'It's going to be scary.' Ohio State's true freshmen already making major impact

Bill Rabinowitz
The Columbus Dispatch

Chris Olave recognized that Ohio State’s 2021 recruiting class was special months ago.

“Probably in the spring when I saw them play,” the senior wide receiver said.

Olave realized that running back TreVeyon Henderson’s five-star status was legit.

Olave went against cornerback Denzel Burke and knew this was no typical overmatched freshman. Olave raved about how advanced two freshmen in his room — Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr. — were in terms of ability and work ethic.

Cornerback Denzel Burke, here returning an interception against Rutgers, leads the Buckeyes in defensive snaps with 351 and pass breakups with six.

But it’s one thing to show flashes in the spring. It’s another to do what Ohio State’s true freshmen have done so far this season. Unlike redshirt freshmen such as quarterback C.J. Stroud, these true freshmen didn’t have the benefit of watching and learning last year during the COVID-truncated 2020 season.

These are players who arrived on campus in 2021, and in defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau’s case, not until July.

Ohio State football:Trust in QB C.J. Stroud factored in Chris Olave's decision to return to Ohio State

Ohio State’s true freshmen

Yet these true freshmen have been essential in the Buckeyes’ success through the first half of the season. After being idle this week, Ohio State will be counting on their freshmen for the tough stretch run of the Big Ten schedule.

Henderson is the Buckeyes’ leading rusher with 605 yards and nine touchdowns. He is averaging 8.8 yards per carry, which leads the country by almost a half-yard. Henderson has also averaged 22 yards on his seven catches out of the backfield, two for touchdowns.

J.T Tuimoloau has started two games and has eight quarterback pressures.

Burke leads the Buckeyes in defensive snaps with 351, according to Pro Football Focus, and pass breakups with six.

Defensive tackle Tyleik Williams leads Ohio State in sacks with four and pressures with 15, even though he’s had only 94 snaps.

"This freshman class is special," Olave said. "There's a lot of guys that can contribute and have contributed. Once they get their opportunity, they're ready to ball. Most of them are locked in. They know the schemes. They know the Buckeye culture. I'm proud of them."

That Ohio State’s freshmen have made an impact isn’t surprising. The Buckeyes had the second-ranked recruiting class, behind only Alabama. And Ohio State’s rating per recruit was the highest in the country. (Kickers are almost never higher than three-star recruits, as was the case with Australian punter Jesse Mirco, who has been excellent.)

Freshmen have made an impact

The surprise has been how quickly some of the freshmen have emerged. Olave, after all, didn’t break through until late in his first year with a huge game against Michigan in 2018.

Defensive tackle Tyleik Williams leads Ohio State in sacks with four and pressures with 15, even though he’s had only 94 snaps.

The conventional wisdom was that Henderson would eventually become the Buckeyes’ featured runner. It took only three games. Henderson broke Archie Griffin’s freshman rushing record with 277 yards against Tulsa.

“TreVeyon probably takes football more seriously than any guy I’ve ever been around for our age,” freshman defensive end Jack Sawyer said. “He was no surprise. We kind of saw flashes in spring. Every time he got the ball, we were like, ‘Is it going to be an 80-yard touchdown run like last time?’ ”

Ohio State football:For one writer, TreVeyon Henderson brings memories of Archie Griffin's freshman breakout

But Burke and Williams were not obvious candidates to be impact players. Burke played offense primarily during his high school career in Arizona. He was the 19th-highest ranked recruit in OSU’s class.

Yet from the start, he carried himself more like a veteran. He showed the physical ability as well as the short memory to move past the inevitable times a cornerback is beaten, especially against OSU’s elite receivers.

With veteran corners Sevyn Banks and Cameron Brown limited by injuries, Ohio State doesn't want to ponder where it would be without Burke.

“He is a sponge,” defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said. “He retains what you tell him.”

Williams was only the 16th-highest OSU recruit and was overweight when he enrolled in January. Defensive line coach Larry Johnson said Williams has lost at least 25 pounds since his arrival. At “only” 317 pounds, Williams has surprising quickness to go with his strength.

“We saw his talent,” senior defensive tackle Jerron Cage said. “We were telling him he's got the potential to be one of the best three-techs or nose (tackle) — whatever he wanted to be.”

Tuimoloau and Pickerington’s Sawyer were five-star defensive ends who have been also played increasingly prominent roles. Tuimoloau has started two games. According to PFF, Tuimoloau has eight quarterback pressures and Sawyer five.

Ohio State football:Despite late arrival, J.T. Tuimoloau making early impact on defensive line

It’s safe to assume that they have shown only glimpses of what’s to come. The same could be said for several others, including Egbuka and Harrison as well as fellow freshman receiver Jayden Ballard. With Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba all on pace for possible 1,000-yard receiving seasons, playing time for backups is limited.

Emeka Egbuka has become a threat as a kickoff returner, breaking a 67-yarder against Maryland last week.

But Egbuka has become a threat as a kickoff returner, breaking a 67-yarder against Maryland last week.

Others have shown promise in limited time. Kyle McCord’s starting debut at quarterback against Akron wasn’t flawless, but he did throw for 319 and two touchdowns. Fellow five-star offensive guard Donovan Jackson arrived in June and quickly earned a spot on the two-deep during camp. He has played in all six games.

“What I like about this class is we’re all grinders,” Sawyer said. “We all like to get in the Woody (Hayes Athletic Center). We all like to work out and practice, and we’re all really focused on football. It’s good to be around a group of guys like that.

“It’s really exciting. Between the young guys on the defense and the offensive side of the ball, it’s going to be scary for the next couple of years. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch

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