COLUMBUS — There isn’t actually a definitive depth chart at Ohio State right now, and there won’t be one for a while.
Even when the Buckeyes release one, they’ll be quick to point to the importance of rotating at key positions, the need to prepare for injuries and the value of their Next Man Up philosophy.
That is all totally fine and understandable. But some Buckeyes are going to be starters, some are going to be backups. That’s just the way it works.
So, working off the projected lineup for Ohio State leaving spring based on guys who were getting first-team reps and those who are pushing for work from a reserve role, Lettermen Row is looking ahead at the current backups who could wind up playing critical roles for the two-time defending Big Ten champs. Maybe they’ll eventually become starters, maybe it’s just situational work that will allow them to have an impact. But the list is starting here with these five Buckeyes who could shape the season ahead.
LB Teradja Mitchell
The middle linebacker looks like a rising, hard-hitting star for the Buckeyes, and there were times in the spring that Teradja Mitchell was getting a chance to stake a claim to the starting role as the quarterback of the defense. At the end of camp, returning captain and starter Tuf Borland was injured, which cracked the door for Mitchell. Borland certainly didn’t have the impact he wanted last year, and that was almost certainly because he was never playing at full strength after rushing back from an Achilles injury. When he’s at his best, he’s a rock-solid presence for the Buckeyes. But he still might have to ramp up his game to hold off Mitchell, who is going to play a role for Ohio State one way or another.
OL Branden Bowen
Finally healthy after two years of dealing with a broken leg and the complications from that injury, Branden Bowen is more than capable of winning a starting job at left guard or right tackle. But if he doesn’t edge out Nicholas Petit-Frere on the outside or Jonah Jackson on the interior, Bowen’s ability to play almost anywhere up front will make him invaluable for the Buckeyes as the Sixth Man for the offensive line. If anything were to go wrong, either due to injury or performance, Bowen would be at the front of the line to help Ohio State. That’s a critical role, and Bowen could wind up being a key cog for the Buckeyes no matter how the position battles shape up in training camp.
DE Tyreke Smith
Just about all of the elite pass-rushers who have come through Ohio State can relate to the situation Tyreke Smith will be in this season. The gifted sophomore would be on the field from the first snap at almost any program in the country and might also be the most important player for a number of Big Ten defenses. But for the Buckeyes, he’ll be coming off the bench in the Rushmen rotation behind Chase Young and Jonathon Cooper, waiting his turn until he gets to lead the way before becoming a first-round NFL Draft pick. Ohio State loves to keep defensive linemen fresh, so it’s not like Smith wasn’t going to get snaps this season anyway. But he isn’t going to be listed at the top of the depth chart, which technically makes him one of the most important backups on the roster.
QB Gunnar Hoak
There’s a lot of work ahead of the graduate-transfer quarterback from Kentucky before he could be reliably counted on to lead the offense for Ryan Day. Gunnar Hoak needs to learn a new playbook, acclimate to the system and develop chemistry with new receivers — and he doesn’t have the benefit of much time to do it since he wasn’t around for the spring. Ohio State believes in Hoak’s ability or it would have looked for other options to bring in to push Justin Fields. But how quickly Hoak takes to everything with the Buckeyes will be fascinating to monitor in training camp in case the program needs to turn to somebody else at the most important position on the field.
SAF Josh Proctor
Much of the revamped Ohio State defense remains under wraps after spring, particularly with what the program plans to do with a deep, talented secondary. It’s becoming quite clear already, though, that Josh Proctor has to be involved in some capacity for the Buckeyes. How exactly that works out with Jordan Fuller coming back for another season and Brendon White emerging as a do-it-all weapon in the Bullet position remains to be seen — and the versatile Shaun Wade will have an impact in that conversation as well. But Proctor is another surefire star, and the second-year safety is going to be ready to prove it by the end of August.