COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — When fall camp opened, coach Urban Meyer had a pretty good idea how quarterback J.T. Barrett played would dictate Ohio State’s fortunes, that Curtis Samuel would be a top playmaker and Mike Weber had what it took to be the next elite tailback in Columbus.
Those were pretty safe bets.
But some other things happened in 2016 that not even Meyer could have predicted — most of them good.
With the Buckeyes preparing to play in the College Football Playoff on Saturday, here are five surprises from this season:
AN ELITE DEFENSE EMERGES
With just three starters returning from last year’s defense that featured a half dozen NFL draft picks, this season’s D was one of the major question marks in the preseason. But the Buckeyes just reloaded with more elite players.
Ohio State had the fifth best overall defense in the country, limiting opponents to about 282 yards per game, less than 5 yards per play. The Buckeyes had the No. 1 pass efficiency defense in the country and the No. 3 scoring defense. They logged 19 interceptions — tied for fourth in the nation — and were tops with seven of them returned for touchdowns.
HOOKER MAKES FIRST-TEAM ALL AMERICAN
Coaches saw Malik Hooker’s potential before the season and knew they’d have to rely on him to help shore up the secondary after the departure of Vonn Bell, Tyvis Powell and Eli Apple. The redshirt sophomore safety became a sensation with highlight-reel interceptions, stunning closing speed and monstrous hits.
Hooker, who actually preferred basketball in high school, ranks sixth nationally with six interceptions and led the FBS with three pick-sixes. He ranked second nationally with 181 punt return yards and he was third on the team with 67 tackles. The first-team All-American has already said he’ll be back for the 2017 season.
NO DEEP THREAT — AGAIN
The spring game was an air show featuring Ohio State’s crop of young receivers who were now going to get their turn. The hope was that one or more would emerge a consistent deep-ball threat. But that never happened.
After Noah Brown caught four touchdown passes in the win over Oklahoma in September, he looked like he might be that guy. But Brown caught just two TD passes the rest of the season, finishing with 30 catches and 385 yards. His longest completion after Oklahoma was 34 yards.
Buckeyes receivers had trouble at times getting open, which bogged down the passing game mid-season.
“I thought we would be better throwing the ball,” Meyer acknowledged. “Whether it be protection, whether it be separation by wideouts, it’s not one thing.”
TWO WORDS: BAKER AND LANDERS
Linebacker Jerome Baker and defensive tackle Robert Landers were among the next men up when two key starters on the Ohio State defense were injured early.
Outside linebacker Dante Booker and defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle were lost to knee injuries in the opening game against Bowling Green. Baker and Landers were waiting in the wings.
Baker, who began the season expecting to be mainly a special-teamer, became a big-play star. He’s second on the team with 79 tackles and has two interceptions and 3.5 sacks.
“I didn’t expect any of this, honestly,” Baker said.
Landers, a redshirt freshman, is listed at 6-foot-1 and 285 pounds but actually isn’t quite that tall. But he showed a knack for using his low center of gravity to push around offensive linemen, and racked up 7 ½ tackles-for-loss this season, fourth best on the team.
DURBIN KICKS HIS WAY TO STARTING JOB
It was an injury to incumbent kicker Sean Nuernberger that allowed walk-on Tyler Durbin to win the starting kicker’s job. Specifically, it was a 62-yard field goal he drilled in fall camp that impressed Meyer, who typically hates to waste time thinking about kickers.
Durbin, who played soccer for two years at James Madison, appeared in his first football game at any level in the opener against Bowling Green, converting all 11 extra points, burying half of his dozen kickoffs in the end zone for touchbacks and even made a tackle. For the season he converted 63 of 65 extra point attempts and was 17 for 20 in field goals. He was a Ray Guy Award semifinalist.
More AP college football at www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25.
Follow Mitch Stacy at http://twitter.com/mitchstacy