CHICAGO – Urban Meyer said he never has seen anything like it.
Besides losing a senior class that helped him go 50-4 over his first four seasons at Ohio State, the Buckeyes also had nine underclassmen leave for the NFL draft, including first-round picks Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Eli Apple and Darron Lee.
“We have to find a way to replace arguably one of the best groups of players ever to come through college football,” Meyer said Tuesday at Big Ten media days.
The Buckeyes have three returning starters on offense and three returning starters on defense. Yes, three. Of Meyer’s 85 scholarship players, 44 — more than half — never have played a college game.
But this is Ohio State. Expectations don’t change. The Buckeyes, with J.T. Barrett back at quarterback, are preseason favorites to win the Big Ten championship, according to last week’s media poll.
“The issue would be if it was a non-talented young team,” Meyer said. “And that’s not the case at all.”
The Buckeyes have ranked near the top of national recruiting rankings every year under Meyer.
One example of what’s hidden behind the curtain includes Jashon Cornell, the former Cretin-Derham Hall defensive lineman who once ranked as the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2015 by ESPN. He redshirted last season. Now he’s among a phalanx of defensive tackles competing to be the next Adolphus Washington.
At running back, the Buckeyes must replace Elliott, who rushed for 1,821 yards and 23 touchdowns last season. One potential replacement was senior Bri’onte Dunn, but Meyer dismissed Dunn from the team for an alleged domestic violence incident.
Meyer expects redshirt freshman Mike Weber to be the starting tailback.
“I can’t wait for the first practice because there’s a few guys [waiting to emerge],” Meyer said. “When there’s a player that has Zeke Elliott in front of him, he may not have the urgency that he has to show.”
Meyer said August will be the most important month of coaching he has ever had, as his staff works to get so many untested players game-ready.
Comparing the loss of talent, he pointed to his 2010 season at Florida. After going 13-1 the previous season, the Gators had six players declare early for the NFL draft and went 8-5.
Meyer will have to get this year’s group ready for a Sept. 17 clash at Oklahoma.
“I’m not sure I really like that,” Meyer said. “I’ve never been there. I’ve watched them on film. I have great respect for Coach [Bob] Stoops. He’s a good friend of mine.”
Of course, Ohio State’s season figures to be defined the final two weeks of November when the Buckeyes play at Michigan State and then host Michigan at the Horseshoe.
Meyer said he couldn’t imagine staring down this challenge without the three players he brought to media days — Barrett, center Pat Elflein and middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan.
“It’s a little bit like the baseball metaphor, you need to be strong up the middle,” Meyer said. “We’re very strong.”
Barrett is 15-2 as a starting quarterback. But after severely injuring his ankle against Michigan in 2014, he watched Cardale Jones lead the team to the national championship. Jones famously beat out Barrett for the starting job during training camp last year, but the Buckeyes played much more efficiently with Barrett under center.
Now Jones is in the NFL, a fourth-round pick by the Buffalo Bills. Will this relieve the pressure on Barrett?
“Great question; remains to be seen,” Meyer said. “He did not have a great training camp last year for whatever reason. … He was still overcoming a pretty serious injury that took a long time to heal.”
To Barrett, it was more mental.
“I was healthy; that wasn’t the issue,” he said. “I don’t know. I was thinking too much, and I don’t play very good when I think. I always say, I have no one to blame other than myself. Cardale, at the time, was playing better than me.”
Meyer said he thinks Barrett will use those lessons and “be as good as any quarterback as we’ve had.” The 52-year-old coach isn’t shying away from the team’s Big Ten title expectations.
“I see that potential,” he said. “I think 2014 was the template that everybody wants. J.T. Barrett was buried in the depth chart. Darron Lee, Eli Apple, Zeke Elliott, Mike Thomas — those guys were no-names, and they became very good throughout the course of 2014.”
That group went from no-names to national champions.