Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said he learned a lesson last season.
Meyer had several highly touted freshmen who sat out the entire season or saw only limited action. In the minds of their position coaches, their inexperience superseded their talent.
So a five-star recruit such as safety Vonn Bell stayed behind veterans whose play didn’t necessarily merit staying on the field.
“That’s my fault,” Meyer said last week in Chicago during Big Ten media days. “Especially on defense, I was disappointed. We had six to seven players who didn’t play who are very good players.”
Bell finally started in the Orange Bowl, where he made seven tackles, as well as a beautiful leaping interception at Ohio State’s 1-yard line. But other freshmen, including cornerbacks Gareon Conley and Eli Apple, ended up taking an unintended redshirt year.
This year, Meyer said he will encourage his assistants to take chances by playing younger players, figuring their potential will outweigh the growing pains.
“That’s my job — to push,” Meyer said.
Ohio State’s 2014 recruiting class, like the one in 2013, ranked among the best in the country. In all, 33 players on the Buckeyes’ roster are listed as freshmen — redshirt or true.
This morning, those players will have the field to themselves when Ohio State’s preseason practice begins at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. Veterans will have a practice in the afternoon. Full-squad practices begin on Tuesday.
This year’s first-year players will have an advantage over those in the past because of a change in NCAA rules. Previously, coaches were prohibited from having interaction with players during the summer. Now, players are allowed to meet with their coaches for up to 2 hours per week.
“A huge difference,” Meyer said. “It’s awesome. We’ve had several meetings with our freshman. We’re able to work with our freshmen on the field.
“Freshmen get homesick, every one of them. Even the ones who say they’re not, they are. (It’s important) to be around coaches and be able to go to the coach’s home, for us to be able to monitor their academics.”
Already, there’s a buzz around some of the freshmen.
Linebacker Raekwon McMillan, the crown jewel of the 2014 recruiting class, has earned rave reviews.
“He is a grown man,” Meyer said. “He handles his academics. He’s a mature guy. He has worked very hard this summer off the field to learn this game. He has leadership qualities.”
Ohio State has had more misses than hits among linebacker recruits in recent years. The player McMillan will try to unseat — senior Curtis Grant — is one who hasn’t lived up to expectations, though Buckeyes coaches were encouraged by his development this offseason.
But whether McMillan beats out Grant, it seems only a matter of time before he makes his mark.
“I’ll be disappointed if he’s not one of those big names someday at Ohio State,” Meyer said.
Several other newcomers have a chance to make an impact.
Defensive backs Erick Smith and Marshon Lattimore, both of whom played for Cleveland Glenville, were impressive in summer workouts. So were some defensive linemen, though playing time could be scarce behind a unit that’s considered the strongest on the team.
On offense, running back Curtis Samuel has made a strong impression. Defensive tackle Michael Bennett described a sequence during the spring in which Samuel took a big shot on one play, got up unfazed and delivered a bigger blow against a veteran on the next play, knocking that defender to the ground.
Meyer mentioned receiver Johnnie Dixon as a freshman who could jump up the depth chart if veterans don’t secure jobs.
Given how unsettled the offensive line is, freshmen will have a chance to get in the mix there, as well. Marcelys Jones, Demetrius Knox and Jamarco Jones might be the most ready to challenge for playing time, but time will tell.
Ohio State is in a position where it doesn’t have to force-feed freshmen into playing time. But unlike last year, those who show themselves worthy — the pathway is through special teams — likely will get their chance.
Meyer said he will see to that.