Millions of fans across the country will be tuning into Saturday night’s heavyweight showdown between bluebloods Ohio State and Oklahoma (7 p.m. ET, FOX). And while many of you may already be familiar with the Sooners’ personnel from their much-watched Week 1 loss to Houston, you might need a game program to familiarize yourself with the 2016 Buckeyes.
Nearly all of the most recognizable names from Urban Meyer’s 2014 national championship team and 12-1 squad a year ago – Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Darron Lee, Vonn Bell, Eli Apple – are now playing on Sundays. Besides veteran quarterback J.T. Barrett and All-American linebacker Raekwon McMillan, most of the guys who will play key roles against Oklahoma may be unfamiliar to all but Ohio State’s own fans.
But the third-ranked Buckeyes’ season-opening routs of Bowling Green and Tulsa provided a telling glimpse of Ohio State’s next wave of stars. In particular, their rebuilt secondary has helped new co-coordinator Greg Schiano’s defense hold their opponents out of the end zone while notching three touchdowns of their own.
On our podcast The Audible this week, FOX Sports analyst Dave Wannstedt provided this summation of Ohio State’s defensive performance so far based in part on his visit in Columbus with former coaching colleague Schiano.
“This is how much respect he has for the talent,” Wannstedt said of Schiano. “They have not been a pressure team yet. Maybe this week, who knows, but … the first two weeks, they’ve really just lined up and played four down [linemen], and every once in a while some pressure. Without saying they’re talented enough to do it without blitzing, so far they have.”
Offensively, of course, it all begins with Barrett, a Top 5 Heisman finisher in 2014 who threw for six touchdowns in the opener against Bowling Green. But obviously he can’t do it without playmakers around him.
So to help you prep for Saturday night’s showdown, here’s a rundown of five less-familiar (so far) Buckeyes who could turn themselves into nationally recognized names with a big performance against Oklahoma -- complete with jersey numbers to help you identify them.
No. 24 Malik Hooker, safety
Starting with a pick-six in the Buckeyes’ spring game, Hooker, a third-year sophomore, has emerged as a big-time playmaker. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound safety has a national-best three interceptions already, including a pick-six against Tulsa. He also pancaked a 325-pound offensive lineman while blocking down field on another defensive touchdown.
While Hooker is emerging as a college star, he was hardly among the most heralded of Ohio State’s recent recruits.
“Did I think Malik Hooker would be playing at the level he's at? I wouldn't be telling you the truth,” Meyer said of the former three-star recruit from New Castle, Pa. “At this level, I thought he'd be a very good player for us and grow into that position. He's growing real fast."
No. 4 Curtis Samuel, H-back
Meyer has spent seemingly the past eight years seeking the next “Percy Harvin type” hybrid he can deploy as both a breakaway runner and receiver. New York Jets rookie Jalin Marshall played that role at times the past two seasons but mostly stuck to receiver.
At least through two games, though, Samuel, a 5-11, 197-pound junior from Brooklyn, has truly embraced his hybrid role. He’s rushed 21 times for 162 yards and a touchdown while also catching a team-high 14 passes for 239 yards and two scores, one of them a 79-yard catch-and-run.
Samuel – who’s now being described as the “centerpiece” of the Buckeyes’ offense -- shares the backfield with redshirt freshman Mike Weber and has lined up as part of a Wildcat formation with fellow speedster Dontre Wilson.
“Those are those checker pieces you enjoy moving around," Meyer said.
No. 59 Tyquan Lewis, defensive end
Lewis is hardy a newbie. He led the Buckeyes in sacks (8.0) as a sophomore starter last season, but he still could not escape the shadow cast by his bookend, soon-to-be No. 3 overall pick Bosa.
A year later, the 6-4, 266-pound junior from Tarboro, N.C., is unquestionably Ohio State’s top pass-rusher. Against Tulsa he had a sack and a forced fumble that teammate Jerome Baker recovered. He and Sam Hubbard will be crucial if the Buckeyes hope to get pressure on Oklahoma star Baker Mayfield.
No. 2 Marshon Lattimore, cornerback
Ohio State entered the season with one proven corner in Gareon Conley, but Lattimore, another third-year sophomore and former Top 50 national recruit, has seized his opportunity on the opposite side of the field.
The latest in a long line of Buckeyes to come from Ted Ginn’s Glenville High team in Cleveland, Lattimore earned Walter Camp national player of the week honors for his two picks -- one of which he returned for a touchdown -- against Tulsa.
The 6-foot, 192-pound Lattimore beat out sophomore Denzel Ward during an offseason-long competition, but the latter sees the field plenty too.
No. 25 Mike Weber, running back
The 5-10, 212-pound redshirt freshman from Detroit is officially Ohio State’s starting tailback, following in the footsteps of Elliott and Carlos Hyde before him. Though sharing carries with Samuel, so far he leads the Buckeyes in attempts (36) and yards (228).
Ohio State will almost certainly try to establish the run against Oklahoma to try to avoid waging a shootout with Sooners coordinator Lincoln Riley’s pass-heavy attack. That means Weber might see an increased workload in his first-ever game against a Power 5 opponent.
Weber said spending a year as Elliott’s understudy helped prepare him.
“I lost a lot of weight, I got a lot stronger, a lot faster, I got a lot smarter,” Weber told reporters in Columbus. “Learning from him, he made sure he looked out for me because he saw a lot of potential in me.”
Potential has been a frequent buzzword around the program over the past eight months as Ohio State underwent considerable personnel turnover. These five appear poised to deliver.
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