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What We Learned from large, talented group of Buckeyes freshmen

Paris Johnson Jr.-Ohio State-Ohio State football-Buckeyes
Paris Johnson could be an instant playmaker for Ohio State. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

What We Learned from large, talented group of Buckeyes freshmen

COLUMBUS — Paris Johnson Jr. understands the expectations he has attached to his name at Ohio State.

Everything that comes with being a top-10 prospect in the country and signing with the in-state school comes with high expectations, and Johnson has already prepared himself for them.

It certainly makes the outside predictions that he could step in and compete for a starting spot right away at Ohio State sit a little easier knowing Johnson holds himself to a higher standard than anyone else could.

“My expectations right now for this offseason and these winter workouts is that I want to come in, and I want to be known as one of the hardest working people,” Johnson said Wednesday at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. “Because, you know, I was on the phone with my mom and I was telling her: ‘Coming out of high school, a lot of people said I was the toughest tackle in the country.’ But I want to come in here and I want to be seen as one as one of the hardest workers, you know, because a lot of times people with a lot of talent aren’t.

“They don’t have to work hard, so I try to prove [strength coach] Mick [Marotti] and I want to prove to the older guys and prove to guys in my class that I could be one of the hardest workers.”

Working hard will only get Johnson so far with the Buckeyes. He has a crucial first offseason that includes learning an entire playbook and figuring out everything that comes with being a part of Greg Studrawa’s talented offensive line room. Johnson already has the build to play on a Big Ten offensive line, and he has his sights set on a lofty goal — one that only two true freshman have been able to do in recent memory.

“I would like to [start],” he said. “If I get in the playbook enough and I work hard enough, show the coaches that I’m ready to play and go out there when it’s time to put the pads on. If I show that I’m ready to compete, you know, I would like to compete to start as a freshman, God willing. But in the end, I just want to be on the field as much as possible in any way I can help this team get where you want to be.”

Johnson seems to be on the right path, and he was one of the 14 early enrollees to speak to the media at the practice facility Wednesday. Lettermen Row broke down What We Learned from the media session with the newest and youngest members of the Ohio State roster.

Young cornerbacks preparing for instant impact

Ohio State’s secondary is going to look different from last season’s impressive group in the back end. Damon Arnette and Jeff Okudah are both gone to the NFL, and they’ll both be drafted to carry out the BIA mantra in the league. But the Buckeyes recruited well with Jeff Hafley and Kerry Coombs in the last year, and the unit will be strong for Ohio State moving forward. That’s where Ryan Watts and Lejond Cavazos enter the fold as early-enrollee cornerbacks getting their feet wet amid so much secondary turnover. The two new corners aren’t concerned with trying to replace who was with the Buckeyes last year. They just want to prove they belong in the conversation about playing time.

“We haven’t really talked about [replacing Okudah and Arnette] yet,” Watts said. “We’re just coming in and trying to get into the college life and just get through workouts. Every day, we just keep working, and whatever happens, happens. I’m just gonna keep pulling all my effort in, and when the time comes, I’m gonna let the coaches make that decision and just keep working.”

Talented crop of receivers embrace expectations

The Buckeyes signed one of the most impressive groups of wide receivers in recruiting history, allowing Brian Hartline to be crowned 247sports.com’s National Recruiter of the Year. Hartline’s group of 2020 wide receivers, featuring four of the top 16 players in the country at that position, is already shaping up to be a special group, and they haven’t done anything other than work out.

The talent in the room is incredible, and with that comes high expectations for all four incoming wide receivers. Julian Fleming, the country’s No. 1 wide receiver in the class, doesn’t mind the hype surrounding he and his three new pass-catching teammates.

“It’s really exciting,” Fleming said. “You know there’s a lot of expectations with this class, especially at receiver, so I’m hoping we could all live up to them. But at the same time, it’s going to be a lot of work we know you have to put in to get there.”

All four came to campus in January, and they have all developed a bond together before their first collegiate practice. That’s part of the allure of enrolling early. Every day, the receivers are competing against each other during workouts while building relationships for the next few years. The goal to be the greatest class of wide receivers of all time is driving every workout through the first month of their careers.

“100 percent,” Fleming said. “I’m sure everybody in the group has their own thoughts and expectations that they want to live up to. But as a group, I would say we do want to go out as one of the best wide receiver classes. There’s going to be a lot of work and a lot of commitment that’s going to have to be put in to get to that point, because Ohio State has put out a ton of great wide receivers. It’s Zone 6, so we’re gonna have to work our way up.”

Mickey Marotti already transforming Trey Leroux

Trey Leroux is embracing what he’s up against. The lowest-rated member of the class understood that he needed development if he is going to make an impact on the Ohio State offensive line during his career. So as one of the early enrollees, the massive 6-foot-8 Leroux, who showed up last month at 360 pounds, is already working with Mickey Marotti to transform his body and become better equipped to compete in Greg Studrawa’s room.

“[Marotti]’s a great guy, he’s an amazing coach to be working with,” Leroux said. “I can’t say enough about what he’s done for me. I’ve lost 30 pounds since I got here. I’m at 330 right now.”

Leroux, a Norwalk native, showed up a little too heavy. But Marotti and the strength staff are already making sure he’s dropping weight and taking the right steps. One month in, results are coming in droves for Leroux. And that’s why he decided he needed to enroll early. He understands the work he needs in order to find the field, so he left high school early to join the Buckeyes mid-year.

“Really just to change my body and get a head start,” Leroux said. “Coach Mick has done an amazing job, and I think it was the best idea for me to come early and work out early and get to learn everything a little bit sooner than if I had waited.”

Kourt Williams sees chance as versatile playmaker

Last offseason, all the hype surrounding the Ohio State defense started and ended with the Bullet position. But in Ryan Day’s first season as coach, the Buckeyes rarely showed a defensive formation with a true Bullet position. That could change, because Kourt Williams, a do-it-all linebacker from Southern California, already has experience as a Bullet linebacker and safety hybrid role. And he’s talented at that role.

“I played what they called a star position, it’s kind of down safety,” Williams said of his high school defense at St. John’s Bosco. “It’s different because we played a different defense at Bosco. It was two-high. I was kind of that third-down safety. But I played two-deep safety. I did both.”

Williams’ versatility will make it difficult for the Ohio State coaches to decide exactly how they want him to play — and where. Williams accepts the challenges that come with learning multiple positions. He prides himself on being a versatile weapon who can do everything a defensive coach asks him to do.

“It’s definitely not hard at all,” he said. “Film study and all that, I really take pride in all that and I do it a whole lot. I always consider myself a smart football player. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s hard in terms of the mental aspect. It’s asking to do a lot, but that’s what you want at the end of the day. “

Spencer Holbrook

Spencer Holbrook covers Ohio State football and basketball for Lettermen Row. A recent graduate of Ohio University's Scripps School of Journalism, he's in his first year covering the Buckeyes. He was previously the sports editor at Ohio's student newspaper, The Post, where he covered Ohio University football and men's basketball.

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