CHICAGO — Ohio State’s 2013 recruiting class has been a gift that has kept on giving into a fifth year, which has not always been the case at OSU.
Seven fifth-year seniors from that 2013 group of recruits are still in leadership roles on and off the field. It is at least a little unusual for Ohio State to keep that many talented players so deep into their college careers.
In 2016, Eli Apple, Von Bell, Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Darron Lee and Jalin Marshall left early for the NFL from the 2013 class. This year, Gareon Conley joined them.
The seven who have stayed are quarterback J.T. Barrett, offensive lineman Billy Price, defensive linemen Tyquan Lewis, Tracy Sprinkle and Michael Hill, linebacker Chris Worley and tight end Marcus Baugh.
“I was fortunate to be part of one of the best classes college football history has ever seen,” Worley said.
“Everyone has their own journey and there’s no right or wrong answer to how someone’s journey should be,” he said. “It’s all about how that person is.
“It’s crazy. J.T. was starting his redshirt freshman year and tearing it up and then he got hurt and it was just the way it was. He’s a better player and a better person from that experience.
“Everyone has their own journey but everyone’s journey is unique to themselves. There’s a reason for everything and all the fifth-year seniors, we’re more than excited,” Worley said.
Lewis, the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year last season, said he wrestled with the decision whether to go into the NFL draft this year or return for a fifth season.
“It was a tough decision. My family background is not the best. It was a life-changing opportunity but the place I’m at is a life-changing opportunity as well. It was just a difficult moment,” he said.
“I had to think about it and talk it over several times and go through the process in my head. Every day, a million times somebody was asking me, ‘What are you going to do?’ There was just a lot that went into it.
“It was more so about unfinished business on the field but football wasn’t the main thing. It was about my family and my life.”
Price said, “I don’t regret coming back at all.
“With that age comes wisdom and experience that I would love to tell to my freshman self, my sophomore self, whatever. It is kind of weird being the old guy in the room. I’ve been through a lot at Ohio State. I’ve been through different coaches, different position coaches and cultures.
“I’ve been through the highest of the highs with a national championship, and the lowest of the lows with being embarrassed. We (the seven fifth-year players) have a bond that can’t be broken,” he said.
With age and experience also comes the expectation that those players will be leaders.
Worley said Meyer emphasized that expectation to Lewis and him on the night the Buckeyes lost 31-0 to Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year’s Eve.
“He pulled us aside and it was a grown man conversation. It’s easy to be a leader when everything is fine. But it takes a little bit extra when it’s games like that. He said it’s time to be a leader now,” Worley said.
Lewis said he and the other fifth-year players began to pay more attention to their leadership roles after the loss at Penn State last season.
“We had to step up and take ownership and be more accountable for our actions after that. Leaders had to be much more accountable. We needed to re-evaluate ourselves. No more phoniness. Guys had to step up because we weren’t supposed to let stuff like that happen to us,” he said.
While OSU’s seven long-time players take their leadership role seriously, they don’t take themselves overly seriously.
When a reporter referred to Lewis as “an old-timer” at the Big Ten Media Days on Monday, he said, “I’m still young, man. Come on. I’m still young. I can’t say I’m an old-timer but I’ve been around. I still can lead the team the best way I can.”
Ohio State’s players are wearing plastic wrist bands that say “One strong” on the outside and “Mind. Heart. Body” on the inside.
OSU knows what it has with its fifth-year players. It hopes it has something great with a 2017 recruiting class that was ranked with the best in the country. The rest of the team could hold the key to the season, Worley said.
“We do have a bunch of older guys returning and a lot of young guys who are coming in who look like they’re destined to be great. So it’s like once we can figure out the middle part of our team and figure out what type of people they are, it’s just going to build up,” he said.