COLUMBUS, Ohio - Wonder how Ohio State has reached the national-title game with a nearly extinct crop of fifth-year seniors?
The Buckeyes did it on the back of the freshman Class of 2005.
That 18-player class, currently true juniors and redshirt sophomores, has produced 10 starters, six contributors, and only two complete misses from a group of 18 players.
"I don't think anybody really looked at our class and thought, 'Oh, they will be the backbone of the team in a couple years,' " all-Big Ten cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. "It turned out to be that way."
Examine the players leading Ohio State into the Bowl Championship Series national championship on Jan. 7, such as Jenkins, linebacker James Laurinaitis, receiver Brian Robiskie, and safety Anderson Russell, and you'll find many of them were among the lower-rated players in that class. The Buckeyes would be in trouble without five-star left tackle Alex Boone, but Laurinaitis remembered his other classmates who weren't thought of so highly.
"I won't say we had a chip on our shoulder, but we were overlooked as a recruiting class here," Laurinaitis said. "I think a lot of guys really wanted to prove themselves. You can go around the board: I was a three-star, Anderson was a two-star, Malcolm was a three-star, Robo wasn't that highly touted. [Cornerback] Donald Washington is another kid who wasn't looked at."
Overall, when based on the average rating of players, the '05 Buckeyes were ranked seventh by recruiting service Scout.com and ninth by Rivals.com. While Southern Cal, for instance, snagged 10 of Scout's top 100 recruits that year, Oklahoma had eight and Michigan had five; the Buckeyes pulled in only three.
"That kind of speaks to the job our coaches do, recruiting-wise," Laurinaitis said. "They recruit good football players and guys who are leaders first, and don't pay attention much to the ratings. There's little intangibles that I think the coaches here at Ohio State find."
The defense has benefited most from that class, boasting six starters: Jenkins, Washington, Russell, Laurinaitis, and defensive tackles Doug Worthington and Todd Denlinger. The offensive players include both receivers - Robiskie and Brian Hartline - Boone, and center Jim Cordle.
Defensive end Lawrence Wilson was a starter before he broke a bone in his leg in the first game of the season, safety Jamario O'Neal started last year when Russell got hurt, and running back Maurice Wells plays a lot. Only two players never factored in: linebacker Freddie Lenix, who was never admitted, and defensive end Ryan Williams, who transferred after a knee injury. Even though quarterback Rob Schoenhoft has played little, backing up the most important position on the field isn't irrelevant, and he was in the fight for the job during the preseason.
That's a remarkable rate of success. The decimated Class of 2003 saw only Kirk Barton remain for his fifth year out of that group of 14. The Class of 2004 has seen 12 of its 24 members contribute nothing or little on the field in four years. Yet the Class of '05 is hitting at an 89 percent success rate.
"As we grew and matured, you could see it developing," Hartline said. "Malcolm and I were just talking that we've got a heck of a class. We really do. It's fun because we've become really good friends, and it's all kind of close-knit."
Not every class comes together this way, but it seems as if every great team needs one group to produce above expectations. For the previous two seasons, the Buckeyes were built around a 2002 freshman class that included Troy Smith, A.J. Hawk, Quinn Pitcock, Santonio Holmes, Bobby Carpenter, Nick Mangold and Doug Datish.