COLUMBUS — When Urban Meyer looks into the future he sees the past.
Coaches don’t usually like to look backward but in this case it serves Meyer’s purposes.
Ohio State has 16 first-time starters, which makes the Buckeyes the least experienced FBS team in college football this season.
The hope is that exceptional recruiting the last few years will compensate for all the talent which walked out the door after last season, including nine underclassmen who left early to enter the NFL draft.
But recruiting isn’t the only reason to think the Buckeyes can put themselves into the conversation about the College Football Playoff again, Meyer said. The recent past might provide a road map for this year’s team.
“I see that potential. I think 2014 was the template that everybody wants,” Meyer said, referring to OSU’s national championship season two years ago.
“J.T. Barrett was buried in the depth chart, Darron Lee, Eli Apple, Zeke Elliott, Mike Thomas — those guys were no-names, and they became very good throughout the course of 2014. And another guy, Cardale Jones, was buried in the depth chart.”
All of those players except Barrett are in the NFL now. So are Vonn Bell, Taylor Decker, Braxton Miller, Jalin Marshall, Adolphus Washington, Joshua Perry, Nick Vannett, Tyis Powell and Joey Bosa, when he signs.
Whether their replacements live up to the four-star and five-star rankings the recruiting analysts gave them will determine if Ohio State is able to stay at the elite level it has been on with 50 wins in 54 games in Meyer’s four seasons in Columbus.
The reasons to believe 2016 is similar to 2014 start with quarterback J.T. Barrett, who is 15-2 as a starter.
Barrett has the starting quarterback job to himself this year. He’s healthy and is expecting to have another season like the one he had in 2014 when he was the best quarterback in the Big Ten before he suffered a broken leg in the Michigan game.
What he doesn’t have is a lot of experience around him on offense.
He doesn’t have Elliott, who had back-to-back seasons of 1,878 yards and 1,821 yards rushing, which could mean OSU will throw the ball more this season.
Noah Brown, expected to be the No. 1 receiver, has one career catch. And though center Pat Elflein and guard Billy Price are All-Big Ten caliber offensive linemen, the other three positions will belong to first-year starters – Jamarco Jones, Isaiah Prince and probably freshman Michael Jordan.
Defensively, the line is the most experienced area, with one returning starter, Tyquan Lewis, and Sam Hubbard, who got close to starter’s minutes last year, at the ends.
Linebacker Raekwon McMillan, almost certainly in his final season at OSU before heading to the NFL, and cornerback Gareon Conley are the other returning starters.
Players like Chris Worley and Dante Booker at linebacker, Malik Hooker and Damon Webb at safety and cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore, Denzel Ward and Damon Arnette will get their chances to play after mostly watching from the sideline so far in their careers.
Punter Cameron Johnston is one of the best in the country. Kicker Sean Nuernberger lost his job to a walk-on for much of last season before getting it back late in the season. He is 16 of 24 in his career but did not make a field goal longer than 38 yards last season.
“I just like coaching this team. They’re hungry, they’re very anxious to learn,” Meyer said.
Beginning this Saturday against Bowling Green, Ohio State will learn if a group of mostly inexperienced players can live up to the always big expectations at OSU.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.