COLUMBUS — Ohio State doesn’t have to play true freshmen.
The strength and depth of the football program inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center makes it hard for first-year players to stand out and find the field amid all the veteran talent the Buckeyes have stockpiled. So when a freshman does make a play or earns playing time? That’s a huge deal.
And as the season progresses, more members of the Buckeyes fifth-ranked recruiting class from 2020 are pushing to be on the field in big moments. With little spring practice and a condensed training camp, those moves were hard to make in the preseason. Now that the Buckeyes are in the thick of the season, freshmen are figuring out what it takes to be in the Buckeyes program.
“I was worried about [that development] without a spring,” Day said earlier this month. “I was worried about it without a normal preseason, and I was worried about it without a normal nonconference lead-up into conference season. It’s something that there’s a lot of reps that just haven’t been had by our younger players. I think you saw a little bit of that [against Rutgers]. So we’re just going to have to keep building with it and grow and teach now that there’s some stuff on film.”
Ohio State rarely ever needs true freshmen to make an impact. But when they do, it adds another level and layer of strength to the Big Ten’s top program. Lettermen Row is breaking down five first-year Buckeyes who are making an impact already — or could down the stretch.
WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba
One of the most prolific high school wide receivers in Texas history, Jaxon Smith-Njigba flashed his talent for the Buckeyes during the shortened spring practice. He followed it up with an impressive showing in camp, and then his first true impression came. Against Nebraska during the Week One game, Smith-Njigba was leveled by a defender going across the middle. Three plays later, he made an incredible catch that is sure to be under consideration for Catch of the Year with a toe-tap in the back of the end zone for his first career touchdown grab. It certainly won’t be the last, and Smith-Njigba seems to be growing more comfortable with each week for the Buckeyes.
DB Lathan Ransom
As the safety position continues to struggle through four games, the Buckeyes are in the midst of evaluating all options to help the back end of the Silver Bullets defense. The name that keeps coming up? Lathan Ransom, a former four-star Arizona product who has been making moves and could begin to see more action in the final two games of the regular season. Ohio State hasn’t gotten the job done in the secondary so far this season. Maybe the young, talented Ransom, who has seen a fair share of snaps, could be an answer.
OT Paris Johnson
Paris Johnson hasn’t made an impact in Year One at Ohio State like he might have hoped to. He competed for the starting job at right tackle in training camp before ultimately losing that battle to third-year sophomore Nicholas Petit-Frere. But while Johnson’s impact on the national title hopes for the Buckeyes in 2020 aren’t clear, he certainly has made a mark. Johnson pushed Petit-Frere in training camp and made the entire offensive line better in doing so. Petit-Frere has been steady for the Buckeyes all season. And next year, when there is a tackle spot open on the left side, Johnson might line up on the other side of Petit-Frere to form a dangerous tackle combination for Ohio State.
WR Julian Fleming
The No. 1 wide receiver in the class of 2020, Fleming had high expectations coming into his freshman season. But with little spring practice and a makeshift fall camp, his development into the program — and college football — is still a work in progress. Fleming has had just one catch this season, a 13-yard grab, but he also had a bad drop against Rutgers that could have been a touchdown. Still, he’s finding unique ways to make an impact, such as the forced fumble against Indiana that gave the Buckeyes the ball back after a Justin Fields interception. The Hoosiers should have had the ball in the Ohio State red zone. Instead, Fleming made the play, and the Buckeyes retained possession. Those kind of plays will continue to help his chances of seeing the field more as the season goes on.
CBs Ryan Watts, Lejond Cavazos
The buzz surrounding the two cornerbacks in the Buckeyes 2020 recruiting class continues to grow, as Ryan Watts and Lejond Cavazos are making moves and pushing for more playing time. Watts has been a steady riser as the season has gone on, while Cavazos was sidelined with an injury before returning and shedding his black stripe last week. Neither young corner has seen significant playing time yet, but as the Buckeyes find ways to fine-tune their secondary, the chances for Watts and Cavazos could be on the way soon.