Freshmen were noticeably active in the win over Tulsa on Saturday, a group of 18 players that included some of the Scarlet and Gray’s top performers.
TreVeyon Henderson was the leading rusher, C.J. Stroud went the whole way at quarterback, Luke Wypler started his third straight game at center and Emeka Egbuka provided a spark with a pair of long kick returns.
On the other side of the ball, Tyleik Williams and Cam Martinez gave the defense a lift in their first extensive action and Denzel Burke broke up two more passes while making five tackles.
J.T. Tuimoloau appears to be firmly in the rotation at defensive end while fellow first-year five-star prospect Jack Sawyer also got into the game on the first drive.
Williams may be the future at nose tackle — an area of no concern entering the season but much after a loss to Oregon in Week 2 — but he also had one of the team’s two sacks.
Martinez broke up three passes and returned an interception for a back-breaking touchdown in the fourth quarter, showing he could be an important piece for a secondary still searching for answers after a poor 2020.
Nonetheless, relying on too many first-year players, however talented they may be, for too many minutes over the course of a Big Ten season is likely to catch up with head coach Ryan Day’s team.
“It’s a lot of deep breaths, but it is exciting,” Day said. “When you see a guy like Cam Martinez return a ball for a touchdown. You see Denzel Burke have an interception. It got overturned, but it was one heck of a play.
“Then you see a guy like Tyleik Williams pop and sack the quarterback in a really big spot. Those are really encouraging things. There were other things, too. It’s kind of that give and take. There will be growing pains along the way, but whatever you invest in these guys, you will get it back in the future.”
Ohio State football coach Ryan Day reacts to Ohio State win
Of course, Ohio State fans — and Day — want the Buckeyes to be good now, not just in the future.
The team’s growing pains could be eased by the Buckeyes getting more contributions from some of their older players who were expected to play big roles entering the season but have yet to live up to the hype.
In most cases, the veterans were also highly-recruited players, so what is holding them back?
In some cases, it is health.
Junior defensive end Zach Harrison missed the game with an injury, as did senior linebacker Teradja Mitchell (who was one of the Buckeyes’ best players in the first two games), but Day said neither has a long-term health issue.
On the plus side, running back Master Teague had his best game of the season (14 carries for 62 yards), fellow junior Garrett Wilson caught six passes for 70 yards and a touchdown and senior Haskell Garrett had a tackle for loss and junior cornerback Cam Brown had a second consecutive strong game in coverage after missing the opener.
Sevyn Banks made his season debut in relief at cornerback, a sign he is returning to the form that made him a starter last season, so there were some positive signs for the Buckeyes even as they gave up another 500-plus yards.
Ohio State also has a sizable group of players who are neither freshmen nor experienced in major roles for the first time.
Ronnie Hickman, a junior linebacker/defensive back in his first season as a starter, led the team with nine tackles and had an interception while cover safety Lathan Ransom had eight tackles but was picked off in coverage and allowed a touchdown catch Saturday.
The maturation of sophomores Cody Simon, Tommy Eichenberg and Hickman at linebacker, Bryson Shaw and Ransom at defensive back and Paris Johnson Jr. at guard figures to be something to watch as the season continues, as is the case with junior right tackle Dawand Jones.
Whatever the case, maximizing — and expediting — growth among young players and unlocking the potential of at least a few veterans will be key to Ohio State meeting its always high standards.
Not that Day needed to be told that.
“Today was a step in the right direction for sure,” the coach said. “How far? We will find out after watching the film. There were definitely things to build on. It is a long road. If we can keep building and getting better in certain areas, we can peak when we get into conference play.
“This is a journey to still be determined. That’s the fun thing of coaching in college football. Year in and year out, the dynamics change. The people change. This is a unique challenge. This is a new journey that we are on.”
Akron at Ohio State, 7:30 p.m., BTN, 1410