COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and his assistants annually brace for announcements about elite and not-so-elite players leaving the program early for the NFL draft.
But Monday’s deadline to declare came and went, and the damage wasn’t so bad for the Buckeyes.
There were some predictable early departures in cornerback Denzel Ward, linebacker Jerome Baker and defensive end Sam Hubbard. They were obvious NFL prospects.
But other names mentioned in the NFL conversation — defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones, running back Mike Weber and the top four receivers from last season in Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon — will return.
The receivers, a unit known by the nickname “Zone 6,” are especially close. They said the prospect of playing together factored into their decisions to stay around for another year.
“There’s still a lot of things we left on the field last year,” McLaurin said on the first day of winter workouts Friday.
“I didn’t think we would all be back, but it’s definitely exciting,” said Campbell, the team’s leading receiver last season with 40 receptions for 584 yards.
“Sometimes it’s bigger than the money,” said Dixon, who led the team with eight touchdown catches. “Passing up a brotherhood like this (for another year) would be crazy.”
The return of the receivers and Weber, who shared time in the backfield with true freshman J.K. Dobbins last season, is especially good news for an offense directed by a new starting quarterback following the graduation of four-year starter J.T. Barrett.
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The front-runner is last season’s backup, Dwayne Haskins, a drop-back passer with a rifle arm who sparked the Buckeyes to a win over Michigan after Barrett went out with a knee injury.
Weber, a rising redshirt junior who was displaced as the starter by Dobbins, said one of the reasons he decided to return is the prospect of more available carries next season. Barrett was a key part of the run game, carrying the ball 165 times for 798 yards on designed keepers and run-pass option plays. Meyer isn’t expected to rely on Haskins to tuck and run nearly as often.
The Buckeyes also will be without six other five-year players who were key contributors last season, including defensive ends Tyquan Lewis and Jalyn Holmes. That’s expected to create more snaps for defensive end Nick Bosa, who is on the verge of becoming the same magnitude of star his brother Joey was at Ohio State.
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It also creates opportunities for defensive tackle Jones, who thought about leaving for the NFL but decided to come back. Not having to share so much time with other players, he has a chance for more exposure — and more sacks.
“He’s not just going to a first- and second-down guy anymore,” Bosa said. “The three other ends are gone. He’s going to be in the nickel package for sure. The whole country is going to get to see what he can do pass rushing, which should be fun because nobody really knows that.”
Jones said he’ll make the most of another year of seasoning, but being an NFL player is always in the background.
“I think it about it almost every day, and it’s hard not to,” he acknowledged. “It is what it is.”