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Buckeyes Buckeye Archive Ten Breakout Buckeyes
Written by Dan Wismar

Dan Wismar

Hankins4This is the 2012 version of the annual column in which I speculate on ten OSU players I think are about to emerge as star-quality talents in the season ahead, throwing in the perennial missed guesses at no extra charge. Even with 16 starters returning, the Buckeyes will be counting on several key players to make the leap from starter to star, and those are the guys we’ll try to identify and profile below.

The rules are the same every seniors are on the list. Senior breakouts sometimes happen...but it’s rare, and besides, it’s against the rules of my list.  And no true freshmen are allowed either, although several of them will no doubt be exploding onto the scene in Columbus. (That’s next week’s column)  So everyone on my list has at least two years of eligibility remaining, though one guy in particular may be tempted to go pro a year early after this season.

The majority of Buckeyes on my list are returning starters, and all ten are projected to start in 2012. If I’ve learned one lesson in five seasons of doing this, it’s that it’s nutty to project a player to break out if you can’t project him to be on the field a whole lot. The list is defense-heavy, including three defenders in the top four that I feel are on the cusp of stardom.

Junior defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins (#52 above) is on the list, although just as with Braxton Miller, you could make the case that he broke out a year ago. Hankins is on everybody’s preseason All-American team, so his ability is widely known, but I see his breakout as still in the future. And with a year of learning behind him, Miller will be playing in an offense designed for Braxton Miller, so I feel confident in saying his best games are still ahead as well.

Here's my best guess at some Buckeyes we'll see stepping up this fall:

10) Corey Linsley - C - Junior - 6’ 3”, 292 lbs. - Boardman (OH) H.S.

Linsley1Linsley has been the Buckeyes starting center since Urban Meyer first got a look at his personnel on the field this spring. Linsley had played mostly guard in his OSU career to this point, and while he had worked for a time as a freshman backing up center Mike Brewster, most observers had him penciled in as one of the starters at guard for 2012. Linsley’s emergence this spring contributed to the transfer of Brian Bobek, the redshirt freshman many had assumed would be Brewster’s successor. The powerfully built junior was a state place-winner in the shot put as a prepster, and he has long been reported to be one of the strongest guys on the team, with a bench press of 500 lbs. Meyer has called him one of the most improved players on the roster, and he’ll be part of an offensive line for OSU that should remain intact through 2013.

9) Curtis Grant - LB - Sophomore - 6’ 3”, 235 lbs. - (Richmond, VA)  Hermitage H.S.

Grant1Grant was the last of the 2011 recruits to commit to OSU, agreeing to become a Buckeye just before signing day in February. He was also one of the highest rated players in the country, ranked by most of the scouting services as the nation’s #1 outside linebacker. But Grant got off to a slow start at OSU, and ended up sitting behind Andrew Sweat and Etienne Sabino, seeing only special teams duty, and getting overshadowed by fellow freshman Ryan Shazier. Coach Meyer threw down the challenge to Grant soon after arriving in Columbus, saying the team needed Grant to perform up to his press clippings if the defense was to succeed. And the physically gifted Grant responded with an outstanding spring, playing at the middle linebacker position ahead of returnee Storm Klein, who was limited this spring with an injury. Grant enters 2012 about a dozen pounds under his 2011 weight, and much more comfortable with the mental aspects of the position. He looks ready to seize the opportunity to start in the middle and live up to his star billing.

8) Carlos Hyde - RB - Junior - 6’ 0”, 235 lbs.- Naples (FL) H.S.

Hyde6Even before Jordan Hall went down with an injury this week, Carlos Hyde was listed as the starting running back for the Buckeyes going into fall camp. The door is now truly wide open for the junior from Florida to take a leap ahead from the 566 yards and 6 touchdowns he posted a year ago. Hyde emerged from the pack of running backs with a strong spring after averaging 5.3 yards per carry on 106 carries in his first extended duty in 2011. He came to Ohio State after a fall quarter at Fork Union Academy in 2009, and played spring ball prior to his freshman season of 2010. He’s powerful enough to stay upright after first contact, and fast enough to run away from people. And contrary to rumors, Ohio State will be running the ball plenty in Meyer’s system.  Hyde will be pushed by freshman Brionte Dunn and sophomore Rod Smith as well as Hall, but the tailback job will be his to lose at the outset of the season, and he looks to be up to the task.

7) Michael Bennett - DL - Sophomore - 6’ 3”, 277 lbs. - Centerville (OH) H.S.

Bennett2By the end of his freshman season in 2011, Michael Bennett had become the first defensive lineman off the bench for Jim Heacock’s defense, and was making an important contribution both rushing the passer and stuffing the run. Bennett finished the season with 17 tackles, including 3 sacks and 2 TFL, working at both end and tackle. The OSU coaches learned fairly quickly that all they had to do was put Bennett on the field and he would be productive for them. They may have been a little cautious at the beginning of the season because Bennett had broken his arm in a summer all-star game prior to the season, but he began to display his special combination of speed and power as soon as he started getting regular playing time. Bennett follows such OSU luminaries from Centerville as Kirk Herbstreit, Mike Nugent and A.J. Hawk. He was rated among the top ten defensive linemen in the nation as a high school player, and he did nothing as a freshman to suggest the experts were wrong.

6) C.J. Barnett - S - Junior - 6’ 1”, 202 lbs. -  (Clayton, OH) Northmont H.S.

Barnett2Barnett was starting as a redshirt freshman in 2010 when a serious injury ended his season, so 2011 was a comeback year that saw C.J. start every game, and make 2nd team All-BIg Ten. With 15 starts behind him and two years still to play, Barnett is being tabbed as preseason 1st team all conference by Athlon’s, Steele’s and Lindy’s. He is the top returning tackler (75 in 2011) on the established player...but he makes this list because his ceiling is even higher than that. Barnett is the most experienced player in a Buckeye secondary that returns all four starters. He has the best tackling technique of the four and he added two interceptions in his first full season as a starter. Barnett is also a smart guy on top of the obvious athleticism. He’ll be a leader in the defensive secondary, and he looks poised to have a standout 2012 season.

5) Devin Smith - WR - Sophomore - 6’ 1”, 196 lbs. - (Massillon, OH) Washington H.S.

SmithDevinColo3Playing as a true freshman last season, Devin Smith tied for the team lead in receptions (14), and led all wide receivers in touchdown catches with four. He will forever be remembered for his TD catch of Braxton Miller’s desperation heave in the waning seconds against Wisconsin, but no one was satisfied with the productivity of the Buckeye wide receivers in 2011, and Urban Meyer has been wondering aloud for months who his playmakers on offense are going to be when they kick off the new season. All of this has to serve as motivation for the speedster from Massillon. Smith has all the tools to be an elite receiver, but the combination of a first-year quarterback and an unsophisticated passing scheme to go with his own inexperience, worked to hold down his freshman production. Newcomer Mike Thomas stole the receiving headlines in the spring game this April, in part because Smith was on the opposing squad from Braxton Miller. But it was apparent all spring and summer that Smith and Miller have developed an excellent rapport, and have been hard at work this offseason polishing the throws and routes they will run in Meyer’s offense. That offense may produce more than one breakout receiver in 2012, but Smith should be at the head of the pack.

4) Bradley Roby - CB - Sophomore - 5’ 11”, 190 lbs. - (Suwanee, GA) Peachtree Ridge H.S.

Roby3Roby came to OSU in 2010 as one of those slightly under-the-radar talents that many of the scouting services were slow to pick up on. He originally committed to Vanderbilt, but former Buckeye Cam Heyward and his family are given some credit for steering Roby from Georgia  to OSU, where he became a starter at cornerback in his redshirt freshman season last year. He outplayed the more heralded Travis Howard from the start a year ago, and has recently been touted by OSU coaches as the best of the Ohio State defensive backs by consensus. He totaled 47 tackles a year ago, including 3.5 TFL, and added 3 interceptions and broke up six more passes. Roby has excellent speed, but his physical attributes don’t jump out at you. He is just an outstanding technician at the cornerback position, and plays with what looks like an instinctive feel for the job. The word is out on Roby, as he is showing up on many of the preseason all-conference teams despite his relative youth. And with three years of eligibility remaining, there’s no telling yet just how good Bradley Roby can be.  

3) Ryan Shazier - LB - Sophomore - 6’ 2”, 226 lbs. - Plantation (FL) H.S.

Shazier1It didn’t take anyone very long to identify Ryan Shazier as a potentially special player after he first put on the pads in Columbus a year ago. It was clear #10 had the “Wow” factor going for him as soon as he started hitting people on special teams. Shazier (pronounced shay-ZEER)  gave the Buckeyes a level of speed at outside linebacker that they hadn’t seen in recent memory, but it took the better part of the season before he took over as the starter on the outside. He finished the season with 57 tackles and three sacks, but even at that it was obvious that the young Floridian was just beginning to tap into his immense potential. He played at about 210 lbs a year ago, but he has been working in Mickey Marotti’s strength program this offseason, and he’ll take the field this September at 226, (seriously, click on that) without having lost any of the speed, reported to be in the neighborhood of 4.4 in the 40. Shazier’s play at linebacker is characterized by speed, aggressiveness, toughness and sure tackling technique...oh...and speed. It’s hard to even come up with a former Buckeye OLB that can serve as a comparable player to Shazier, so rare is his combination of athleticism and attitude. He is the kind of speed linebacker talent today’s NFL scouts drool over, so enjoy him for two more seasons, because he might not have a senior year.

2) Johnathan Hankins - DL - Junior - 6’ 4”, 317 lbs. - (Dearborn Hts., MI) Southeastern H.S.

Hankins3During last year’s preseason John Simon was getting top billing for Ohio State defensive linemen, and deservedly so. Simon is back this year as a preseason favorite, but he is sharing the limelight with another budding star at defensive tackle in Johnathan Hankins. The junior from that state up north registered 67 tackles a year ago, to go with 3 sacks and 8 TFL, as he combined with Simon to disrupt offenses with uncommon strength and the kind of quickness that 340 lb. men aren’t supposed to possess. He played more downs in 2011 than he was able to play as a freshman, gaining a conditioning edge as the season progressed. Hankins has now trimmed his weight to a svelte 317 for 2012, and that is no doubt part of the reason he is projected as a preseason All-American and possible Top Ten NFL draft choice by the guys who get paid to predict these things. Big Hank played most of the time at the 3-technique tackle, but the coaches moved him around at times, including lining him up at end in a 3-man front. It’s possible we’ll also see him at the nose guard spot at times this year, as the coaches experiment to get their best four linemen on the field. Make no mistake that on a defensive line unit that is the strength of this OSU team, Hankins is one of the best two.

1) Braxton MIller - QB - Sophomore - 6’3”. 215 lbs. (Huber Hts, OH) Wayne H.S.

Miller5It’s hard to think of a player more prepared and positioned to break out in 2012 for Ohio State than Miller. Breakout might be too soft a word. Explode? The sophomore quarterback got a baptism under fire as a true freshman last season, when Terrelle Pryor bugged out and Joe Bauserman turned out to be Joe Bauserman. Miller has now been working on the Meyer-Herman offensive system for seven months, and reportedly is currently engaged in a rigorous routine of throwing routes with his receivers, working on their own. By all accounts he is an eager learner and a hard worker. We’ve seen the kind of athlete he is. The offense will be hurry-up, no-huddle, and wide open. The potential for Miller under Meyer is staggering. The expectations are too.  Miller’s run-pass threat will be involved on virtually every snap of the ball for the Buckeyes, barring injury, and clearly no OSU player’s health is more important to maintain than the 6’3”, 215 lb. QB from Dayton. Urban Meyer’s offense will be as good as Braxton Miller’s performance allows it to be. Miller’s name is already known because of the high profile program he’s in, but his true coming of age under Meyer promises to be an exciting ride...starting now.


Notes and asides: Just missing the cut were guys like junior offensive linemen Jack Mewhort and Andrew Norwell, left off mostly because they have both been playing key roles for some or all of the last two seasons. Reid Fragel has the best chance to be a senior breakout player, as he switches to offensive tackle from tight end, but the possibility remains that he’ll get beaten out by freshman Taylor Decker for the starting right tackle spot. Running back Rod Smith could emerge as the stud he was expected to be, but he’ll have to pass Hyde and a couple of talented freshmen to do it. And either one of the two young tight ends, Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vanett, could flourish in the Meyer offense and make me regret omitting them here.

As I hinted above, some of the biggest breakouts of the 2012 season could be accomplished by true freshman Buckeyes. Next week I’ll continue the guesswork, and try to project which of the newcomers will make the biggest splash.


More coverage of OSU Spring Football

Buckeye Leaves - 6/24 - Profiling new OSU coaches

Buckeye Leaves - 6/9 - Previewing OSU non-conference schedule

Buckeye Leaves 5/20 - Meyer measuring up to Tressel legacy

Buckeye Leaves - 5/6 - CFB Playoffs, Schlichter

Meyer's Buckeyes Take Off - Spring Game recap

Buckeyes on Fast Forward - 4/12

Transforming the Buckeyes - 3/27


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(photo credits: Jim Davidson and Dan Harker -,  and the Columbus Dispatch)

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