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Ten Breakout Buckeyes

Coming off a national title season, the Ohio State Buckeyes boast some big name players, many of whom became household words nationally during that glorious run. This summer, names like Elliott, Bosa, Decker, Bell and Lee are popping up on preseason All-American lists everywhere you look. And in case you haven’t heard, the Buckeyes also return a quarterback or three.

Each year about this time, I try to identify ten Buckeyes whose names are not yet familiar to the average OSU fan, but are about to be, as the new season unfolds. This is an inexact science of course, as injuries and various other circumstances keep some projected breakouts from happening, and no college football season ever goes the way you think it will. So consider these nothing more than my best guesses at which Buckeyes figure to break out in 2015.

Having written a similar Breakouts column for several years now, I have established some rules for players to be considered. For the sake of consistency, I will stick to them here.

No seniors: The list of Buckeyes who labor in relative obscurity as underclassmen and then rise up as seniors to make valuable contributions is long and distinguished. Last year it was offensive tackle Darryl Baldwin, the year before, Reid Fragel. In years past, guys like Doug Worthington, Shaun Lane, Nader Abdallah, Antonio Smith have all flourished in their final seasons. This year, senior Chase Farris is projected as a first-time starter at right tackle. But we’re talking here about players whose best college football is likely still in front of them after 2015. Plus...it’s my rule.

No true freshmen: Out of the much heralded recruiting class of 2014, only two non-kickers got significant playing time last season. (#1 and #2 on this year’s list) It may be even more difficult for true freshmen to make a real impact on this year’s team, with 15 returning starters defending a national championship. Now, it would not surprise me to see an Eric Glover-Williams or a Justin Hilliard or a Nick Conner helping out this team, but I’ve learned that it’s hard to predict a “breakout” for a player if you cannot realistically project him into regular playing time from scrimmage.

To that end, all ten of this year’s picks are either projected starters, or first-level backups who could see extended play, especially in games that are competitively over by halftime. My list includes seven sophomores and three redshirt freshmen, and is weighted on the defensive side of the ball, since the offense returns pretty much intact outside of the WR corps.

Without further ado then, in ascending order of what I expect their 2015 impact will be...my Ten Breakout Buckeyes for 2015:

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10. Terry McLaurin - #83 - Wide Receiver - RS Freshman - 6’ 1”, 200 lbs - Indianapolis, IN

This is perhaps my biggest “guess” on this list, but McLaurin came out of spring ball as one of the primary backups behind projected WR starters Michael Thomas and Corey Smith. He was Indiana’s Mr. Football in 2013, putting up eye-popping numbers as a prep player in rushing and as a kick returner in addition to his receiving stats. McLaurin’s teams won four straight state championships in Indiana high school play. He has 4.41 speed in the 40, and could realistically emerge as the field-stretcher to replace Devin Smith. McLaurin showed well in the spring game, catching a 35-yard TD pass in traffic, and has exhibited excellent hands to go with prototype size and athleticism for the position.

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9. Dante Booker - #33 - Linebacker - Sophomore - 6’ 3”, 233 lbs - Akron, OH

Booker saw mostly special teams action a year ago, but lettered as a true freshman, playing in 11 games and getting some duty at linebacker in a mop-up role. This spring he really stepped up as the primary backup to Josh Perry at the Will LB spot, and by the time spring ball was over, he was widely thought to be the first backup option in the middle as well. A superb overall athlete, Booker won the Ohio Mr. Football award in 2013, and should have a legitimate chance this year to begin backing up all those high school press clippings. He should be playing regularly in the LB rotation and continuing as a big contributor on special teams.

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8. Tyquan Lewis - #59 - Defensive End - Sophomore - 6’ 4”, 260 lbs. - Tarboro, NC

The Buckeyes are deep at defensive end these days, (and getting more so by the day), so the fact that Tyquan Lewis has worked his way into a starting role tells you a lot about his ability. The former 4-star recruit had a great spring...solid against the run, and relentless in the pass rush, and he figures to benefit from all the attention paid to his All-American counterpart Joey Bosa at the other end of the OSU defensive line. He is rangy and quick to the outside, the athleticism that made him a standout tight end showing up most every play. Lewis will be pushed by several promising young DE’s in Jalyn Holmes, Darius Slade, and another guy who shows up later in this list, but he has earned his spot as the starter, and the opportunity to break out.

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7. Parris  Campbell - #21 - Wide Receiver - RS Freshman - 6’ 1”. 205 lbs. - Akron, OH

Booker’s teammate at Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary, Parris Campbell enrolled at Ohio State before his 17th birthday, and he won’t turn 18 until next month, when he’ll already have a year of college football behind him. Campbell was All-State twice as a high school running back, and SVSM won state titles his junior and senior years. He excelled as a sprinter in track (10.77 in 100M; 22.09 in 200M), and it was that pure speed that got him moved to receiver at OSU. He answered some of the questions about his hands this spring, and had five catches for 56 yards and a TD on a shovel pass in the spring game. He is most definitely in the plans as one of Urban Meyer’s Playmakers for the 2015 offense.

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6. Sam Hubbard - #49 - RS Freshman - Defensive End - 6’ 5”, 265 lbs. - Cincinnati, OH

Meyer had the luxury of redshirting Hubbard a year ago, but said he came to regret it late in the season as Hubbard came on strong in practices. This big, rangy athlete was an all-state safety in high school, and came to OSU as a 5-star recruit and the nation’s #2 OLB prospect. He took reps at both linebacker and tight end in 2014 before finally settling on the defensive line. I have him ranked here above Lewis, who beat him out this spring as the DE starter, only because I think Hubbard’s ceiling is so high as a versatile and dangerous defensive talent. We know he can drop and cover...and tackle...in space. Once he learns some disengagement technique from Larry Johnson, and gets familiar with his new position...look out.

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5. Noah Brown - #80 - Wide Receiver - Sophomore - 6’ 2”, 222 lbs. - Flanders, NJ

Brown has told reporters that at Ohio State, “you have to fight to see the field”, and the big wide receiver did just that last season, earning field time as a freshman at 240 pounds, playing at H-back, and working on special teams. But Brown came back this spring some 20 pounds lighter, and proceeded to win a starting wide receiver position with his spring ball performance. He is a solid blocker, and presents some real match-up problems for DB’s with his size and length. Brown was a touchdown maker from all over the field as a prep star in New Jersey, putting up 45 total TD’s in his last two seasons. He showed his stuff in the spring game with four catches, and barring something unforeseen, he will line up opposite Michael Thomas at WR for the Buckeyes on Labor Day.

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4. Gareon Conley - #19 - RS Sophomore - Cornerback - 6’ 0”, 195 lbs. - Massillon, OH

Gareon Conley was briefly committed to Michigan before he came to his senses and joined the Buckeyes class of 2013. Now the Massillon native has cracked the starting lineup at cornerback for Ohio State after redshirting his first year and playing in spot duty in 2014. Conley could just as well be playing wide receiver, and the receiver instincts and ball skills should serve him well at corner. He really came into his own this spring, winning a tight battle with Damon Webb to claim the starting spot. “Length” has become an over-hyped attribute, but Conley seems to personify it with his long arms and long stride. There will be a lot of visibility and pressure for Conley as he gets a baptism under fire as a first-year starter in an otherwise experienced secondary. Look for him to be up to the task.  

3. Erick Smith - #1 - Sophomore - Safety - 6’ 0”,  202 lbs. - Cleveland, OH

The second-year safety from Glenville will not begin the year as a starter at safety, but he will play a lot...because he just has to. The young man can cover like a corner, but he relishes contact, and he hits like a truck. Right now he’s behind the veteran Tyvis Powell at the strong safety position, but Smith may wind up as the first choice at the nickel back spot, just to get his talent on the field. Smith wasn’t as well known as his Tarblooder teammate and fellow-Buckeye Marshon Lattimore as their senior years began, but by the time the postseason all-star games were played, he had rocketed up the rankings to become a Top 100 player nationally. By now it is clear to Buckeye-watchers that the breakout for Erick Smith is coming. It’s just a matter of when.

2. Curtis Samuel - #4 - Sophomore - Running Back - 5’ 11”, 200 lbs. - Brooklyn, NY

Samuel wasn’t exactly under the radar a year ago as one of Urban Meyer’s favorite young talents. He rushed 58 times for 383 yards and six touchdowns, and added 11 pass receptions for 95 more yards. But believe me, the breakout hasn’t happened yet. Meyer made it a focus of his offseason to figure out ways to get the ball into Samuel’s hands more often...no easy task with a guy named Elliott taking the lion’s share of the carries at running back. Samuel took reps at the H-back this spring, and they experimented with throwing him the ball more. You may see him returning kickoffs again this year as well, but you can be sure Meyer will have him right in the middle of his dizzying array of skill position playmakers this fall.

1. Raekwon McMillan - #5 - Sophomore - Linebacker - 6’ 2”, 240 lbs. - Hinesville, GA

As with Samuel, there’s a case to be made that McMillan “broke out” a year ago, when he played a role in OSU’s drive to the championship as a backup to Curtis Grant at the middle linebacker position. He finished the year with 49 tackles, including 2.5 sacks and 3.5 TFL. That was good for 9th on the team...from a backup player. But he’s at the top of this ranking because the ceiling is so darn high.  It was fun to watch the true freshman progress as the 2014 season went along. I thought he was at his best in the two playoff games against Alabama and Oregon. He had limited reps, but when he was in there, all he did was make plays. The whole package is there...size, speed, instincts, toughness...to mark “Kwon” as a potential All-Big Ten performer, with a shot at All-American recognition...and I’m talking about this year.

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Asides and also-rans:

Super Sleeper: Kyle Berger - #44 - Linebacker - 6' 2", 230 lbs - Cleveland, OH

Berger has had nothing but bad luck since his senior year at St. Ignatius, tearing ACL's not once but twice, costing him two full football seasons. He's an outstanding player when healthy, and if that happens soon he could break out and give this defense another fine playmaker.

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Just missing the cut were cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Damon Webb (in part because the list was already so defense-heavy) but both figure to play a lot. Lattimore, the former Glenville star, is a redshirt freshman coming off problems with both hamstrings, and Webb has been neck-and-neck with Conley for the starting job opposite Eli Apple. Another promising defender, DE Jalyn Holmes figures to see lots of playing time in the rotation and looks to have star qualities.

OSU coaches candidly cite defensive tackle as the thinnest position group on the team, so they must be hoping that at least one of Donovan Munger, Michael Hill, or Dylan Thompson breaks out. Tommy Schutt made my breakout list two years ago, but we’re still waiting. My money is on Munger for 2015, for what that’s worth.

Several pass-catchers could emerge as breakout candidates, and could well have made this list. TE Nick Vannett was borderline, having done a bit of breaking out a year ago as a backup to Jeff Heuerman with 19 receptions and 5 touchdowns. Dontre Wilson’s best football is presumably still ahead of him too after he struggled with injuries a year ago. Still his 21 catches and 3 scores in 2014 make him more of a known quantity.

The qualifier “if healthy” might be applied to a number of receivers...notably James Clark and Johnnie Dixon, both of whom have a world of talent, but have suffered serious injuries since arriving in Columbus. And TE Marcus Baugh is another guy whose talent is unquestioned, but who has thus far proven too inconsistent and unreliable to project into on-field success.

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on Twitter at @dwismar
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Photo Credits:

McMillan (top) - Kyle Robertson - Columbus Dispatch
Booker - Josh Winslow - BSB
Lewis - Tim Heitman - USAToday Sports
Campbell - Scout.com
Conley - Kyle Robertson - Columbus Dispatch
Smith - Josh Winslow - BSB
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