Taking the podium for the first time following the start of Ohio State's fall camp session for the 2014 season, Urban Meyer could have addressed anything. Braxton Miller's health, the implementation of Chris Ash's new defensive scheme, how the Buckeyes plan on replacing Carlos Hyde.
The Ohio State head coach chose to talk about his freshmen.
"Just the body types of Dante Booker, Kyle Berger, Sam Hubbard, all the way to the long receivers like Noah Brown and Parris Campbell. Just long athletes. Then you've got Marshon Lattimore and Erick Smith," Meyer said unsolicited. "We're going to try to get those guys ready to play. It was a really good first day with the young guys."
Words like that are enough to excite any Buckeyes fan, especially the ones who already had their eyes on what was 247Sports' third-ranked recruiting class for the 2014 cycle. But the Ohio State faithful also has reason to question the sincerity of Meyer's claims, as it was just a year ago that he was making similar proclamations about the Buckeyes' 2013 crop of freshmen.
"That '06 [class], they injected a bunch of speed and playmakers into that 2006 team," Meyer said of his first national championship squad's freshmen, which included stars Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin. "I see very similar qualities [in the 2013 class]."
Only Meyer's prophecy never came to fruition, with few freshmen outside of defensive end Joey Bosa and punter Cameron Johnston making immediate impacts at Ohio State in 2013. Running back Dontre Wilson received more preseason hype than any other player in his class but failed to contribute as more than a kick returner and offensive decoy in his freshman campaign.
More alarmingly for the Buckeyes, a number of highly touted prospects found themselves sitting out the season, including wide receiver Jalin Marshall, cornerback Gareon Conley, tight end Marcus Baugh and linebacker Mike Mitchell, who ultimately transferred to Texas Tech in the offseason. When all was said and done, 17 scholarship freshmen in a 24-man recruiting class found themselves redshirting in 2013 for various reasons.
The lack of impact from the Buckeyes' 2013 class was apparent in the team's two losses to close the season, as veterans made notable mistakes in the Big Ten Championship Game against Michigan State and in the Orange Bowl against Clemson. At Big Ten media days in Chicago last week, Meyer expressed regret—and took blame—for not allowing last season's freshmen to see significant playing time at OSU.
"That's my fault. I'm going to really push our coaches to get them ready," Meyer said. "Theres a tendency of an assistant coach of, 'I'm going to play this [veteran] because he knows what he's doing and that [freshman] doesn't know what he's doing yet.' So what I'm going to do is walk over and put that [freshman] in the game and practice, and that forces the coach to play him. On defense, I was disappointed—especially on defense."
That's why it's not a coincidence that of the freshmen that Meyer singled out in his opening remarks, the first three were linebackers and the last two were defensive backs. But it was more than Meyer's words that showed a change in philosophy from the third-year Ohio State head coach, as his actions sent an even louder message on Monday.
While other freshmen and first-year players were relegated to a separate practice session at the start of the day, two fresh faces found themselves mixing it up with the Buckeyes veterans in the team's afternoon session. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan and wide receiver Johnnie Dixon may be true freshmen in status, but each were permitted to practice with the older players on their first day of fall camp in an occurrence that Meyer admitted was rare.
"They also made Champions' Club. I don't know if we've really ever had freshmen make Champions' Club," Meyer said, referring to the group of Ohio State's top offseason performers. "They're just guys who are over 3.0 students, take care of their business, they act like pros. They act like grown men, so we let them practice with the grown men today."
While McMillan—a former 247Sports 5-star prospect—will attempt to overtake senior Curtis Grant at the Buckeyes' middle linebacker spot, Dixon will strive to earn playing time in a wide receiver corps that has little proven production behind senior Devin Smith. Both early enrollees already being treated like veterans before either has played a game in their college careers only bodes well for McMillan and Dixon in their respective position battles.
But it will take more than just impressive play from two players for this year's freshman class in Columbus to outdo last year's. And with playing time readily available at a number of positions, Ohio State's 2014 freshmen will receive ample opportunity to do just that and help prove that their head coach has learned from last season's admitted mistakes.
"This is an early evaluation," Meyer admitted. "But I'm really impressed with our freshman class."
*All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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