG of offense while hanging 46.9PPG on opponents. It paved the way for JK Dobbins to become the first Buckeye running back to eclipse two thousand yards rushing in a single season. By returning three of those starters, & plugging in highly-regarded recruits to man the two vacant spots, the line looks certain to repeat as one of the best in the country. One that will dominate the line of scrimmage to give their star – “I don’t expect to get hit much” – QB plenty of time and space to find his man, while also opening up canyons for an exciting collective of running backs to break away for big momentum gains.
Speaking of running back collectives…
Sadly, “J.K. all day!” is no more. Even a college blue-blood and recruiting powerhouse like Ohio State will struggle to replace the 2,003 yards on the ground which Dobbins racked up so effortlessly. Outside of the three forces teams, who throw the ball fewer times than the Browns win playoff games, the Buckeyes finished behind only Kentucky in rushing yards per game (267.3). Two thousand yards a lot of production to make up. Fortunately, the Buckeyes have the pieces in the backfield to still do plenty of damage in the running game.
How It Might Play Out
The Buckeyes were so far ahead at half time that their reserves saw decent time on the field in 2019. Few did more with that playing time than Master Teague, who ran for 789 yards & four TDs on 135 carries. Teague, a redshirt sophomore, was slated to take over as the feature back before an Achilles injury derailed his 2020 preparations. That injury appears to be behind him and he and running backs coach Tony Alford have few concerns about his readiness to go at full strength on October 24.
RB Marcus Crowley has his own injury woes. The sophomore suffered a minor setback recently in his effort to return from a devastating ACL injury he suffered against Maryland. This, along with Teague’s Achilles problem early in the year, put the overall running back position in a fragile state to begin 2020. That was until former Oklahoma running back Trey Sermon announced that he would be transferring to play ball in Columbus. It seems logical, given the situation with Crowley and the team possibly wanting to take it easy with Teague early on, to assume Sermon will open as the team’s starting back in Week One. However, it is expected that the balance of carries, between Sermon and Teague, will eventually reach a near equilibrium.
The decision will likely be an evolutionary process whereby coaches monitor the status of Teague & Crowley while weighing that against Sermon’s production & assimilation into the team’s offense. Sermon, for his career, has 2,076 rushing yards & averages 6.1YPC. Dobbins averaged 6.2, albeit during a higher volume of carries. So there’s plenty to be excited about once he gets put in a much more advantageous environment to thrive (the Sooners’ O-Line was a rebuilding project in 2019 after losing plenty of experience from its ranks).
For all the potential shrinkage in rushing yards the team might see in 2020, the passing game looks set to make up that gulf and then some. The reason for the stratospheric level of expectation from Buckeyes fans is threefold.
- The Buckeye Breakout Candidates
Chris Olave & Garrett Wilson are both primed for stellar breakout campaigns in their junior & sophomore seasons, respectively. Olave has been on the ascent since his freshman year & became Fields’ go-to guy in 2019, especially as a deep threat. Wilson should step into a starting role, in the slot, now that a path has cleared for him with K.J. Hill, Binjimin Victor & Austin Mack all graduating &, deservedly, catching on with NFL franchises.
Olave finished 2019 with 849 receiving yards, 17.3YPC & 12 TDs. Included in those numbers was a season-high 139 receiving yards against Rutgers & a two-TD game against Big 10 rival Wisconsin. Olave should continue his dominance as the team’s number one receiver & rubber-stamp his position as a first-round draft pick in the 2021 draft. Anthony Treash, of ESPN, put Olave in his list of top-10 WRs for 2020, acknowledging his phenomenal ability to create separation. “Over 57% of his targets thrown 10-plus yards beyond the line of scrimmage had two or more steps of separation.” This tidy stat led the country & was 23% above the national average.
Wilson, a five-star prospect out of Texas & number 20 over prospect in his draft class, hauled in 30 receptions for 432 yards & five-TDs as a freshman. His talent is undeniable & he should join Olave in eclipsing one thousand receiving yards in 2020 (which would be the first time the program ever recorded the feat). With his natural abilities, & the advantage he will have with mismatches in the slot, it’s reasonable to expect Wilson to lead the team in receptions & yards. The receiver corps behind Olave & Wilson are very young, so they will both see the field the majority of the time, boosting the likelihood of both players turning in sensational performances over the course of the season.
2. The Hartline Factor
The second reason for the high expectations is Brian Hartline as a recruiter. Yes, the depth chart behind Olave & Wilson is made up of a very young bunch. But they are arguably the best group of freshman receivers the program has seen in a long time. And Hartline’s recruiting effort is central to that.
Hartline was named ‘Recruiter of the Year’ for the 2020 draft class he brought in at the receiver position.
- Number One WR in the country, Julian Fleming
- Number Five WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba
- Number Ten Gee Scott Jr.
- Number Sixteen Mookie Cooper
The new blood is headlined by five-star recruit Julian Fleming: the highest rated non-QB prospect in the country for the 2020 cycle. He’s a 6’2 athletic juggernaut who clocked a 4.45 forty in high school, coupled with impeccable ball skills & the ability to create separation. Alongside Fleming are Jaxon Smith-Njigba & Gee Scott Jr. Both were rated in the top-10 nationally at the receiver position as part of the same class as Fleming (that’s 30% of the 10-best wide receivers coming into the FBS this season). Although Olave & Wilson will see the lion share of targets this year, each of the young guns still has a chance to contribute in 2020. As a down-field threat, with his jet speed, Fleming is one to especially watch out for.
The third, & final, reason pertains to the man under center.
Buckeyes’ Best to Ever Do It?
The expectations for the wide receiver position pales in comparison to what fans, pundits & NFL scouts believe Ohio State will have at the quarterback position in 2020. Last season, Justin Fields put together one of the best seasons, for a QB, in Ohio State History. Most of Fields’ predecessors went straight to the NFL off the back of their own high-ranking performance. The junior gets the opportunity to go back to Columbus and do even better.
In 2019, Fields threw for 3,273 yards on a 67.2% completion rate to go with 51 total touchdowns against just three picks. The 51 TD mark is second-highest in Buckeyes History for a single season behind only Dwayne Haskins. 41 of the 51 were passing TDs. There’s a very short list of players who have thrown 40+ TDs with just three interceptions. The list has merely Justin Fields on it. In other words, he’s the only one.
With those types of numbers, it’s hard to see where there is much room for improvement. Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson believes Fields will have more opportunities in 2020 to best his 2019 performance. During a teleconference in April for the media, coach Wilson opined: “I guess the playbook technically opens up — although it’s always been kinda open. I just think you’ll see him maybe be even more on target, more accurate.”
More accurate than completing more than two-thirds of his throws? That’s a scary proposition for the rest of the Big 10. Fields, in his first full year under center, finished ninth among P5 QBs in the stat last season. Fields also finished fifth in QB rating (181.4) behind only Tua Tagovailoa, Joe Burrow, Malik Cunningham and Jalen Hurts. Two of those names were fellow Heisman finalists and Tagovailoa made his own trip to New York in 2018. All four, except Cunningham, had enjoyed significantly more playing experience going into the 2019 campaign.
The experience of a full season, while putting on a stellar showing, is an impressive foundation to start from. The perfect recipe – elite coaching staff, talent, chemistry and experience on the OLine, talent & depth at the skill positions – has come together for Fields and the Ohio State offense, to not only eclipse individuals and team records but to go down as one of the greatest offensive units in college football history. The only thing that can sour the taste is a pandemic that could see individual games, or even the entire season, canceled before it is completed and deny Buckeyes fans a stellar offensive spectacle.