One of the predominant trends in college football recruiting the past two decades has been early enrollment.
Rather than go through a final semester of high school, filled with bouts of senioritis and a last dance at prom, more and more prospects have sought to graduate early in an effort jump-start their college careers.
That meant they got to campuses in January and went through spring practices with the team’s returning players.
When the other freshmen arrived in the summer, they had a leg up.
The trend has accelerated at Ohio State, including in the most recent recruiting class when the Buckeyes welcomed a record 14 early enrollees.
They arrived in January and were to participate in spring practice. But the plan was foiled last month when the coronavirus pandemic shut down spring practice.
The freshmen who joined the program in the winter and made up a majority of the nation’s fifth-ranked class returned to their homes across the country.
Their first semester in Columbus lasted only two months and three spring practices.
"I don't know if it’s a concern as much as it is just disappointing that they weren’t able to get those practices under their belt," coach Ryan Day said. "Hopefully, we can recoup them at some point. But it is what it is. It’s the same for everyone else throughout the country."
Though the shortage of spring practices put a pause in their development, Day remarked on his recent teleconference with beat reporters that, "We do have a fairly veteran team."
Most of the early-enrollee freshmen were not expected to start right away or fill immediate positions of need, but rather build depth throughout the roster.
A few of the early enrollees might be exceptions.
Paris Johnson, who was the top-ranked offensive tackle recruit in the 2020 class, took first-team reps at right tackle during the first week of spring practice, aiming to challenge Nicholas Petit-Frere for the starting spot. At 6 feet 6 and 305 pounds, Johnson had enough size at least to begin making an impression in spring.
Other freshmen were looking to crack the rotation at slot receiver, including Mookie Cooper and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, after the starting spot was vacated by K.J. Hill, who was a senior last season.
Day thought the freshman quarterbacks and receivers were most impacted by the loss of spring practices, needing the live repetitions together to build chemistry.
The Buckeyes return Justin Fields, who is among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy next season, but freshmen Jack Miller and C.J. Stroud were to split second-team reps with fifth-year player Gunnar Hoak and vie for the backup job.
Miller and Stroud were former four-star recruits.
But rather than throw passes to the Buckeyes’ receivers, they are back home, where they are finishing their first semester at Ohio State through online classes. Miller is from Scottsdale, Arizona, and Stroud is from Rancho Cucamonga, California.
"We’re going to have to do a great job of getting them the film and letting them study," Day said. "There’s nothing like taking reps, though. You can do a lot of that stuff, watch film and do that, and those guys will, and they’ll do a great job, and (quarterbacks coach) Corey (Dennis) will do a great job with them putting a plan together, throwing back home where they are. But the sooner we can get them under center again, the better off we’re going to be."
Day sounded eager for the QBs to return. He liked their opening week of workouts.
"I was very impressed with how both of them came in and worked," Day said, "just their approach and the way they were able to take the offense to the field in the first three practices."