Ohio State trying to focus on Fiesta Bowl, but plenty of NFL decisions loom

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The first decision was made nearly a year ago, which is one surefire way to prevent it from becoming a distraction during the season.

Another plan was assumed to have been made before the first game of the season, though it never has been officially announced.

Then there was a third that unexpectedly was made public thanks in large part to emotions getting the better of a player in a postgame press conference.

But even with those three NFL choices effectively already made and essentially out in the open, that’s just scratching the surface for Ohio State and a roster overflowing with professional potential. Since Cardale Jones kicked off the festivities in January by not-so-subtly hinting at his plans, figuring out how many Buckeyes will be skipping their final season of eligibility has been a yearlong parlor game with what could be a frighteningly large number looming as the answer for coach Urban Meyer.

“One year [in 2009], we had 12 guys send in their paperwork -- 12,” Meyer said. “That causes a little anxiety issues for the coaching staff.

“It's a nightmare. It’s not as bad as the nightmare of having zero, of having no players ever getting drafted. I imagine that’s a much more significant nightmare. But this is not easy.”

Given how highly coveted some of the Ohio State prospects will be if they come out early and the millions of dollars that are at stake, weighing options for the future while trying to prepare for a tough matchup in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame certainly can be a difficult balancing act.

For that matter, maintaining focus during the regular season can be just as challenging when such a significant decision looms at the end of the year. In some ways, Jones may have done the best job of eliminating that possibility by making it pretty clear all along he would be leaving after his redshirt junior campaign. But he has largely been alone with that approach, though the quarterback isn’t lacking for company in what could soon be a mass exodus of talent for the Buckeyes.

Defensive end Joey Bosa has left a tiny crack in the door to return, though the potential No. 1 overall pick has been strongly leaning toward capitalizing on that status for months. Ezekiel Elliott also has made his intentions clear, even if the way the junior running back shared the news after the loss to Michigan State caught many off guard.

But that still leaves safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell, linebacker Darron Lee, wide receiver Michael Thomas, cornerback Eli Apple, offensive guard Pat Elflein and punter Cameron Johnston as Buckeyes who could forego another season with the program and start collecting a paycheck at the next level. By and large, they’ve mostly deferred on making their choice until after the Fiesta Bowl, though Elflein recently declared his intention to return after previously expressing an interest in gathering information to possibly leave early.

Perhaps inadvertently, Elflein provided another example that getting the NFL off the minds of players and entirely on their bowl opponent might be close to impossible, regardless of how important a win might be for them to cap the season -- or their careers.

“Really not worried about that right now,” Bell said. “We’ve got to get through this game and beat Notre Dame.

“You can’t really pay too much mind [to draft projections] because people really don’t know right now, they’re not in a GM’s head or anything like that. It’s one step at a time, and now I’ve got to get through this phase of winning this game and being with my teammates.”

There is a healthy handful of them going through the same process, which is a blessing and a curse that Meyer obviously has dealt with before thanks to his success as a recruiter.

Considering how well the Buckeyes have continued to recruit since signing all the elite athletes who are now flirting with the NFL, there still is going to be talent in the pipeline to replace the early draft entries no matter how many wind up leaving. That doesn’t mean it will necessarily be smooth or simple to transition them into a lineup with national-title aspirations, but this also isn’t the last time Meyer is expecting to be dealing with this particular problem.

“Right now, focus is on this bowl game,” Meyer said. “I kind of do [know the number]. But we're just avoiding all that conversation until later.”

The Buckeyes will have plenty to talk about then, and the NFL discussions will keep them busy. And one way or the other, Ohio State’s future will come into clearer focus with every decision.