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Ohio State Turns to an Unconventional Source to Replace J.T. Barrett's Leadership

There's a reason receivers are rarely the primary leaders of a football team, but will Ohio State buck convention in search of a way to fill the gaping hole left by J.T. Barrett? Plus, standout Buckeyes on the rise and more notes from Ohio State camp.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — J.T. Barrett was the only three-time captain in the storied history of Ohio State, so it was understandable that sports performance coach Mickey Marotti paused for a few moments when he was asked if the Buckeyes have a singular leader who has emerged in place of the beloved quarterback.

“We don’t right now,” he says. “But that’s O.K. We have Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin, and they are grown-ass men. I grabbed them, Johnnie Dixon, K.J. Hill and Austin Mack, and that group is gonna be the leaders of our team. In that group you have three fifth-year guys, a fourth-year guy and a third year guy.”

In previous years, leaders at one particular position of strength have helped set the tone for the Ohio State. In 2017, it was the defensive line—upperclassmen Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis and Jalyn Holmes now await their NFL draft fate. Another year it was the linebackers. Another year it was the O-line. 

Marotti can’t remember ever having a team where the wide receivers set the pace as a group of leaders. “And I’m not sure you ever want them to be just because of [the stereotypical wide receiver] personality. But these guys are gold elite people. They’re respected by their teammates, respected by the coaches. They’re respected by every support member in our building. Those are the guys.

“It’s gonna be hard because you want the leaders to be closer to the ball. We have to develop those guys as we move forward. [Defensive linemen Robert] 'BB' Landers is huge and DreMont Jones—they’ve got to be leaders. Jordan Fuller plays in the middle, and he’s gonna be the leader of the secondary.”

A few week or so ago, Marotti grabbed the veteran receivers and challenged them. “All right, now, when we’re done with this spring ball stuff, I need you to help me now,” Marotti recalls saying.

“The players have to help. The most fun of my job is when the months go by—January, February—to see who starts emerging as leaders and starts taking over. Nick Bosa is gonna have to be a guy. I know he’s quiet and to himself but—no, Nick, you gotta be a little bit more vocal. Kendall Sheffield is gonna be a returning starter and he doesn’t say a word. You’re gonna have to talk. And he’s starting to. 

“You gotta be felt, seen and heard. There is no leading by example. What does that mean? I say it, but there’s no way. People gotta see you, hear you and people gotta feel you. If there’s no energy from you, how you gonna be a leader?”

If there is a headliner of that very talented group of wideouts, it’s Campbell, one of the most explosive returning players in college football. The Akron native has all the physical tools to set the pace for the Buckeyes’ offense—he holds the Ohio state 60-meter record, is up to 208 pounds from the 185 he weighed when he arrived in Columbus and his last timed 40-yard dash was a 4.26—but Campbell told me he was underwhelmed with his performance in 2017, when he finished with 40 receptions for 584 yards.

“I had an O.K. season last year,” Campbell says. “I was third-team All-Big Ten, but I have so many more personal goals. I hold myself at an elite standard, and last year I don’t think I was elite at all. I think I’ve added the deep-ball game, which I’ve improved a ton since last year.”

Campbell says he and the entire receiving corps are determined to take the next step by adding more of a vertical component to the Buckeyes’ offense, regardless of whether Dwayne Haskins or Joe Burrow ends up being the quarterback charged with getting them the ball. “That’s where we need to get better,” he says. That means spending lots of time on the team’s off days with the JUGS machine simulating the deep-ball catch.

The maturity of the receivers group—especially Campbell and Dixon—stands out in talking to them. Dixon, one of the more engaging college kids guys I’ve been around in a while, seems like he’s 43, not 23.

“My biggest goal is being a leader to the younger guys,” he says. “I just want to set a good example for those guys before I head out. At Ohio State, if you don’t leave a legacy, you failed yourself and let yourself down."

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Here are four more takeaways from a couple of days in Columbus last week:

• Ohio State’s defense has produced six first-round picks in the past two years, with likely more to come in 2018’s draft next week, but perhaps the most talented prospect of the past three years is still on the team: junior defensive end Nick Bosa, brother of Chargers star Joey Bosa. Urban Meyer told me the younger Bosa is the best combination of speed and power he can remember since he had Percy Harvin a decade ago at Florida. Teammates called Bosa the biggest freak in the program.

“You can just watch him rush and the things that he does, not a lot of defensive ends can do,” says defensive end Jonathan Cooper. “Me and the other ends will be like, how did he do that? He’s flexible. He’s powerful. He’s strong. And, you take all of that and he’s got the speed and technique too.”

Bosa has worked hard this offseason to tighten up his technique even further.

“His maturity level is off the charts,” says Meyer. “Joey became mature. He was always a good kid. I never really had any issues with him. But Nick from day one is a 3.0-plus student. Just handles his business. Not once have I ever had to jump his [butt] about anything.”

• Last year, J.K. Dobbins wasn’t just one of the best freshman running backs in college football but one of the best backs, period. Dobbins, who Marotti praises as an “elite worker with a great attitude,” ran for 1,403 yards, averaging 7.2 yards per carry. He had 10 runs of 30 yards or longer and four of 50-plus, but the expectation this season is that he scores more at the end of his big gainers.

“With him our big thing was helping him run more efficiently,” says Marotti. “If you go back and look at some video of him running, there’s stuff moving everywhere. His zero-to-40 is fine. It’s the 40-to-60 where he got ran down a couple of times.”

• One of the most improved players in the Ohio State program is true sophomore tackle Thayer Munford, who moved to the left side over the course of spring practice.

“He is sneaky explosive,” says strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti. "When you see him, he’s so big, but he can move so well. He’s very efficient when he runs. He’s 6'6", 320. When we recruited him, he was a gooey 360. Nasty. And he really committed himself to training. The most impressive thing is when he gets on that pull-up bar at 320 and he’ll pump out eight, nine pull-ups with those long arms."

• As if Ohio State’s defensive line wasn’t stacked enough, here are two more names to remember—one young, one not so young. Sophomore Chase Young lived in the backfield during last Saturday’s spring game. “He’s really starting to understand football and see the attributes he has,” says Landers, a fourth-year junior. “He’s huge and for being so big, he can really move and bend.”

The not-so-young name to watch is fourth-year junior tackle Davon Hamilton, a 6'4", 310-pounder. “He’s finally putting it all together,” Landers says. “He has more confidence now and is really coming off the ball and creating havoc.” Cooper’s prediction: “Davon Hamilton is gonna blow up this year.”

Marotti is a bit more measured in his assessment.

“He’s a giant who didn’t go hard all the time,” Marotti says of Hamilton. “He’s starting to make that turn. He’s getting on the on-ramp. He’s growing up. It means a little more to him.”