Ohio State Buckeyes: Surprise returnees should bolster offense

The long holiday weekend saw more than a handful of Ohio State football players announce their decisions relative to the 2021 NFL Draft.

Most were not surprising given the trends of the past five years or so, but three stand out.

All-Big Ten receiver Chris Olave caught many observers off guard by announcing he will be back for a fourth year at Ohio State.

“There are so many great memories, but we’re not done yet,” he wrote in making his announcement on social media.

A three-star recruit from California in the 2018 class, Olave defying expectations is not new.

He came on late in the 2018 season, including a breakout performance against Michigan, and has was a reliable target for quarterback Justin Fields over the past two seasons.

Olave tied David Boston’s Ohio State record for catches per game (7.1) this season and could challenge K.J. Hill’s career receptions record (201) with big season.

Beyond individual goals, Olave’s return also figures to be significant for the team.

Ohio State was already scheduled to return fellow starters Garrett Wilson and Jameson Williams at receiver along with highly regarded prospects Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Julian Fleming and Gee Scott Jr., among others.

That means the Buckeyes figure to boast the top receiving corps in the country in 2021, a major asset for head coach Ryan Day and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson to build the offense around upon the departure of running back Trey Sermon and quarterback Justin Fields, who both announced they are entering the draft.

Wilson also coaches the tight ends, and another somewhat surprising weekend announcement bolsters that room in a big way.

Jeremy Ruckert, who arrived to much fanfare as a four-star prospect from California three years ago, averaged less than two catches per game in 2020 but five went for touchdowns, including a pair in the Sugar Bowl win over Clemson.

In an era where most players with the potential to be taken in the first three rounds leave school sooner than later typically, his decision to return means Wilson’s job of rebuilding depth at tight end should be much less daunting.

Wilson will still have to replace graduating senior Luke Farrell (in all likelihood — with everyone being granted an extra year of eligibility, Farrell and others could still decide to return as well), but Ruckert gives him a reliable No. 1 who can catch the ball and block.

“I am very blessed and fortunate to have the opportunity to declare for the 2021 NFL Draft,” Ruckert wrote in his announcement. “However, after talking to my family, my coaches and those close to me, I still think I have goals not yet achieved.”

Ruckert’s presence in the middle of the field gives opposing defenses something else to worry about besides Olave and Wilson, and if a second tight end emerges the Ohio State coaches’ ability to keep opponents guessing about what is coming is greatly enhanced.

The third surprise decision of the weekend came from Thayer Munford.

He is a three-year starter with four years in the program but announced he will take advantage of the extra year, meaning Ohio State returns three starters up front, including both tackles.

“For the last four years I have been so close to lift up that (national championship) trophy but came up so short,” Munford wrote on social media. “We have to look into the future. With that said. I am coming back for another year to achieve my goal and getting my degree that I have promised my family and myself that I will get my degree before I live.

“I’m sticking with that promise that I have made. I will be the first person in my family to get a degree from a college.”

With Nicholas Petit-Frere also returning after a strong first season as the top right tackle, highly regarded 2020 signee Paris Johnson Jr. is likely to slot into the lineup at guard along with the other returning starter, Harry Miller.

Miller had some ups and downs at guard this season but has been regarded as a natural center, so he is likely to replace two-year starter Josh Myers in the middle. That would also make room for Matt Jones, who played well at guard in multiple opportunities in the second half of the season, to claim a starting job.

Taken in full, the (at least somewhat) unexpected returns of Olave, Ruckert and Munford figure to make life much easier for Ohio State’s new quarterback.

That will be a freshman, though it remains to be seen if it is C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller III or Kyle McCord.

Stroud and Miller are both four-star 2020 signees who saw brief action last season while McCord is a 2021 five-star who enrolled in school this month.

Myers, a fourth-year player from Miamisburg who redshirted in 2017, was among five Ohio State players to announce their intention to enter the draft with eligibly remaining.

In addition to Sermon, linebacker Baron Browning, defensive end Jonathon Cooper, punter Drue Chrisman and kicker Blake Haubeil announced they will not be taking an extra year, a decision that does not have to be made until the end of February.

Twenty-six Ohio State players have entered the draft with eligibility remaining over the past five years, including three last year.

In the prior five years (2011-15), Ohio State had only four players go pro early after 15 did so from 2001-10 and 12 did from 1991-2000.

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