Gameday+ | How the senior class has contributed to Ohio State's success
For a long time, this Ohio State senior class was derided as underachievers.
Many of them arrived after the Buckeyes' 2014 national championship, with the expectation that they'd earn their own.
Instead, in 2017 Urban Meyer described the class that has these fifth-year seniors as misfits because of their largely unfulfilled promise. Even now, they aren't the team's biggest stars. Chase Young, J.K. Dobbins and Jeff Okudah are juniors. Justin Fields is a sophomore.
Make no mistake — some of Ohio State's seniors are clearly standouts. Linebacker Malik Harrison, safety Jordan Fuller and receiver K.J. Hill established themselves as such before this year. They've been joined by emerging stars such as nose guard DaVon Hamilton and cornerback Damon Arnette. (And the biggest star of all might be quarterback Joe Burrow, who transferred to LSU and is a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy.)
Mostly, though, Ohio State seniors who will play for the final time at Ohio Stadium on Saturday work a bit under the radar. But they have been essential to the Buckeyes' success this season as the team celebrates Senior Day at Saturday's home finale against Penn State.
They're guys such as Branden Bowen, who returned from a devastating leg injury in 2017 to become a starter at right tackle as part of a dominating offensive line. And Jashon Cornell, who found a home this year at defensive tackle after playing at defensive end earlier in his career. And Robert “BB” Landers, the undersized nose guard who shares time with Hamilton.
It extends to tight end Rashod Berry, who volunteered to play defensive end — his old position — when the team was short-handed there. Or Joshua Alabi, who filled in at right tackle when Bowen missed a game. Or long-snapper Liam McCullough, who has been practically flawless for four years.
Some of the seniors have had to contribute mostly off the field, namely captains Jonathon Cooper and C.J. Saunders, who've been injured.
The college journeys of the 26 seniors suiting up for the final time at home are all different. But there is a bond among and between them, largely born from struggle and disappointment.
“We were heavily criticized,” Bowen said. “It was a rough first year for us — actually couple years. But I'm glad we were able to turn it around and become the class we are now.”
Landers said that he was stung when Meyer criticized his 2015 recruiting class.
“We were so young and kind of immature,” he said. “Now that I'm older looking back, it was very accurate. We had a lot of growing up to do.”
Landers said they might have been tardy for workouts or missed classes and tutoring sessions.
“It was all little things, but little things add up,” he said. “It's like dealing with a kid. You let him get away with it once, twice or three times, and he's going to keep doing it. We had to bump our butts a little bit and kind of get whipped into shape to kind of figure it out.”
Head strength coach Mickey Marotti was the one holding that figurative whip. He forced them to do extra 5 a.m. workouts or exacted other punishment to make them rethink their ways.
“My first three years here, I hated coach Mick,” Bowen said. “Hated him.”
Now, he said, he respects Marotti as much as anyone in his life “because I see what he's done for me and my life, not only on the football field but as a man as well.”
Binjimen Victor is another senior now grateful for the early adversity he faced. The receiver from Pompano Beach, Florida, was burdened by the vast potential he was slow to fulfill.
“Coming to Ohio State, you have to be held to a different standard,” he said. “When I first came in, it was kind of rocky for me at times. But as you get older, you realize this is the way you do it and go about things. It started kicking in, and everything started to fall in place.”
The seniors' shared adversity created a firm bond. Only those inside the program know how hard players work. Outsiders see the Saturday performance. They don't see the Sunday-through-Friday grind.
“It's almost indescribable,” Bowen said. “You go through things mentally, emotionally and physically that you could never even imagine. And the only real way you can survive is to buy into the program and be around your brothers. They're the ones who really carry you through and make sure you get through it.”
Bowen said that a bunch of seniors were in the locker room this summer after a run when they talked about their goals for the season. This would be their last go-round.
They had already achieved much. They're back-to-back defending Big Ten champions. They went to the College Football Playoff in 2016.
But there was also a sense of unfinished business, especially the lack of a national championship. With 10 dominating victories, the Buckeyes have played like a team fully capable of achieving that.
If that happens, Young and Fields and Dobbins will probably get most of the headlines. But the seniors are the backbone of the team.
“The seniors are everything,” defensive co-coordinator Jeff Hafley said. “They're the ones that establish the leadership. They're the ones that go out and show everybody how hard we have to practice, how hard we have to study.
“Those are the guys that when things get hard, people rally behind. Those guys are the most important guys on the team — even the guys that are seniors that aren't playing as much.”
Coach Ryan Day said that his seniors are fully appreciated inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
“I wouldn't say any of those guys are under the radar in our team room,” he said. “Maybe in the national media they are. But we have some unbelievable guys who are the heart and soul of what we do in this room.”
Landers said he and seniors like him revel in their low profile.
“Honestly, we love it,” Landers said. “Even though we're not at the forefront of the media, in practice and workouts we know we are the ones that have to push the bar. If we don't push it, the team's not going to push it.
“So we understand the responsibilities that we have and how many eyes are on us and that we are of great value within this program.”
As they get ready for their Horseshoe finale, nobody is calling them misfits anymore.
“This year has been a complete dream come true,” Bowen said. “Being on a team like this, I couldn't ask for anything more, with just how close we are and how we get along and how we've played together.”