COLUMBUS — Losing Urban Meyer was never going to be easy for Ohio State.
That was especially evident on the recruiting trail, where Meyer explored high school football hotbeds that Ohio State had never been to, and he came back with four- and five-star players from everywhere.
After Ryan Day’s first full class as a head coach, it seems like the recruiting transition from the legendary Meyer to the first-timer Day was as smooth as it looked on the field.
“This is our first class from beginning to end. There was a lot more time, a lot more relationships built with deeper connections there and just a lot more time,” Day said. “I thought our staff did a great job. You talk about some of the work it takes to recruit nationally, just the travel and time and phone calls and the work Mark Pantoni and his staff did to get this class together is just tremendous.
“It’s great to celebrate on a day like [early signing day] because there’s so much work that gets put into this.”
It’s a little easier to celebrate early signing day because the Buckeyes hauled in one of the country’s best classes and cleaned up on nearly every position they needed.
Ohio State signed 24 players last month during the signing period, and 14 of them begin classes this week. The record-high for freshman joining the program, some of them might be able to find playing time quickly. Lettermen Row is breaking down five of them who can have an instant impact.
WR Julian Fleming
Julian Fleming doesn’t seem to have a weakness when it comes to playing wide receiver. His huge body, good hands, ability after the catch and more are what make him the No. 1 wide receiver in the country for the 2020 class. And with all the turnover from Ohio State wide receivers graduating and going to the NFL in the last two seasons, younger receivers will have a big opportunity to step in and play instantly. Austin Mack, K.J. Hill and Binjimen Victor are gone. Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson return. Fleming could become a key option for Justin Fields if he has a good showing in the preseason.
OT Paris Johnson
Ohio State received great news during the week leading up to the Fiesta Bowl when Wyatt Davis, Josh Myers and Thayer Munford all announced their intentions to return for another season with the Buckeyes. Even with their return, the Buckeyes will need to find a new left guard and right tackle. Jonah Jackson and Branden Bowen graduated, and Bowen’s spot will be up for grabs. That’s where Johnson could find himself. A consensus top-10 prospect will battle another former five-star prospect, Nicholas Petit-Frere, for the starting right tackle job. Petit-Frere likely has the edge for that spot due to his weight gain from last offseason and his game experience, but don’t count Johnson out. Either way, his name will wind up on the two-deep in September.
CB Ryan Watts
Ohio State is losing three of its four starters in the Silver Bullets secondary, and it also lost one of the best secondary coaches in the country. So there are opportunities for younger Buckeyes to step in and make a difference. That’s how Ryan Watts fits in. The long, rangy cornerback from Little Elm, Texas, reaffirmed his commitment to Ohio State after Jeff Hafley’s departure, and he will now step on campus with a chance to compete for immediate playing time with some other cornerbacks who, despite being in the program for a longer period of time, seem to be underperforming. If Watts has a good spring and goes into training camp with some momentum, he might find himself on the field in the fall.
WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba
One of the most productive high school football players the state of Texas has ever seen, Jaxon Smith-Njigba has the tools to be a dominant receiver at Ohio State. Now, the process of turning the high school success into collegiate results begins. At 6-feet-1-inch and nearly 190 pounds, Smith-Njigba will have a full winter and offseason with Mickey Marotti to boost his weight and strength. And with a full offseason being coached by Brian Hartline, Smith-Njigba has a good chance to find early playing time due to the attrition in the wide receiver room — like fellow early enrollees Fleming, Gee Scott and Mookie Cooper.
The Ohio State quarterbacks
Jack Miller and C.J. Stroud played it off during the recruiting process. They both are all in on the idea of competing right away when they get on campus. That time is now, and the first auditions for gaining the upper hand in future quarterback battles is coming quickly. Stroud and Miller both have a chance to compete with Gunnar Hoak for the backup quarterback job behind Justin Fields, a spot that seems to play a big role for the Buckeyes every year. Miller has dreamed of playing for the Buckeyes since his freshman year and has been committed since July 2018. Stroud committed on signing day after a late arrival to the national recruiting scene. Now both will begin a years-long quarterback competition in the coming weeks.