Youth a strength, not an excuse, for Ohio State

NEW ORLEANS -- On signing day in 2013, Vonn Bell surprised a lot of people by spurning Alabama for Ohio State.

Two seasons later, the Buckeyes' starting safety helped lead his team over the Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Did Bell think Ohio State would come this far this fast?

"Yeah, I knew it was going to happen," Bell said. "Because every two years, coach [Urban] Meyer is going to get a championship."

Meyer isn't quite on the two-year plan with the Buckeyes, as it took him all the way until his third season in Columbus to get the program in the national championship game. Still, the rapid ascension is remarkable, especially when you consider how many of his key players are only in their first or second year seeing the field.

The Ohio State squad that will take on Oregon on Jan. 12 for the championship is starting 11 freshmen or sophomores out of its top 22 players. The team's official offensive and defensive two-deep includes another 11 first- or second-year players as top backups. No wonder Meyer has said that he thought Ohio State was a year away from playing for the title.

And, of course, the loss of senior quarterback Braxton Miller to a shoulder injury in August left the Buckeyes with virtually no playing experience at the most important position to start the season. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting, while sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones has merely won the Big Ten championship game and a playoff semifinal in his first two starts.

Teams with this much youth aren't supposed to climb this mountain. They're supposed to require seasoning and go through hardships before they're ready. Think of how many coaches have lowered expectations or excused away losses by saying, "We're a young team." So how are these young Bucks bucking that conventional wisdom?

It starts with a confidence instilled from the top down. Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman talked about how he'd continually tell Barrett that he belonged at this level, that he was good enough to start and lead the team. He continued to do that once Jones was tossed into the cauldron after Barrett broke his ankle in the regular-season finale against Michigan.

"There's still that self doubt that any 19-year-old would have to take this stage with so many people counting on them," Herman said. "So by far the biggest thing is getting them relaxed and believing in themselves. You have to make sure they know that you believe in them."

Meyer has never been afraid to play youngsters right away. He likes to say that the Buckeyes don't redshirt, that they recruit players with the idea that they'll see the field immediately. If they redshirt, it's because they're not good enough yet or they've gotten injured.

Meyer didn't stick to that philosophy last year as his team started 12-0 but could have used an infusion of youth -- especially in the back end of the defense -- as it lost its final two games. He vowed in the offseason not to make that mistake again, and his trust this go-round with young players has really paid off.

That showed in the 42-35 win over Alabama, where redshirt freshman linebacker Darron Lee won defensive MVP honors. Freshmen Jalin Marshall, Billy Price and Eli Apple were among others who played key roles.

Thursday's game was also a testament to the recruiting prowess of Meyer and his staff, especially with the 2013 group that ESPN Recruiting ranked the third-best class in the nation. That almost seems too low now, considering the class included current standouts such as Big Ten defensive player of the year Joey Bosa, Sugar Bowl offensive MVP Ezekiel Elliott, Lee, Bell, Marshall, Apple, receiver/special-teams ace Corey Smith, injured H-back Dontre Wilson and Barrett.

"That's just kudos to the coaching staff," said redshirt sophomore safety Tyvis Powell, who sealed the Alabama win with an interception on the final play. "They know how to pick the right players to fit into the culture."

It's a culture that also needs upperclassmen to accept the youth movement and not grumble about whippersnappers cutting in line. Ohio State's veterans have done a great job of that, even as only seven seniors are starting.

"As seniors, we love our guys, and we're not afraid to say we love our guys," senior defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. "When we were down by any number of points [against Alabama], the young guys would look to the seniors and we'd say, 'The score doesn't matter right now. We just need to play better football, and that's what we're going to do.'"

Bennett says this year's team is unusually close, even with the varying differences in age ranges. Meyer has said this is one of the most close-knit teams he's ever coached.

"One thing the young guys do, that young guys don't necessarily do all the time, is they've developed really close relationships with the older guys," junior linebacker Joshua Perry said. "A lot of times, younger guys are out there just running around doing their own thing. But they realize what the older guys have done for this program, so they put it on the line for the older guys, which we really appreciate."

It's hard not to appreciate how many contributions young players are making for these Buckeyes.