Even before its 2017 recruiting class arrived on campus, Ohio State viewed the group as special.
That opinion of a class ranked No. 2 nationally was solidified by impressive debuts by the nine early enrollees in spring practice. With less than a week until the season opener, the expectation that the newest Buckeyes will play a significant role has grown even more.
None of the 21 has earned a starting spot, as Michael Jordan did as a true freshman at left guard last year. But the Buckeyes believe the 2017 class will shine sooner rather than later. Twelve have already shed their black helmet stripe, signifying their full-fledged status on the roster.
“This is a really good class,” coach Urban Meyer said. “A really good class, and they're going to contribute.”
The player who might make the most immediate impact is freshman running back J.K. Dobbins, who is Mike Weber’s top backup. Running backs coach Tony Alford said recently that Dobbins has been the quickest learner in his 22 years of coaching.
Meyer compared Dobbins’ maturity to that of former linebacker Raekwon McMillan.
“He's an excellent student, one of the best workers in the weight room,” Meyer said. “On top of that, God has gifted him with great speed and elusiveness. He's a real one.”
The player who probably has drawn the next-most praise might be rangy and explosive defensive end Chase Young.
“He’s gifted,” defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “He’s been a fast study in coach (Larry) Johnson’s teaching. He has tremendous range as far as length as a defender. Guys who have that kind of radius when they stick their limbs up can make a lot of things happen.”
The biggest impediment to a major role for Young is that the Buckeyes are very deep at his position. But his talent will probably force him into the rotation anyway.
At cornerback, freshmen such as five-star recruits Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade should get their opportunities behind Denzel Ward, Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield, a junior-college contribution to the ’17 class.
Cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said last week that Okudah and Wade had made jumps in performance.
“He’s long and fast,” Coombs said of Okudah. “He’s not as physical a corner as I want him to be, but he will be. He wants to learn and that’s one of the things I love about him.”
Coombs said Wade’s biggest issue is to learning to use maximum effort.
“It’s just about strain,” he said. “He’s got the skill set. He’s got to learn how to strain at the end of a play — strain to get the ball, strain to finish. And he will. That’s part of our culture, and he knows that.”
Several other freshmen will have a chance to play. Kicker Blake Haubeil is competing with veteran Sean Nuernberger. Joe Burrow’s injury increases the possibility that dynamic quarterback Tate Martell will play instead of redshirt.
Schiano separated the season into several segments. He said that only after the first few games can it truly be determined how much the freshmen might play.
“These guys haven’t prepared for a game yet,” Schiano said. “We’re just getting into preparation for Indiana in earnest with scouting reports and film study and all those things. I think after they go through that cycle a few weeks, then we can judge how ready they are to help us win games.
“We’ll try to get people in the game in spots, but after that first quarter of the season they have a little more experience and you feel a little more comfortable.”
But he agreed that their ability is already quite tantalizing.
“There are some very talented freshmen,” Schiano said.