Jeremiah Smith Ohio State Buckeyes Wide Receiver

No Kiddie Table Treatment For Buckeye Freshmen

One of the reasons more and more high school athletes are choosing to enroll early in college is so that they have a better chance of playing as a true freshman.

This winter, the Ohio State football team welcomed 16 early enrollees, including Alabama transfer quarterback Julian Sayin. The benefits of enrolling early are many, but ultimately the purpose is to get them acclimated to the college football experience as quickly as possible so that when the season finally rolls around, they’re better able to handle it.

In fact, Buckeye head coach Ryan Day has told those players in past year that once they get through winter workouts, spring practice, and summer workouts, they’re no longer true freshmen. They are something more.

That process is still ongoing, but winter and spring are now in the rearview. Some freshmen performed better than others, but each of them has benefited from the head start.

One of the standout freshmen has been wide receiver Jeremiah “JJ” Smith, who had his black stripe removed earlier than any other OSU freshman since the tradition began a dozen years ago. Smith’s performance caught everyone’s eye this spring, but he wasn’t the only one. Especially when you ask Ohio State offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Chip Kelly, who had true freshmen Sayin and Air Noland in his room this spring.

“I always am so impressed with young guys that enroll early and watching how they get acclimated and what they do,” Kelly said following last month’s spring game. “When you look at Julian and Air and JJ, they should be in the hot lunch line of their high school. And they’re out here playing in front of 80,000 people.”

In most industries, there will be a period of orientation or training. But college sports isn’t most industries. Coaches do what they can to keep freshmen afloat, but they can’t spend their entire time trying to keep their heads above water. And the junior varsity teams were done away with a long time ago.

Former Buckeye head coach John Cooper was famous for saying of young players that “if a dog’s gonna bite, he’ll bite as a pup.” Whatever kind of analogy you want to use, the fact remains that a football team is going to keep moving forward and it’s up to the true freshmen to keep up or catch up.

So far, Kelly has seen that happening from Sayin and Smith.

“They’ve really progressed,” he said. “When you watch them in meetings and listen to them and they interpret. So basically, the whole concept here is we throw them in the deep end and see if they can swim. We didn’t baby anything. We don’t put the install in with, ‘Hey you guys, we’re gonna install this with the older players, and then you guys go sit at the kiddie table. And we’re just gonna do the really simple things with you.’ They get it all.”

The coaches are working to build a championship team, not trying to set a record for varsity letters handed out. They would love every freshman to be able to contribute but it’s not realistic. And ultimately it’s up to the freshmen themselves to make it happen.

A portion of these past five months has been spent trying to figure out exactly which freshmen can be trusted, and how much. That process will continue in summer workouts, film work, meetings, and fall camp.

“The more they can digest — when you’re in a room, when you’re checking if they’re understanding and asking questions, and they can spit back to you, the more confidence you have when they get in there with the plays that you can call for them,” Kelly said. “So those guys have been impressive.”

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