Ohio State football: Freshmen who have made an impact in 2023

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - SEPTEMBER 23: Calvin Simpson-Hunt #15 and Jermaine Mathews Jr. #24 of the Ohio State Buckeyes celebrate after defeating the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 23, 2023 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - SEPTEMBER 23: Calvin Simpson-Hunt #15 and Jermaine Mathews Jr. #24 of the Ohio State Buckeyes celebrate after defeating the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 23, 2023 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

There have been several Ohio State football freshmen who have made impacts this season. Ever since Chris Olave burst onto the scene during the Michigan game back in 2018, Buckeye fans have been watching and waiting to see which freshman could make a similar impact during his first year on campus.

This season’s crop of freshmen had 21 commits with an average recruiting grade of 93.44 according to the 247sports composite ranking. That was the third highest in the nation behind the SEC’s Georgia and Alabama. Ohio State’s overall recruiting ranking was 4th, but they also took the fewest recruits in the top ten.

That class included one five-star, 19 four-star recruits, and one three-star recruit. Star rankings are not always the be-all-end-all when it comes to projecting one’s collegian career. Take Olave for instance. He was a three-star recruit from California who wasn’t even the highest-ranked player on his high school team. Yet, when he received his opportunity, he shined the brightest.

Who has flashed the most this season when it comes to the true freshmen who were recruited as a part of the 2023 class? Did their star ranking reflect their performance? Let’s take a look.

CB Jermaine Mathews Jr.

When Denzel Burke went down with an injury, it was true freshman Jermaine Mathews Jr. who stepped in and played incredibly well. Mathews must have impressed cornerback coach Tim Walton and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles during the summer and fall camp enough to win the job as first backup to Burke and sophomore transfer Davison Igbinosun because there was zero hesitation to play the freshman from the jump.

The 6-foot and 175-pound Ohio native, who played his high school ball at Winton Woods High School in Cincinnati, saw the field in the opening game of the season playing on special teams. He saw his first action at cornerback in the very next game against Youngstown State.

After working his way up the depth chart during the season, Mathews Jr. received his first start of his career against Rutgers following the injury of Burke from the week before. The talented freshman was the 14th highest-ranked corner coming out of high school, and the third-highest recruit from the state of Ohio. However, he wasn’t the highest-ranked corner in the class for the Buckeyes. That distinction belonged to Calvin Simpson-Hunt who was a top 100 national recruit from Texas.

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So far this season, Mathews Jr. has 13 tackles, an interception return for a touchdown, and three pass deflections. It is widely expected that Burke will forgo his final season and declare for the NFL draft. If this is the case, many believe Mathews Jr. will fill in for Burke next season as the starting corner opposite of Igbinosun.

WR Carnell Tate

Freshman wide receiver Carnell Tate made a lot of noise during the open practices at the beginning of fall camp when the general public was allowed to attend. During those two practices, Tate flashed like no other freshman receiver in the class, showing himself ready for the big stage.

In high school at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, Tate became a five-star recruit being recognized as the third highest-ranked receiver in the nation. He was the highest-ranked recruit for the Buckeyes in their 2023 class, right in front of fellow wide receiver recruits Brandon Inniss and Noah Rogers.

So far this season, Tate has 16 receptions for 254 yards and one touchdown leading all freshman receivers.

If both Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka both leave early for the NFL draft, as expected, along with graduating senior Xavier Johnson, there will be plenty of open opportunities next season for Tate to compete for a starting wide receiver position. Many believe Julian Fleming will return for a fifth season, but if he doesn’t, then there will be even more pressure on Tate to fill the shoes vacated by Harrison Jr.

SAF Malik Hartford

When hard-hitting free safety Josh Proctor went down with an injury against Rutgers, defensive backs coach Perry Eliano and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles were forced to move some of their safety pieces around in order to also fill the void created by a serious injury to Lathan Ransom. On several occasions, Cam Martinez has seen the field but hasn’t played well enough to garner more playing time.

Sophomore Sonny Styles has shown the athleticism to play multiple defensive back positions, and with the re-emergence of Jordan Hancock as the nickel corner, Knowles turned to true freshman Malik Hartford to fill in for Proctor.

Although Hartford’s stats aren’t super impressive, he only has 10 tackles and two pass deflections, the free safety position isn’t necessarily a spot you see someone stuff a stat sheet at. His true job is to make sure no one gets behind him and to make sure your opponent doesn’t house a touchdown on your defense when a down turns into a chunk play.

Hartford has performed his job well and earned the opportunity to start against Michigan State after a rough start to the season. He started for Proctor against Youngstown State in week two but was yanked after the first drive.

That move obviously motivated the young freshman from Lakota West High School in West Chester, Ohio. Hartford was the number one ranked recruit from the state of Ohio and a top 100 four-star recruit in the 2023 class.

Who’s next?

These three, Jermaine Mathews Jr., Carnell Tate, and Malik Hartford have all flashed this season and have made impacts in year one at Ohio State. I expect them to be starters in 2024 and eventually, maybe even team captains in 2025. Hopefully, all of them will make strides to improve this off-season and avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.

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Other freshmen who I believe can either make an impact in the final games of this season, and or become possible starters in 2024 include tight end Jelani Thurman, who had an impressive catch and run this past week in the fourth quarter of the Michigan State game, wide receiver Brandon Inniss, who’s first reception as a Buckeye resulted in a touchdown against Purdue earlier this season, and offensive tackle Luke Montgomery, who has played as a sixth lineman in jumbo sets on fourth and short and on the goal line.