Since taking the head coaching job in November of 2011, Urban Meyer has brought a lot to Ohio State. Most notable is the spread offense he installed and the perfect 12-0 season it played a large part in creating.
While on field victories are the ultimate goal, perhaps the most impactful change wrought by Meyer’s presence has been in the culture surrounding the Buckeye program. He has had success at every stop on his coaching résumé, and part of that stems from creating an environment that forces players to buy in to what he and his staff are preaching.
This process starts before Buckeyes freshmen ever attend an Ohio State class. In the early days of fall practice, each freshman sports a black strip of tape where the red stripe lies on a standard Ohio State helmet. While the black-striped freshmen are members of the team, having the stripe removed has quickly become an important rite of passage signifying that the player has earned the right to call himself a Buckeye through both his play on the field and his actions off of it. “I wanted to put them through a ritual to become a member of the team, but not allow hazing,” Meyer said last year when asked about the new helmet accouterments. “And it took off. It’s been a hit since every place we’ve been.”
Now Meyer, and his black stripes, enter their second year in Columbus. With that in mind, I want to use my first piece at WFNY to accomplish two purposes: Introduce this year’s crop of Ohio State freshmen who have been shedding their stripes and will look to contribute this season, and introduce myself and establish my bona fides as a passionate and knowledgeable fan of the Buckeyes. Hopefully by the end of this piece you will know a little more about the young Buckeyes to watch in this new season, as well as feel ready to remove my metaphorical black stripe as a writer covering the program.
With a stellar recruiting class that can literally be described as star studded—the Buckeyes sport four recruits in the Class of 2013 whom Scout gave five stars, as well as another 15 whom the service classified as four-star recruits—it would have been easy to predict that one of those heralded freshmen would be the first to have the honor of donning a standard red-striped helmet.
Instead, it wasn’t a recruit at all, but rather walk-on Joe Ramstetter who was the first freshman to change his colors. Ramstetter, a 6-3, 200 pound wide receiver from Cincinnati Elder, figures to contribute only on special teams this season, but his work ethic and professionalism impressed the coaching staff enough for them to make him the first freshman to become a full member of the Buckeyes.
After the unexpected Ramstetter, dominoes—or more accurately, stripes—began to fall in a more predictable fashion. Dontre Wilson, an athlete from DeSoto, TX who figures to contribute immediately in a hybrid slot receiver/running back role (think how Meyer used Percy Harvin at Florida), was the second to lose his stripe. The official Buckeyes roster currently lists him as a running back, but his contributions will likely come from the ‘pivot’ position that Harvin made famous as a Gator. Quarterback Braxton Miller, himself no stranger to game-breaking speed, can’t stop raving about his potential new backfield mate. “I feel like he better be starting this year,” the Heisman candidate said. “He can catch the ball and he bolts like a little fish running from the sharks or something. He’s fast man.” That colorful simile from the Buckeyes offensive leader betrays his unbridled excitement and suggests that Ohio State fans should prepare themselves to watch a little fish frequently leaving sharks in the dust this season. If you still don’t believe him, just watch Wilson run away from defenders in Texas’s 5A division, widely regarded as the home of the best high school football in the entire country.
Shortly after Wilson, another Texan earned the right to wear scarlet down the center of his head: Mike Mitchell, a middle linebacker from Prestonwood Christian in Plano, TX, who is currently listed as the backup to Curtis Grant in the middle of the defense. In spite of playing – and dominating – a lower level of competition in high school, his size (6-4, 225) and speed (4.39 40-yard dash), as well as his performance at the Army Bowl showcase, suggest that he will be able to make the transition and perform at the same high level for the Buckeyes. There is a reason Scout ranked him as the number two middle linebacker recruit in the entire country, and there’s no reason he won’t show that in Columbus. Watch him terrorize opposing backfields with his special blend of size, speed, and instincts here – he even returns a kickoff for a touchdown.
While I am currently a college student, I don’t attend The Ohio State University. Before you take that and disqualify me as a reputable source of Buckeye football information, allow me to explain my lifelong involvement with Ohio State football.
My father attended Ohio State, which is important for the fact that he raised his children the right way That is to say that my two siblings and I support—and will always support—the teams that my father supports. You won’t find any frontrunners, bandwagon hoppers, or sellouts in my house.
My brother and I played hockey throughout our childhoods, making our family’s fall, winter, and spring schedules quite difficult. Somehow, we still managed to make it to a game at the ‘Shoe almost every season. Whether it was rushing out of the old Columbus Fairgrounds rink after a morning game or finding time to hit a night contest in Columbus between Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon games in Cleveland, we often found a way to spend a Saturday watching the Buckeyes live and in person.
Even when the games weren’t in Columbus they became memories. When Jim Tressel’s 2002 squad made a surprise run to the 2003 Fiesta Bowl (that season serving as the BCS title game), we were watching from a TGI Friday’s in Cancun. By the time the double overtime thriller ended when Ken Dorsey’s fourth down pass fell to the Sun Devil Stadium turf, the restaurant was empty save for us; the rest of its patrons having moved on to the other late night options Cancun has to offer. I was only 10, but I knew I had witnessed something I would never forget.
Four years and five days later, the Buckeyes were back in the desert. This time I was actually there to see it in person with my father, brother, and grandfather, but the memories would be marked by agony rather than ecstasy. You’ll all remember how the 2007 BCS National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale began that day; with Ted Ginn, Jr. taking the opening kickoff back 93 yards for a stunning touchdown. Almost immediately, the joy from that moment turned to pain, as Ginn suffered an injury in the ensuing celebration (damn you, Roy Hall!) that sidelined him for the rest of the game. He didn’t miss much, as Urban Meyer’s Gators, led by the two-headed quarterbacking monster of Chris Leak and Tim Tebow (pre-ESPN obsession version), pounded the Buckeyes with speed and physicality they hadn’t seen all season on the way to a 41-14 victory. It was a long night sitting silently in our seats, and the walk back to our hotel and the next day’s cross-country flight only made it longer still.
Since Mitchell joined the ranks of the full Buckeyes, seven other freshmen have lost their stripes. Joey Bosa, a Scout five-star defensive end from St. Thomas Aquinas HS in Ft. Lauderdale, was next to earn the scarlet. Meyer has said that he will likely see playing time at some point during the season. Four-star running back Ezekiel Elliott (the ninth-ranked back nationally by Scout) got rid of his stripe at the same time as Bosa. Elliott, 6-0 and 200 pounds out of St. Louis’s John Burroughs School, may see some time early on in the nonconference schedule due to the suspensions of both Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith, but when they return to the top of the running back depth chart there is likely too much of a logjam above Elliott for him to contribute anywhere other than special teams.
Cornerback Cam Burrows (Trotwood, OH – Trotwood Madison HS) and linebacker Aaron Mawhirter (Sandusky, OH – Perkins HS) were the next two freshmen to have their stripes removed. Burrows was ranked as the No. 12 cornerback recruit nationally by Scout, but with a lot of talent above him, neither he nor Mawhirter figures to contribute this season unless it is on special teams.
Two defensive tackles became the eighth and ninth Buckeye freshmen to become full members of the program. Billy Price is a 6-3, 285 pounder from Austintown Fitch HS in Youngstown. Urban Meyer poached Michael Hill from his old territory in SEC country. A product of Pendleton HS in Pendleton, SC, Hill is listed at 6-2 and 305 pounds. Price and Hill both project as depth players for this season, but both have the talent to be contributors down the road.
The latest player to lose his stripe came just yesterday, when five star safety Vonn Bell, Scout’s No.2 safety nationally, received the honor on August 19. Bell, another Meyer steal, hails from Rossville, GA, where he attended Ridgeland HS. He is immensely talented if somewhat undersized (6-0, 190) for a player that loves to hit as much as he does. He has been mentioned in the competitions for both the free safety and the ‘star’ or nickelback position. C.J. Barnett holds down the free safety spot for now, and his experience suggests he will be the starter. Redshirt freshman Tyvis Powell, the current “starting” star when the Buckeyes go into their 4-2-5 alignment, has had a meteoric rise through fall camp. Bell is too talented to not see the field, however, so expect him to make contributions at some point, likely at the star position.
In spite of attending college in Philadelphia, my Buckeyes support has not wavered. I didn’t make it to any games as a freshman, but that happened to coincide with Luke Fickell’s one challenging season at the helm. Last year, as a sophomore, I got the itch again. And did I ever scratch it.
As the wins started to pile up, I was obviously watching intently, but it wasn’t the same as being there. Finally, with the Buckeyes sitting at 8-0 and a road game at Penn State looming, I made the call and hopped in my car for the three and a half hour drive from Philadelphia to Happy Valley. Luckily I was able to stay with a friend who attends Penn State, but I was certainly alone when I entered Beaver Stadium that night. Sporting my brightest scarlet Ohio State shirt, I must have looked like a downed skier buried amongst an avalanche of white. Attendance that night was 107,818, 85 percent of whom had to have been wearing white, and that number was much higher in the student section where I found myself. Fortunately, I saw another speck of red standing just a few rows down from me. Recognizing my potential ally, I sidled my way over to him. His name was Dex, he was a 1978 graduate of The Ohio State University, and coincidentally he lived in Philly, where he helped to run a Buckeyes fan club. I watched that whole game with Dex, and when Ryan Shazier picked off a Matt McGloin pass and took it to the endzone early in the third quarter, Dex and I embraced like we had known each other for years.
Three weeks later I was at it again. Madison, Wisconsin was my destination that week. This time, I wasn’t so alone, as two friends from school, one of whom is a fellow Ohio State fan, made the journey with me. The atmosphere wasn’t quite so hostile for that game, but that could have had something to do with the fact that everyone was wearing red and my Buckeyes scarlet was better camouflaged than at Penn State. Having seen games at Beaver Stadium, the ‘Shoe, and the Big House, I can honestly say that Camp Randall topped them all for intensity and atmosphere. But even that couldn’t stop the audible gasp from the crowd of 80,112 when Ryan Shazier forced a Montee Ball fumble with the Buckeyes leading 14-7 and just under three minutes left to play in regulation. I, along with every other Ohio State fan, assumed the victory was sealed, but Curt Phillips had other plans. His five-yard touchdown pass to Jacob Pedersen with just 0:08 showing on the clock was nothing short of a swift kick to the family jewels. The Buckeyes would pull it out in overtime on a Carlos Hyde touchdown run and a Wisconsin four-and-out, but I’ll never forget the hopeless, sinking feeling I had as Wisconsin students moshed all around me after the Pedersen touchdown.
With the Buckeyes undefeated and no B1G championship or bowl game appearance possible, the Michigan game was truly the ultimate determinant of the season as success or failure. I was lucky enough to convince my dad that making the drive down I-71 from Cleveland on the day after Thanksgiving was the right move. I still don’t think my mother has forgiven us. After the emotional skydive the week before, my confidence in an Ohio State victory never wavered against Michigan. Nonetheless, I’ll never forget three things about that day at Ohio Stadium. First was the whipping wind. I’ve been going to Browns games my whole life, and I don’t think I’ve ever been as cold on the shores of Lake Erie as I was that day on the banks of the Olentangy. The second unforgettable aspect of that game was the tribute to the 2002 national championship team between the first and second quarters. Seeing two immense yet disgraced Ohio State figures in Maurice Clarett and Jim Tressel, who was carried off the field on the shoulders of his former players, was something else. Finally, watching Carlos Hyde break through both the Michigan line and the Wolverines’ collective will as he ate away at the fourth quarter clock was incredible. It was the kind of textbook, pounding Ohio State football that it was previously unclear that Meyer’s spread offense could provide. Pray that Hyde’s suspension isn’t extended beyond three games because the backfield of him, Miller, Wilson, Jordan Hall, and Rod Smith could be one of the most versatile ever seen in college football.
So there you have it: An introduction to some of the promising Ohio State freshmen, as well as an introduction to me. I have preliminary plans to see three games in Columbus this season (San Diego State on September 7th, Wisconsin on September 28th, and Penn State on October 26th) with the possibility of convincing my dad that the drive to Ann Arbor on November 30th is worth it if the Buckeyes are still undefeated—as they arguably should be. Hopefully, the aforementioned freshmen live up to the red stripes they have been granted from August 31st until the BCS National Championship game in Pasadena on January 6th.
Mitch is a native Clevelander currently attending the University of Pennsylvania. Thanks to the marvel of the Internet, he is still able to follow the Browns, Cavs, Tribe and Buckeyes from Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @M_Joseph_29.