Coaches might not like to admit it publicly and across the country prefer to stick to a “next man up” message with their teams, but there’s always at least one player programs can’t afford to lose.
This week, the Big Ten reporting crew is trying to identify the guys across the league who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they suffered an injury, were lost to suspension, unexpectedly retired to play minor league baseball, etc. Whether it’s based on individual talent or lack of depth at a position, the goal is to find the true most valuable player on every roster in the conference as the march toward the season continues.
Up next: Ohio State
Most indispensable player: C Pat Elflein
There is a Heisman Trophy candidate running the offense and a future first-round pick quarterbacking the defense at middle linebacker, but it’s Ohio State’s other captain it likely wouldn’t be able to live without for long -- particularly early in the season.
The senior offensive lineman may be sliding over to a new spot, but he’s been anticipating taking over the duties at center by getting practice reps there over the last couple of seasons and has even appeared there in games for limited action when needed. Based on his powerful blocking, his knowledge of the game, familiarity with Urban Meyer’s offense and his preparation for the move, the Buckeyes are already talking about Elflein emerging as a potential Rimington Trophy candidate.
Beyond that, though, is his value setting the tone and bringing along a young offensive line that must replace three starters. The Buckeyes have been through this process before, obviously, and Elflein has seen firsthand how costly any growing pains can be up front two years ago when the unit was working in four new first-team guys and was manhandled in a loss to Virginia Tech. Elflein and guard Billy Price give this year’s group a slight head start, but with a road trip to Oklahoma looming in Week 3, the pressure will be squarely on the man in the middle to make the right calls, get his teammates in the correct spots and provide some leadership to avoid an early setback.
Having J.T. Barrett returning at quarterback with his dual-threat ability could make life a bit easier for the offensive line. Given his status as a potential Heisman finalist, it may seem a bit unusual for him not to be Ohio State’s most indispensable player. But the Buckeyes have had to turn to backups at that position before and not missed a beat, and for a similar reason, middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan gets edged out by the third captain as well.
Elflein, of course, was given that honor for a reason. And Ohio State would likely be in trouble without him.