Trailing just USC and Notre Dame for programs with the most picks in NFL Draft history, Ohio State has long been considered a top-tier manufacturer of NFL talent.
Sixth-year head coach Urban Meyer, however, has taken that reputation to a completely different level.
In the past two seasons, Ohio State has seen a nation-high 19 players taken in the NFL Draft; eight of which coming in the first round, and 13 having forgone at least one remaining year of eligibility.
2018’s class looks to be no different, as several key underclassmen face a difficult decision leading up to the Cotton Bowl vs. USC. Should they stay or should they go?
RB Mike Weber r(So)
After having been named Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season in his first year as Ohio State’s starting running back, Mike Weber was poised for a breakout sophomore season with the Buckeyes in 2017.
But after suffering from a hamstring injury just before the start of the season, the bruising running back was used sparingly for much of the regular season, with true freshman J.K. Dobbins bursting onto the scene as the primary ball carrier.
Weber, through the first nine games of the season, totaled only 275 yards on 60 carries.
It wasn’t until mid-November — with the Michigan State Spartans in town — when Weber finally showed what made him the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Racking up a career-high 162 yards on just nine carries, not only did Weber display his innate ability to run through would-be tacklers, but a gear never before seen in the sophomore’s brief collegiate career.
With touchdown runs of 47 and 82 yards against the Spartans, Weber showed the breakaway speed that was missing from his game last season, and what might make the young running back a viable option in this year’s NFL Draft.
There’s no question that J.K. Dobbins is the future of Ohio State’s backfield — 1,364 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman in 2017 — and should Weber elect to return for the 2018 season, a running back-by-committee approach may be used by offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson.
Tailbacks in the NFL have the shortest shelf-life of any position in the NFL; 2.5 years on average according to Statista. Another year in the NCAA can only decrease that number, and that’s what Weber will be weighing this spring.
Likelihood of departure: Toss Up
DE Sam Hubbard r(Jr)
One of many underclassmen-eligible Buckeyes to have already graduated from Ohio State this past Sunday, defensive end Sam Hubbard could have easily declared for the NFL Draft last season.
But with National Championship aspirations that didn’t quite come to fruition this season, the weak-side defensive end decided to stay with the “Silver Bullets” for at least one more season. Hubbard, a starter among what many called the nation’s best defensive line this past season, finished his junior campaign with 4.5 sacks and 38 total tackles, rotating frequently with a bevy of defensive lineman for the Buckeyes.
Hubbard’s rare combination of size (6’5” 265lb) and speed already made him a valued pro-prospect last season, and now with his degree and Big Ten Championship secured against the Badgers, little is keeping the defensive end at Ohio State.
After turning down the opportunity to go pro last season, it’s unlikely that Hubbard would make the same decision again, especially with the emergence of players like Chase Young and Nick Bosa on the Buckeyes’ defensive line.
Likelihood of departure: Very Likely
LB Jerome Baker (Jr)
After bursting onto the scene a year ago with a pick-six against the now Heisman-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield, linebacker Jerome Baker entered the 2017 season with perhaps the most hype out of any Buckeye defender.
But after a string of mediocre performances highlighted in the Buckeyes’ two losses against the Hawkeyes and Sooners, Baker’s draft stock may have taken quite a hit this season. All too often was Baker (and the rest of the linebacking corps for that matter) caught out in pass coverage this season, allowing countless chunk plays down the middle.
The loss of co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell — now the head coach at the University of Cincinnati — may have something to do with the drop-off, but there’s no denying the regression seen from the linebacker throughout the season.
Baker finished the 2017 regular season with 67 tackles (83 in 2016), three sacks (3.5 in 2016) and no interceptions (2 in 2016). The linebacker even gave himself a “C-“ for his performance this season.
Still, given Baker’s elite athleticism and overall body of work with the Buckeyes, a second or third round selection in the 2018 draft wouldn’t be out of the question. Baker’s decision may even come down to how he performs in the upcoming Cotton Bowl against USC, where the Buckeyes will face quarterback Sam Darnold; a likely first-round pick in the NFL Draft.
A quality performance against a pro-caliber quarterback like Darnold would go a long way in quelling the skepticism brought upon the linebacker this season. If Baker can put together a performance circa 2016, expect the linebacker to declare for the NFL Draft.
Likelihood of departure: Likely
WR Parris Campbell r(Jr)
Another Buckeye starter to have already graduated, Parris Campbell showed flashes of brilliance this season transitioning from a pure wide receiver to the h-back position.
Campbell, playing in all but one game this season, finished the regular season with 666 yards from scrimmage on 45 touches; an average of 14.8 yards per touch. Possessing the same game-breaking speed as players like Curtis Samuel and Philly Brown before him, Campbell did most of his damage with yards gained after the catch.
All three of Campbell’s touchdowns this season — plays of 74, 69, and 57 yards — started within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
Campbell was used somewhat sparingly throughout the 2017 season, but when his number was called — typically three to four times per game — the junior h-back delivered with several key first down catches.
In regards to his impending decision to declare for the NFL Draft, his situation is not unlike Noah Brown’s of last season. After a what some might have called a breakout season in 2016 for wide receiver Noah Brown, the redshirt sophomore, in a somewhat shocking move, elected to forego his remaining two years of eligibility to enter the 2017 NFL Draft.
The big-bodied receiver was eventually picked in the seventh round by the Dallas Cowboys, so far making only four catches on the year in his rookie campaign.
Campbell’s season stats and utilization — although differing in style and role — mirror that of Brown’s in 2016. Another year with the Buckeyes could improve Campbell’s rising draft stock, but with a degree already in hand this fall, the receiver may look to continue his career in the NFL.
Likelihood of departure: Unlikely
CB Denzel Ward (Jr)
After playing in the shadow of first-round picks Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore last season, cornerback Denzel Ward used his new starting role in 2017 to continue the tradition of elite cornerback play from the Buckeyes’ secondary.
Ward, often tasked with defending the opposition’s best receiver, finished the 2017 regular season with 15 passes defended (a team high) and two interceptions. The shutdown corner was also named a first-team AP All-American, becoming just the second cornerback during the Urban Meyer era to hold the prestigious honor.
Of the five players listed in this write-up, Ward is absolutely the most likely to declare early for the NFL Draft, following in the footsteps of players like Eli Apple, Marshon Lattimore, and Gareon Conley in recent years.
In a year where the Buckeye defense struggled at times, Ward’s performances never faltered. Many experts are predicting a mid-first round selection for the cornerback should he declare early, but Ward himself has remained mute on the subject leading up to the Buckeyes’ Cotton Bowl date with USC this Friday. Nevertheless, Ward would be foolish to pass up an almost certain first-round selection in this year’s NFL Draft.
Likelihood of departure: All but certain
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