By Mitch Stacy
AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS — Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has reason to feel a little unsettled as his team begins preparations for the 2016 season. He has to find replacements for his best offensive player, his best defensive player and other key parts of a squad that finished 12-1 last year and ranked No. 4 in the nation.
Ezekiel Elliot, one of the best running backs in Buckeyes history, departed early for the NFL, as did defensive end Joey Bosa. Both were stalwarts in the 2014 national championship run and right on through last season. Just six starters from last year will be in camp this fall.
The good news: Quarterback J.T. Barrett enters a season as the undisputed starter for the first time after taking over for Cardale Jones at mid-season last year. In 2014, Barrett led the Buckeyes to an 11-1 record before breaking his ankle in the Michigan game and giving way to Jones, who led the team to the national title.
“I anticipate he will be as good a quarterback as we’ve had,” Meyer said. “It’s his show and he knows it, and he’s prepared.”
Middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, a second-team All-American who was one of the Big Ten’s top tacklers, will anchor a defense with a ton of potential — including Bosa’s little brother, Nick, an incoming freshman defensive lineman.
Freshmen and other inexperienced players will see extensive playing time on both sides of the ball and must perform for the Buckeyes to have success. A true freshman might even start on the offensive line, an exceedingly rare occurrence at Ohio State.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a rebuilding year for the Buckeyes. For Meyer, a master recruiter, it’s always a matter of waiting for the next crop of All-Americans to come of age and take over the team.
“We have a lot of momentum here at Ohio State right now,” he said. “We can’t lose it, just because we lost some great players.”
Some things to watch as the season arrives:
THE GROUND GAME
With Elliott now in camp with the Dallas Cowboys, Ohio State enters fall practice without an established running back. The team’s most experienced back, fifth-year senior Bri’onte Dunn, was dismissed last month for violating an unspecified team rule. That leaves redshirt freshman Mike Weber and true freshman Antonio Williams, both highly regarded prep players Meyer has raved about. Weber likely will be the starter, and look for H-back Curtis Samuel to get a share of the touches, too.
ABOUT THOSE RECEIVERS
Ohio State’s three best receivers from 2015 are gone. The four players expected to step up as top pass-catchers — Noah Brown, Corey Smith, Dontre Wilson and Samuel — were recovering from injuries and didn’t participate in spring practice, opening the door for youngsters like Terry McLaurin, Parris Campbell and Torrance Gibson, all of whom had their shining moments in the spring game. Meyer needs one of them to emerge as the guy who can consistently get open and catch the deep ball.
Sept. 17 at Oklahoma; Oct. 15 at Wisconsin; Nov. 19 at Michigan State; Nov. 26 vs. Michigan.
Sept. 3 vs. Bowling Green: The Buckeyes may have to work up a sweat dispatching the Falcons, one of the Mid-American Conference’s better teams. It’s the first of two tuneup games Ohio State will play at home before traveling to Oklahoma for an early-season showdown.
Despite losing a lot of experienced players, the Buckeyes have the talent to remain among college football’s elite teams. An 11-1 finish seems likely, with potential stumbles at Wisconsin or perhaps against Michigan.