Sonny Styles Ohio State Buckeyes

Cotton Bowl Notebook: A Time To Reflect And Grow

X Marks The Spots

When Ohio State and Missouri kick off in this year’s Cotton Bowl, it will be the last time Xavier Johnson takes the field for the Buckeyes.

Johnson walked on to the Ohio State football team in 2018 and in that time he has played cornerback, running back, receiver, and been involved in all aspects of the special teams.

The past two seasons for the Buckeyes, however, he has finally found a home at receiver, while also having a vacation spot at running back. Over the last two seasons, Johnson has carried the ball 35 times for 201 yards and caught 24 passes for 198 yards.

Heading into the Cotton Bowl, head coach Ryan Day’s Buckeyes are short-staffed at running back, as Miyan Williams is out for the season with an injury, and Chip Trayanum and Evan Pryor have already entered the transfer portal and found new homes. Starting running back TreVeyon Henderson has not yet made an announcement about his Cotton Bowl availability, which means OSU may be down to just second-year back Dallan Hayden.

Of course, starting receiver Julian Fleming has also entered the transfer portal, and All-American Marvin Harrison, Jr. is not expected to play either, which could force a need for Johnson to stay at receiver.

What does Johnson expect his role to be against Missouri?

“Help the team win,” he said this week. “Whatever I got to do to help the team win, go beat Missouri, be 1-0 in the bowl season, that’s where I’ll be. I’ll be full-heartedly there. It could be kicker. I’ll go out there and try to kick, I can’t even kick, but wherever coach Day says, ‘We need you, Xavier,’ that’s where I’ll put my foot.”

Kicker, eh? Well, the Buckeyes have already lost a backup kicker to the portal, so maybe that’s not so crazy.

What’s Johnson’s range?

“Maybe the 10-yard line,” he said. “I think punter would be better. I can place some punts.”

Simon Says He’ll Be Back

The Buckeyes are expected to be losing starting linebackers Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers after this season. Both are fifth-year seniors, but both also have their COVID year available should they choose to use it. Still, both are likely headed off to their next destinations.

One Buckeye linebacker who will be using his COVID year, however, is Cody Simon. Simon played in six of OSU’s eight games in 2020 as a true freshman. He then started 10 games for the Buckeyes as a sophomore, including nine at middle linebacker.

The past two seasons, he has been a valuable backup for the defense, and actually split time with Chambers at Will linebacker this year. Simon is currently sixth on the team with 45 tackles. He has 135 career tackles.

What factored into Simon’s decision to return?

“There’s a lot that goes into it,” he said. “Wanting to complete your goals that you set for yourself. And there’s so many team goals that I want to still complete and we haven’t done a great job of completing them the past couple years. So I think that I want to be able to go and accomplish those goals and win a Big Ten championship again and beat the team up north. So I think it’s a lot of unfinished business and something that I want to complete.”

Simon is the odds-on favorite to be the Buckeyes’ starting middle linebacker next year, but it was still a difficult decision for him to make.

“There was a part of me that did want to go and want to explore what the NFL has to offer,” he said. “But I think ultimately it’s the right decision to l use all the time you really can because you never get these years back.”

The Young And The Rested

Coaches love bowl practice because it allows them to reset the deck initially and get back to fundamentals. Players like it because the veterans get a bit of rest and the young players finally get the action they’ve been missing during the season.

The veterans use the time to heal up and look at where they need to improve. The young players, meanwhile, have a tremendous opportunity to not only grow through reps, but show that they are ready to contribute in the bowl game.

That was the situation for Sonny Styles last year as a true freshman. He was part of the game plan to take on Georgia, and it paid dividends this year as well.

“Yeah, I think the bowl prep month is huge,” Styles recalled. “I feel like last year, I took a huge step in preparing for that game against Georgia. So I think it’s huge for the young guys. And really everyone just to take a step back and look at every little thing you need to work on leading up to this game. So I think it’s a huge month to get better. And it’s a big chance to prepare for a game. So you got four weeks to prepare for one team. So I think it’s a huge opportunity.”

Even though Styles is only a sophomore, he now qualifies as a veteran of this defense. Which means he is part of the group that is also looking out for the younger guys.

“Oh, yeah, a little bit,” he said. “You know, like I said, everyone has the opportunity to get better and work on little things. But yeah, it feels like they try to take care of our bodies a little bit, so you do try to put a young guy under your wing and try to help them out through these practices. They’re getting more reps and so they might be out there getting yelled at more than they usually do. So you just try to help them out a little bit.”

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