COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In the darkest days of Ohio State's seemingly endless NCAA investigation into players selling memorabilia, Buckeyes fans longed for a breath of fresh air, for some hope.
They've gotten it in a freshman class that has been the scourge -- in a good way -- of preseason camp.
An astounding eight true freshmen are listed on the two-deep for Saturday's season opener against Akron. Five more redshirt freshmen -- including two starters -- are also set to make their collegiate debuts.
"That's really a good freshman class," said defensive co-coordinator Jim Heacock, on the staff for the last 16 years. "I've been here quite a few years, and it's really a talented freshman class. I hate to ever say it's the best. But it's as good as it's been since I've been here."
The first-year players, and those who are first-year players in eligibility, have helped swing the focus to a brighter future from all the ugliness of the suspensions, Jim Tressel's forced resignation and Terrelle Pryor's untimely departure.
"They have performed," interim coach Luke Fickell said of the freshmen. "Now, obviously, they've been put in a situation where they have to because of maybe depth issues. (We) lost 24 seniors last year, guys that have been here a long time, a lot of fifth-year seniors. But I think it's also a great reflection on who those (young) kids are. The maturity they've had to be able to get where they are (is impressive)."
And those rookies are not just stacking up on special teams. They're going to be all over the field.
One of the reasons is that No. 18 Ohio State lost half of its starters from a year ago. The other is that three key starters on offense -- leading rusher Dan Herron, left tackle Mike Adams and top returning receiver DeVier Posey -- are all suspended for the first five games. Another backup, Solomon Thomas, is also sitting out those first five games for accepting improper benefits. And second-team linebacker Jordan Whiting is out for the opener for the same reason.
So there are a lot of openings up for grabs. The newest Buckeyes have taken advantage.
True freshman Braxton Miller is listed as an "or" with fifth-year senior Joe Bauserman at quarterback, although Bauserman will get the first snap. At cornerback redshirt freshman Bradley Roby is listed as the starter, with true freshman Doran Grant as his backup. Incoming recruit Ryan Shazier is second team at linebacker, right behind senior Andrew Sweat, with Michael Bennett the first alternate at right defensive tackle behind Johnathan Hankins.
The list goes on and on. True freshmen Evan Spencer (wide receiver), Chris Carter (left guard), Brian Bobek (center) and Antonio Underwood (right tackle) will likely play on offense.
Among the second-year freshmen, Verlon Reed will start in front of Spencer at wide-out, while J.T. Moore (defensive end), Eric Kramer (left tackle) and Rod Smith (tailback) all figure into the Buckeyes' plans.
The optimist looks at a team with that many first-year players in prime or secondary roles and says those are building blocks for future years. The pessimist would say that's a sign that there are lots of openings at Ohio State and players are being rushed into action.
Reality is somewhere in the middle.
"We've always had athletes. It's just our older guys, we don't have as many. There's not as much depth," tight end Jake Stoneburner said. "I don't think that's a bad thing. And these freshmen are ready to come in and make plays. They just have to make sure they know what they're doing and don't get too nervous out there."
Fickell loves the youngsters. But he has no allusions about having so many green players in important positions.
"Does that mean I feel better going to bed on Friday night thinking one of those guys might be starting? I'm not saying that," he said. "We didn't bring them here to sit on the bench. So you might sleep a little better if you didn't have to stick them in on that first play, but that's all part of it. We'll do what they can do best and give them the opportunity."
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