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Early-enrollees have key questions to answer for Buckeyes

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Julian Fleming is the country's top-ranked receiver and has a clear path to playing time at Ohio State. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

Early-enrollees have key questions to answer for Buckeyes

COLUMBUS — The season for Ohio State is over, and preparations for 2020 are officially underway.

A week removed from a devastating and controversial loss to Clemson, the Buckeyes are being forced to turn the page to next year. That endeavor begins in earnest over the next few days as coaches and students return to campus following an extended holiday break.

Among the students making their way to campus will be 14 new Ohio State signees.

There are many challenges in the road ahead for Ryan Day and the Buckeyes if they want to return to the College Football Playoff.

One of the keys that require expert navigation? How to get these young players acclimated and up-to-speed so that by the time June arrives and the rest of the 2020 signing class is on campus, the difficult transition into college has been at least partially mitigated. That task is made easier because of the quality and maturity of these early arrivals, a group that includes nine offensive prospects and five new Buckeyes defenders.

Here is the list of Ohio State early-enrollees set to arrive in Columbus over the next few days.

Offense: C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller, Julian Fleming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Gee Scott, Mookie Cooper, Paris Johnson, Luke Wypler, Trey Leroux

Defense: Jacolbe Cowan, Darrion Henry, Kourt Williams, Ryan Watts, Lejond Cavazos

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C.J. Stroud is closing in on a 5-star ranking as he prepares for college enrollment. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

One Ohio State quarterback in line for real playing time

The Buckeyes will see an overhaul at a couple of different positions before fans see them on the field again.

At quarterback, both C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller arrive as heralded prospects. And both come to Ohio from pretty significant distances. Miller committed to Ohio State in June of 2018 and remained steadfast in his pledge all the way through signing day amid endless speculation about Stroud and his potential addition.

When Stroud signed with Ohio State during the December early signing period, it officially launched what should be an epic battle with Gunnar Hoak to be Justin Fields’ backup in 2020. Whichever freshman quarterback emerges for the Buckeyes becomes the prohibitive favorite to start for the program in 2021 and beyond.

Buckle up. Miller and Stroud are each fierce competitors and full of talent. The Ohio State spring game in April will provide a great chance for Miller and Stroud to show they belong in the conversation.

Which freshman receivers will best handle move to Ohio State?

All four incoming prospects at wide receiver for Ohio State have the potential to become major contributors before the end of their careers.

But with Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jameson Williams leading the way and a talented group of players like Jaelen Gill, Jaylen Harris and Kamryn Babb working to make their mark in Columbus still, it’s going to require a quick and thorough adjustment for Julian Fleming, Gee Scott, Jaxon Smith-Njigba or Mookie Cooper to make meaningful plays in 2020.

Difficult as it may be unless Gill, Harris or Babb step fully into the spotlight, there’s going to be a need for one or two of the uber-talented freshmen to become real options for Justin Fields. Which players do that will depend almost entirely on who handles the transition to college life the best, because talent is not going to be a problem for any of them.

Will Fleming and Scott, with college-ready frames, be ready for the rigors of every-day competition against comparable athletes? Will Smith-Njigba, who went against the best players in Texas on a weekly basis, show that he can handle the physical demands of an elite-level program after dealing with injuries that cost him time in recent months? Can Cooper, a totally different type of receiver than anyone else on the Ohio State roster, find his niche and rhythm quickly on the football field after missing his senior season because of archaic transfer rules in Missouri?

Each of these guys seemed destined to make things happen at Ohio State. But which highly-touted players can be consistent and mature enough to impact the rotation when things matter the most?

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Darrion Henry and Paris Johnson will each compete for playing time as freshmen. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Can Paris Johnson take over at right tackle for Ohio State next season?

The Buckeyes received some good news in the last two weeks when a trio of draft-eligible offensive linemen in Josh Myers, Wyatt Davis and Thayer Munford all confirmed their intention to return next season.

That group will go a long way toward preparing and developing Paris Johnson, the 5-star offensive tackle from Cincinnati Princeton and the country’s top-ranked offensive tackle in the 2020 class. Johnson enters the program with lofty expectations and an opportunity to assert himself as a team leader very early, a role he will need to take on alongside bookend tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere in 2021 and beyond.

Beyond Munford and Petit-Frere, there are few roadblocks that prevent Johnson from playing early and often for Ohio State. He’s enrolling early to take advantage of that chance and will go head-to-head with Petit-Frere to start at right tackle.

Will versatile Ohio State defensive linemen make way into rotation?

Larry Johnson only has three defensive linemen signed in 2020, but two of them will be enrolling early with a chance to compete for playing time at Ohio State.

And the odds of playing early go way up for Darrion Henry and Jacolbe Cowan if they become more receptive to playing on the interior of the defensive line. With DaVon Hamilton and Robert Landers departing, there’s no clear-cut, entrenched starters in their way. Both Cowan and Henry are more comfortable playing defensive end, but with both of them checking in around the 6-foot-4, 270-pound range, their frames may end up making them better suited for the 3-tech defensive spot in Johnson’s scheme.

Ohio State will need one of its untested interior linemen to step up and show out as Jonathon Cooper, Tyreke Smith, Tyler Friday, Zach Harrison and Javontae Jean-Baptiste handle the edges of the defense. If Henry or Cowan want to play early, committing to the idea could help them establish themselves early for Ryan Day.

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Ryan Watts has the length and physicality to compete for early playing time. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Can Ryan Watts, Lejond Cavazos enter cornerback discussion?

Ohio State is replacing a pair of starting cornerbacks. And despite Saturday’s big news that Shaun Wade is returning for his senior season, the Buckeyes will be essentially starting over in the defensive backfield.

Jeff Hafley is gone, but the blueprint remains the same for the Buckeyes in the secondary: Find long, athletic, physical cornerbacks who are comfortable in press-man coverage and have the ability to turn and run with wide receivers on the outside.

There’s no doubt that Ryan Watts is long and athletic. There’s no doubt that Lejond Cavazos can turn and run. But will either of the two early-enrolled defensive backs push Sevyn Banks and Cam Brown for a starting role opposite of Wade in the Buckeyes 2020 defensive plans?

If they can’t step up when the opportunity to do so will be presented early in their careers, then it’s possible Ohio State could double-check the transfer portal for an immediate contributor in the defensive backfield for next season.


Birm is Lettermen Row's Director of Recruiting and the site's primary Ohio State sports photographer. A Toledo, Ohio native, Jeremy has been in similar roles for and and has been covering the Buckeyes for seven years.