COLUMBUS — For Ohio State to be a national contender this fall, it’ll have to rely on quarterback Braxton Miller, a strong defensive line — and a lot of kids even Buckeyes fans don’t know very well.
Coach Urban Meyer has been keeping a close watch on them. He’s liked what he’s seen so far. More than that, however, he really loves the upside of new guys coming into the program to shake things up.
Asked recently about the problem area at linebacker, Meyer got visibly excited when the talk turned to an incoming freshman who isn’t even on campus yet.
“There’s a kid named Kyle Berger,” he said of a touted prospect out of St. Ignatius. “I can’t wait to get him here. I saw him the other day: 230 pounds and jacked. Those are the kind of players we want out there.”
That’s just one example of an influx of young talent that could help transform the Buckeyes.
Berger won’t be playing at Ohio Stadium in the annual intrasquad scrimmage Saturday — he still has to graduate from high school — but others will be showing what they can do.
They include receiver Johnnie Dixon, linebacker Raekwon McMillan, H-back Curtis Samuel, offensive lineman Marcelys Jones, kicker Sean Nuernberger and quarterbacks Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and Stephen Collier.
Jones and Barrett aren’t new to the program but are competing for playing time for the first time.
Dixon is a speed merchant of a wideout who is already in the mix.
“He’s been impressive,” assistant coach Zach Smith said. “He’s a grown man for an 18-year-old. He comes in and handles his business in the classroom and on the field. I’m excited about where he’s going to be.”
Like every coach asked to talk about a youngster, Smith adds a quick qualifier.
“Now, he’s a typical freshman who’s still learning and still trying to figure everything out,” he said. “But he has a commitment to be great and he’s doing everything we ask him to do right now. And that’s usually a formula for success.”
McMillan, like Dixon, Samuel, Jones, Nuernberger and Collier, graduated early from high school to enroll at Ohio State and gain the experience of spring practice. It’s sort of like interning on the job to get an idea of what’s ahead.
Meyer raved about McMillan and Samuel earlier this week.
“(Samuel is) legitimate running the ball,” Meyer said. “Raekwon McMillan’s officially in the mix. I love both of those two kids. Unless something unforeseen happens, they’ll both play.”
Despite being new to campus, McMillan is pushing senior linebacker Curtis Grant for a job. Grant believes that’s good for everyone.
“It’s just good competition,” he said. “When a guy comes in like that, that talented, it makes you want to work on your craft more and do the things you need to do to get even better.”
With Miller sitting out spring ball after shoulder surgery, Jones, Barrett and Collier have taken hundreds of snaps in practice and gained a lot of experience.
“He’s a completely different player than he was,” Meyer said of Jones, an afterthought his first two years on campus but now penciled in as Miller’s backup. “He’s a very functional guy who cares, tries to lead. It’s hard to believe … he’s 21 or 22 years old, and he’s 14 going on 22. I’m really pleased with where he’s at right now.”
There are even new faces coaching the new faces.
Chris Ash, who worked under Bret Bielema at Wisconsin and Arkansas since 2010, was brought in as co-defensive coordinator in charge of safeties. His main objective is to revamp a woeful pass defense burnt for huge yardage as the Buckeyes lost their final two games last season after winning 24 in a row.
Assistant head coach/defensive line coach Larry Johnson was a line coach and valuable recruiter at Penn State from 1996-2013. Like Ash, he has been invited to bring some new touches to his new job.
“I told them when I first got here, that I was going to reach as far as I can to reach them to really develop a trust,” Johnson said. “When they start reaching back, boy, we’re on the same page. And right now they’re reaching back and that’s really great to see.”