Ohio State’s last three football recruiting classes have ranked No. 4, No. 2 and No. 5 nationally, so there are elite players at almost every position.
Here are five of the best to look for this season:
This season Ohio State’s sophomore running back is aiming high — really high.
He rushed for 1,248 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. His 277 yards rushing against Tulsa was an OSU freshman record and the third-highest single-game rushing total ever by a Buckeyes running back.
“I did a lot last year, but I’m not at the level I want to be at yet. I’ve got to keep grinding and stay focused,” Henderson said on the day OSU opened practice this summer.
How high are the goals Henderson has set for himself? He wants to go where only legends have gone at Ohio State.
“I’m trying to be on the level all the greats are — Eddie George, Archie Griffin, Ezekiel Elliott, all those guys. I’m just trying to be on the level they are,” he said. “I’ve been pushing myself this offseason. I’ve been working my tail off.”
Ohio State coach Ryan Day expects big things from Henderson, too.
“His potential is to be as good as anyone in the country,” Day said.
Henderson broke several big plays early last season, but that happened less frequently late in the season.
He said some of that might have been facing good defenses once the Buckeyes got into Big Ten games week after week but denied he was getting tired late in his first college season.
“There’s not going to be a lot of home runs. Sometimes you have to take those tough 3- to 5-yard runs,” he said.
OSU running backs coach Tony Alford thinks Henderson might have figuratively hit a wall later in the season.
“He is getting stronger. I think he was worn down by the end of the year. You have to remember he is a kid who did not play as a senior in high school. I think by the end of the season he was worn out. I know he’s gotten stronger with Coach Mick (Ohio State strength coach Mickey Marotti) in that program,” Alford said.
Tuimoloau, a 5-star defensive end, made Ohio State wait to get his commitment to its 2021 recruiting class.
It was worth the wait. And the Buckeyes coaches knew he had the kind of talent you wait for.
Tuimoloau did not commit to Ohio State until July 4, and he did not get on the field in practice until preseason drills began in August.
Despite that late start, he played more snaps than any other freshman on OSU’s defense except starting cornerback Denzel Burke and finished last season with 4.5 tackles for losses and 2.5 sacks. He played in 11 games and started two.
“He got on the field and played despite not having that lead-up time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “To just show up at this level of college football out of high school and just play is very difficult.
“I can count on my hand only a few guys who have ever done that. I’ve never seen anybody show up and play like he did. If he wasn’t special, we probably wouldn’t have waited like that and shown the patience that we did.”
Tuimoloau was considered the No. 2 defensive lineman nationally and No. 4 player overall nationally in 247sports.com’s final composite ranking of the 2021 recruiting class.
Even bigger things are expected from the 6-4, 272-pound Tuimoloau and the rest of the defensive line this season.
Asked about Tuimoloau and fellow sophomore defensive end Jack Sawyer, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles described them as “guys who do not have limitations.”
Marvin Harrison Jr.
Ohio State’s wide receivers will have a great opportunity this season but also will be continually compared to two receivers who excelled the last three seasons.
Receivers like Emeka Egbuka, Julian Fleming and Marvin Harrison Jr. are expected to get the majority of the playing time that belonged to Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson last season before those two both became first-round selections in the NFL draft.
Olave and Wilson will be a tough act to follow. Harrison, a sophomore, might be the most equipped of the receivers vying for playing time to handle that aspect of their new role.
As the son of Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Marvin Harrison Sr., he has been compared to a legend since the first time he put on a football helmet.
“Marv’s his own person, but he certainly had a great example of obviously a Hall of Fame dad and what he did, but that’s not easy to do is to follow in someone’s footsteps who’s a Hall of Famer like that,” Ryan Day said during spring practice in March.
“I think it’s easy for us just to look at it and say, ‘Well, you know his dad played in the NFL and then became a Hall of Famer.’ There’s a lot that comes with that. A lot of expectations, especially when you share the same name as your dad. I think Marvin has done a great job of kind of blazing his own way.”
There were always big expectations for Harrison, a four-star recruit, at Ohio State. But they got even bigger when he caught three touchdown passes in the Rose Bowl after Olave and Wilson chose not to play in that game.
There is a strong connection between Jaxon Smith-Njigba and C.J. Stroud on and off the field.
The numbers tell the story of the on-the-field connection between Ohio State’s record-setting wide receiver, Smith-Njigba, and his quarterback, Stroud.
Their off-the-field connection is told in their own words and those of their coaches.
Smith-Njigba caught 95 passes for 1,606 yards, both OSU records, last season as a sophomore. Nine of those catches were for touchdowns. Those numbers came a year after he caught 10 passes as a freshman.
Like Stroud, most of his best games came later in the season. He averaged 4.5 catches per game in Ohio State’s first eight games last season and 12.4 catches a game in the last five, capped by catching 15 passes for an OSU record 347 yards and three touchdowns in the Rose Bowl.
“They have a high level of chemistry,” head coach Ryan Day said at Big Ten football media days. “I think C.J. may tell you sometimes he looks for Jaxon maybe a little too much. I think that was built maybe even when they knew each other in high school, but certainly on the scout team their first year early on, and their friendship has become stronger.”
Smith-Njigba talked about how he and Stroud visited each other’s families in Texas and California and had done a lot of just hanging out after last season. “That’s my boy, that’s my brother,” he said about Stroud.
Stroud said, “He’s one of my brothers, he’s one of my best friends. I mean, we kind of match well together, we get each other. And I definitely think the stuff that we do off the field does play into what we do on the field. And that’s what our chemistry comes from.”
A year ago at this time C.J. Stroud had not thrown a pass in a college game.
Three games into last season, there were still some people who doubted him and were calling for his back-up, Kyle McCord, to get a chance to show what he could do as Ohio State’s starting quarterback.
By the time last season ended, Stroud had thrown for 4,435 yards, 44 touchdowns and only six interceptions. His 573 yards passing in the Rose Bowl against Utah set the all-time Ohio State record in that category. And he was a Heisman Trophy finalist who finished fourth in the voting.
Just as his profile has risen, so have the expectations for Stroud this season.
“Just because he did it last year doesn’t mean it’s just gonna happen this year. If anything, he’s got a bull’s-eye on his chest,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said earlier this year. “So he’s gonna have to bring it right from the jump.”
Last year in Ohio State’s first three games against Minnesota, Oregon and Tulsa, Stroud completed 63 percent of his passes and threw eight touchdown passes and three interceptions. He sat out the fourth game against Akron because of a sore shoulder, then he completed 75 percent of his passes for 36 touchdowns with only three interceptions in his next nine games.
Day explained Stroud’s transformation this way during an appearance on The Herd With Colin Cowherd: “He went into the season without ever throwing a touchdown pass or an interception. Everything he was doing was for the first time. You have to believe in yourself. You have to do it before you can believe in yourself. He quickly got himself to a point where he was confident.”
Stroud is confident he can do even more this season.
“I feel like I barely touched my potential. I feel like I could do a lot more. Hopefully God blesses me with that opportunity and I’m working toward it. I always feel I can get better,” he said.