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If there's one area where the 2012 Ohio State football team will hold an advantage over each of its 12 opponents, perhaps it's in the youth and energy department.
Of the 46 spots on the Buckeyes' two-deep (Ohio State names three starting wide receivers and a fullback), 22 of them are currently occupied by freshmen and sophomores. In the event that Taylor Decker, Doran Grant, and Michael Bennett each win their respective position battles- and all three practiced with the Ohio State first teams at the end of Tuesday's practice- the Buckeyes could be starting as many as 10 underclassmen when they take the field against Miami (OH) on Sept. 1.
Despite the current youth movement occurring in Columbus, junior center Corey Linsley is confident that the Ohio State underclassmen have what it takes to help carry the load in 2012.
"A lot of them are stepping up. You see guys, Coach calling them out all the time," Linsley said. "They're moving up on our academic boards, they're moving up on our weight room boards. You see a transfer from the weight room and the classroom and off the field to on the field."
The offensive line is one area where the Buckeyes' youth could affect them the most. Despite having four of its five starting spots locked up by juniors and seniors, Decker's emergence at right tackle in fall camp means that the true freshman could be relied on to play one of the most important positions on the Ohio State offense.
Aside from Decker, the rest of the Buckeyes' second-team offensive line is comprised of freshmen and sophomores in sophomores Daryl Baldwin and Antonio Underwood, redshirt freshman Tommy Brown, and true freshman Jacoby Boren. There's also a chance that true freshman and former four-star recruit Kyle Dodson could crack the Buckeyes' two-deep by the end of fall camp.
But even with their lack of experience, Linsley likes what he's seen from the OSU offensive line so far.
"I know a couple guys on the O-line, Taylor Decker's stepping up, Tony, Tommy Brown," Linsley said. "Kyle Dodson's even showing a lot of promise in him, he doesn't know anything yet, but he's getting there."
Aside from the players on the most recent two-deep, circumstances have given the opportunity to other freshmen and sophomores to play a significant role on this year's team.
With senior running back Jordan Hall out with an injury, tight end Jake Stoneburner has been spending more time in the slot, helping fill the pivot position spot that Hall was expected to play. This has given the opportunity to sophomore Jeff Heuerman and freshman Nick Vannett to each receive first-string reps at tight end.
Hall's injury has also helped pave the way for a pair of true freshmen to receive time with the first-string offense at running back. Both Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball[db] received first team reps during the Buckeyes first two practices of fall camp. Whether they'll continue to earn more reps or be relegated to the second-team and special teams remains to be seen, but fullback [db]Zach Boren said that he's been impressed by Ball since he arrived on campus as an early-enrollee in January.
"Warren Ball has surprised me like no other," Boren said. "He's out there competing every day, he's winning every race, he's never complaining. I just think he'll be a great running back here."
The OSU wide receivers will be even younger than the running backs, with no scholarship seniors, sophomores Devin Smith and Evan Spencer slated to start, and freshman Michael Thomas expected to make an impact. The elder statesman of the group, junior Corey Brown is aware of how important it is for the younger Buckeye wideouts to make an impact right away.
"It's big. For our offense to work, we've got to have a passing game and have some wideouts step up," Brown said. "We can run the ball 30 times a game if we want to, but that's not the ideal offense we want to run."
That means that not only will the OSU receivers need to improve, but so will sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller. Now the focal point of Ohio State coach Urban Meyer's offense, Miller will need to build on a freshman campaign that saw him named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. And with less than a week of fall camp in the books, he appears to be headed in the right direction.
"I feel like my body is changing and I think my attitude and leadership are coming together. I had a talk with the coaches and I asked them how I can be a good leader and how I can influence people on the team," Miller said. "Since I was a freshman last year, it was kind of odd. But I think I have a year under my belt and I felt better after talking to the coaches."
On defense, the Buckeyes will be just as young, starting two sophomore linebackers, potentially two sophomore cornerbacks, and a sophomore defense end in Bennett. All three of the current second-string linebackers are freshmen, and freshmen Noah Spence, Jamal Marcus, and Najee Murray have all already been mentioned by Meyer as players who can step in and play right away for the Buckeyes.
But while some might fear that a team as youthful as the Buckeyes could find trouble in their lack of experience, Bennett said the added depth on this year's Ohio State quad is a plus, regardless of how young that depth is.
"I wouldn't want to say reliance, because we got guys that can fill positions when needed," Bennett said. "We definitely do a decent amount of younger guys that can step up and be playmakers on this defense."
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