OSU Buckeyes: Joshua Perry
2012 conference record: 8-0 (first, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1
Top returners: QB Braxton Miller, RB Carlos Hyde, WR Philly Brown, LT Jack Mewhort, C Corey Linsley, CB Bradley Roby, SAF Christian Bryant, SAF C.J. Barnett, LB Ryan Shazier
Key losses: RT Reid Fragel, WR Jake Stoneburner, DE John Simon, DE Nathan Williams, DT Johnathan Hankins, DT Garrett Goebel, FB/LB Zach Boren, LB Etienne Sabino, CB Travis Howard
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Miller* (1,271 yards, 13 TDs)
Passing: Miller* (2,039 yards, 15 TDs, 6 INTs)
Receiving: Brown* (60 catches, 669 yards, 3 TDs)
Tackles: Shazier* (115)
Sacks: Simon (9)
Interceptions: Howard (4)
1. End game: The Buckeyes have to replace all four starters up front, and while the defensive line isn't quite as deep and is far from a finished product, the future looks pretty bright on the edge. Sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were among the top prizes in Urban Meyer's first recruiting class with the Buckeyes, and that talent is already starting to shine through as they slide into first-team roles heading into the fall. Spence is a dynamic force with his ability to use speed to get to the quarterback, and Washington isn't exactly sluggish despite all the strength in his 293-pound frame. The two combined for seven sacks in the spring game, and the Buckeyes are expecting similar performances when it actually counts.
2. Air it out: Miller has proven what he can do with his legs, and Ohio State didn't really need to see him show them off in the spring. The emphasis was on continuing to develop the junior quarterback as a passer, which meant a heavy dose of play calls forcing him to put the ball in the air and a quick whistle if he tried to scramble. The results for Meyer were encouraging. His efficient, 16-for-25, 217-yard performance in the spring game showed a much more accurate delivery and better decision-making that hints at bigger things from the fifth-place finisher in last year's Heisman Trophy race.
3. Backfield stable: One thing that might keep Hyde from giving Meyer a 1,000-yard running back this season is all the teammates fighting to snag a few of his carries. The rising senior is the clear cut No. 1 to partner with Miller in the backfield, and Hyde didn't have to earn that job in the spring after piling up touchdowns last fall and finally tapping into his enormous potential as a rusher. But while he was watching some reps, Rod Smith, Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball all showed their upside this spring, which has the Buckeyes even toying with a diamond formation that gets three tailbacks on the field at the same time.
1. Filling out the front seven: Shazier is certainly a fine place for any defense to start, but the Buckeyes would obviously prefer if there were at least one other returning starter joining him in the front seven. There are high hopes again for junior Curtis Grant at middle linebacker, but he's been tabbed as a first-team guy before coming out of spring only to fizzle in the fall. Ohio State will need Grant and sophomore Joshua Perry to help lead the charge as it tries to add depth and talent at linebacker to stabilize a defense that will feature a lot of new faces.
2. Fresh blood: There wasn't a great option to fill Meyer's vaunted H-back position last fall, so the Buckeyes effectively had to put the hybrid spot, made famous by Percy Harvin at Florida, on the shelf. Jordan Hall's return from injury makes him a candidate to diversify the offense, but a handful of recruits the Buckeyes landed in Meyer's second class would could really take the spread to another level. Speed-burners such as Dontre Wilson or Jalin Marshall will be watched closely in August as they could become factors for the Buckeyes as early as September.
3. Something special: If the Buckeyes score as easily and often as it appears they might, maybe it won't matter who handles the kicking game. But Meyer has always taken pride in his special teams, and at this point there is still some uncertainty as Drew Basil is pressed into action as both a kicker and a punter. In the big picture, the changes on defense are far more critical -- but close games usually pop up along the way for teams trying to win a championship, and Basil might need to pass some tests for the Buckeyes.
- Who: The wait has been longer than Ohio State surely imagined, but it appears there might finally be a reward for the patience shown toward the once highly-regarded recruit heading into his junior season. Grant has left camp with a starting job before, and he didn't waste much time losing his spot at middle linebacker last fall. But there seems to be a different urgency coming from Grant as the clock ticks on his career with the Buckeyes, and there's clearly more confidence coming from the coaching staff about his ability to handle the responsibility than there was a year ago.
- Spring progress: The physical skills that originally sent expectations for Grant skyward have never really been in doubt, and Ohio State wasn't trying to find out this spring if he could still run fast or deliver a hit with his 6-foot-3, 241-pound frame. The question for Grant was if he was ready to truly channel all his energy into the other parts of the game that allow a linebacker to take the next step, and at least throughout camp, the answers he provided were all positive for the Buckeyes. Grant has taken more time studying film with his roommate and fellow linebacker Ryan Shazier. He's also played with more energy and also acknowledged a few mistakes he made in the past in terms of preparation to shoulder the blame for two seasons effectively wasted on the sideline. That adds up to a pretty mature package, and the Buckeyes can certainly put it to use.
- Jockeying for position: Grant wrapped up spring on top of the depth chart at middle linebacker, complete with coach Urban Meyer's blessing that he had earned that right to play in that spot at Ohio State. The Buckeyes still have some depth issues collectively at the second level, but a starting group with Shazier and sophomore Joshua Perry flanking either side of Grant is a fine foundation as the competition heats up with incoming freshmen Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson set to arrive this summer.
- He said it: "Curtis looks totally different than he used to. Last year he felt like he had a spot locked down, and I don’t feel he got complacent, but he thought it was his. He worked as hard, but I just think he had a mentality that it was his job and he lost focus. Now, this year, I can tell he’s more into it. Nothing is on his mind but football, and he’s going to take us in the right direction." -- Shazier
- Closing number: After wrapping up his disappointing sophomore campaign with just eight tackles, Grant put a much nicer bow on his productive spring camp by chipping in on 10 hits for the Gray team -- including six solo efforts. Grant also added a sack to help solidify himself as a potential regular on defense heading into the offseason.
- Who's back: Only one first-teamer is returning at the second level for the Buckeyes, but Ryan Shazier is certainly a fine place to start. The junior emerged as one of the most prolific defenders in the Big Ten a year ago, and if he's not a household name around the country yet, he should be soon as the hype builds leading into next season. Shazier does need a sidekick on the other side of the formation after Etienne Sabino exhausted his eligibility, and Ohio State has a handful of rising sophomores to sort through in March and April as it reloads the front seven. Joshua Perry, David Perkins, Camren Williams and Jamal Marcus all got their feet wet in some form or fashion as freshmen, and mixing and matching to find the right spots and best combination at linebacker will be at the top of the priority list this spring.
- New face: The Buckeyes already have high hopes for the two highly touted linebackers they landed on national signing day, but they won't get to see what Mike Mitchell or Trey Johnson can do on the practice field until August. The coaching staff cast a wide net at the position a year ago, though, and the development of the second-year guys who weren't exactly regulars last fall will be critical.
- Projected spring depth chart: Shazier will be back in his familiar role at weakside linebacker, with the athletic Perkins likely filling in behind him. Perry appears to be at the head of the line to replace Sabino on the opposite side, with Perkins battling for the gig as well.
- Numbers game: The newcomers did get a taste of what college football is all about right away, but chances to contribute in meaningful situations on defense were hard to come by. Shazier and his senior counterparts rarely came off the field a year ago, and in limited work defensively and more regular appearances on special teams, the quartet of Perkins, Marcus, Perry and Williams combined for 22 tackles. That total, obviously, will have to improve dramatically -- and there will be no shortage of chances to do it.
- One to watch: The way the coaches raved about the natural ability and the tireless way Marcus competed during training camp last August, it seemed like he was poised to make a substantial impact right away. Ultimately the rigors of one of the more difficult positions to play as a true freshman seemed to slow him down, but with a full season now behind him and the benefits of spring practice now ahead of him, Marcus should be in much better position to put his skills on display and potentially work his way into more playing time as a sophomore.
- He said it: "Really, if you think about it, Shazier is the only experience we've got in the front seven coming back next year -- [only one] with a lot of experience. I think with that whole group, it's going to be an exciting time. I know I'm excited. We've got some young guys, maybe at linebacker we're a lot thinner with just depth and numbers, but it's going to be an exciting time. It's a big winter, and it's going to be a big spring." -- defensive coordinator Luke Fickell on signing day
While the Buckeyes could get all three or strike out and be done with the class as it sits now, that remains to be seen.
That said a late-day snare -- even as late as national signing day -- isn’t out of the question.
Last year, Ohio State was able to score three commitments at the last second to shore up what became the sixth-ranked class in the nation.
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No. 3: Buckeyes land pledges at a critical position
- Development: For the better part of a year, the biggest hole on Ohio State's 2013 recruiting class was the same as void that can be found on the current roster. The Buckeyes were thin enough at linebacker, but heading into January, they didn't even a single pledge at the position. It only took two days for Urban Meyer and his coaching staff to fix that this month, with a pair of ESPN 150 recruits making their intentions to sign with the Buckeyes public, as Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson helped boost a class that's currently ranked No. 4 in the country.
- What it means: The demands of the position can make the transition from high school to the Big Ten a bit more challenging for a linebacker than it might be at a few other spots on the field, so it's difficult to project exactly how much the talented tandem might contribute right away for a team that is likely going to start the season among the top 5 programs in the country. That certainly doesn't mean Mitchell or Johnson can't be a factor, but the best-case scenario for the Buckeyes would be that they find two starters to pair with Ryan Shazier out of the group they signed a year ago -- or one guy to match with Curtis Grant if he's ready to live up to his billing coming out of high school. With Jamal Marcus, Camren Williams, David Perkins and Joshua Perry all having gone through a season, spent time learning the defense and benefitting from the upcoming work in spring practice, there are plenty of options already on hand for defensive coordinator Luke Fickell. But just in case a reminder of the importance of depth was needed, all Ohio State has to do is look at the situation it was in last season.
- Numbers game: The high school resume doesn't always offer a true reflection of the potential for a recruit, so it has to be taken with at least a couple grains of salt. But the statistics Mitchell and Johnson put on paper are hard to ignore. As a senior at Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas, Mitchell piled up 186 tackles, with 32 of them going for a loss. At Central Gwinnett in Lawrenceville, Ga., Johnson was credited with 140 takedowns. The two potential Buckeyes combined for 14 sacks.
- He said it: "At this time, we like our class. As with most classes, how you finish is what determines if you love the class. You have to hold on to what you have. There’s a lot of chaos with a lot of new staffs, new coaches trying to take your players and all that kind of stuff. We just have to keep recruiting our players and get going." -- Meyer on the homestretch for the 2013 recruiting class
- Who: Neither senior was able to give a full season at linebacker, though it was an injury for one that helped open the door for the other to prove he was equally skilled on the defensive side of the ball after establishing himself as perhaps the best fullback in the Big Ten before that. After how much Etienne Sabino and Zach Boren offered the Buckeyes in what amounted to half of a year each, there's no question Urban Meyer would give plenty to have them back for one more run with the program -- particularly given the lingering depth concerns at the position. Boren was a natural at middle linebacker and provided invaluable leadership during a rocky defensive stretch in the middle of the season. Sabino blossomed as his career with the Buckeyes wound down, giving nearly every column on the stats sheet before a broken leg interrupted his last season. Both leave plenty of responsibilities behind, both on and off the field.
- Most valuable player: There's not any question that Ryan Shazier was the most outstanding player at linebacker, and his numbers and various contributions might well give him a case that he was the one defender the Buckeyes couldn't live without. And while Zach Boren didn't play a full season at the position, didn't have anywhere near as much statistical production and still looked more like a fullback for a couple weeks after moving over to the defensive side of the ball, the senior's willingness to make the transition stands out by itself as invaluable to the team dynamic. But on top of that, the way he willed it into a success to stabilize a position that was already thin before getting wiped out by injuries will go down in Ohio State lore.
- By the numbers: The math is pretty easy, given the even split of the season for Boren, who moved over to linebacker during a Tuesday practice just before the seventh game of the year and never went back. It also helps to have a nice round number, and Boren's 50 tackles would have put him on pace to be the only defender aside from Shazier to hit triple digits if he'd spent the entire season chasing the football instead of occasionally carrying it at fullback. Considering how quickly he zoomed through the learning curve and how well he was playing at linebacker by the end of the season, perhaps Boren's stats would have looked even better over a full slate. But at the rate he produced over six games, a 12-game Boren might have looked like this: 100 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles and two recoveries.
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Urban Meyer joked about the fresh-faced look on one of his young, stud defensive ends had heading into a win over Illinois, and how Adolphus Washington was starting to chip away at it.
By the end of the freshman's first battle with rival Michigan, Washington looked like a full-fledged man -- and at least in a brief spurt, capable of filling the shoes of one of the most decorated linemen in Ohio State history.
The Buckeyes were quite obviously bitterly disappointed not to have two-time captain and Big Ten defensive lineman of the year John Simon on the field with them on Saturday against the Wolverines. But they were able to survive without him thanks largely to the work Washington has done this season to speed up his development and make a contribution.
His sack and forced fumble against the Wolverines might have been the only entry on the stats sheet, but it resonated given the opponent -- and the one-on-one matchup he won against one of the better blockers in the conference. Along with Washington, we wrap up the season-long look at the weekly contributions from the freshmen with a couple others who flashed and made an impact as the perfect record was officially nailed down.
- Position: Defensive lineman
- Stats sheet: A tackle, sack and forced fumble
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In some cases it's no longer really a matter of getting a couple opportunities for the young Buckeyes to prove themselves -- they have no choice if the program is going to stay undefeated this season while injuries keep piling up on the roster.
That situation has been most obvious at linebacker, and Joshua Perry appeared ready to capitalize on his expanded role before a minor health concern popped back up for him as well. But the defensive line has had to deal with the same issue lately, and even the special teams already loaded with young Buckeyes are getting ravaged by significant injuries and forcing another wave of players to fill the void in the kicking game.
A few players are obviously handling the responsibilities better than others, and every new player develops at a different pace. But these guys three guys stood out in the 29-22 overtime win over Purdue as starting to turn the corner -- or building on previously encouraging outings for Ohio State.
- Position: Defensive end
- Stats sheet: 2 tackles
- What it means: The talented pass-rushing specialist didn't have as much of an impact on the stat sheet as he did against Indiana when Nathan Williams was out of the lineup, but the Buckeyes now have enough faith in him to tinker with the rotation and get him involved in meaningful situations. The clearest example of the different approach an emerging Spence allows the coaching staff to take is moving Williams to play some outside linebacker in a 3-4 look, and the newcomer was on the field for a critical stop on the late drive in the fourth quarter that helped set up the game-tying touchdown.
- He said it: "When you start knocking some bodies out of there, we’ve got a problem. We have some guys playing inordinate amount of plays, 600-some snaps for some defensive linemen that we should be developing some depth behind them, but they’re all freshmen." -- coach Urban Meyer
- Position: Wide receiver
- Stats sheet: 1 catch for 11 yards
- What it means: Certainly contributing in the Big Ten is a bit more difficult than turning in a productive outing in an exhibition game in the spring, and Thomas has struggled to live up to the hype that accompanied his huge afternoon back in April. But there's not much question about his talent or potential ability to have an impact for the Buckeyes, and while it's only one play, making a grab in conference action and starting to see more responsibility on offense is a sign Thomas might be catching on.
- He said it: "Every day somebody has a chance to make a change. Every day you have opportunities. Every day something flashes across you, a chance that maybe you'll get better -- and we're nonstop around here. I believe that's one of the great things about college football as opposed to the NFL." -- Meyer
- Position: Linebacker/special teams
- Stats sheet: 3 tackles
- What it means: After a five-game drought, Perkins was back to showing up and wreaking some havoc on special teams -- where all of his tackles for the Buckeyes on Saturday. The coaches have pointed to the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder as somebody they have been waiting for to get a grasp on the defense so they can turn him loose at outside linebacker, where he's currently listed behind Perry and could be close to breaking through for some playing time. Obviously given the injuries at that position, Ohio State could certainly use the help.
- He said it: "Right now we’re dealing with a roster that’s around 60, 59 players. Of those 59, not everybody is playing obviously, so the call to arms is still there. Rather disappointed in several handfuls of guys who haven’t contributed, and when you start throwing those kinds of numbers around, that’s why you’re seeing issues on kickoff. ... Some guys have to really step up." -- Meyer
But Ohio State is certainly aware of what happened against Purdue last year, and in some cases the veterans are still stinging from another loss in the series two years before that.
So while the search for retribution doesn't seem nearly as urgent as it did before games against Michigan State and Nebraska earlier this season, the Buckeyes are obviously trying to continue their trend of shutting down losing streaks to Big Ten opponents before they can ever start.
"It’s definitely a chip on our shoulder," cornerback Bradley Roby said. "When you go into a game, it’s like, ‘We lost to these guys last year, we can’t lose to them this year.’
"Especially last year we felt like we should have won the game, so it gives you more of an incentive to go out there and make plays and win the game more dominantly [after] a loss the year before."
Going back nearly a decade, the Buckeyes have used that mindset to consistently battle back in those situations to settle the score -- which they've already done twice this year alone.
Now the Ohio State freshmen just have to stay healthy.
Expected to help fill the void on defense after the loss of senior Etienne Sabino, a handful of young Buckeyes instead had to deal with injuries leading up to last week's trip to Indiana and ultimately didn't make an impact in the 52-49 win.
But the Buckeyes could still use some help from guys like Joshua Perry and Camren Williams, though they appear to have found a short-term fix for their depth issues by moving fullback Zach Boren over to lend a hand on defense. As it turned out, the real impact for the freshman class came up front against the Hoosiers.
- Position: Defensive end
- Stats sheet: Five tackles
- What it means: Pressed into action after Nathan Williams was scratched due to a concussion, Spence had easily the most productive game of his young career against the Hoosiers. The pass-rushing talent didn't make any plays behind the line of scrimmage, but he played with good effort and ran down the ball to limit gains on a handful of short passes by the Hoosiers and could have earned a larger role heading into the stretch run of the season.
- He said it: "The guy that played very well is Noah Spence, so the thing you have to ask yourself, OK, Noah Spence and Nathan Williams play the same position, so let’s have a conversation about that -- and we are. How do you get them both on the field at the same time is the conversation. If they’re the best 11, 4-3, 3-4, whatever, get them on the field. We’re good enough coaches, let’s figure it out. I’m not saying that’s happening, we’re just identifying who the best 11 players are and putting the puzzle together." -- coach Urban Meyer
- Position: Linebacker
- Stats sheet: No tackles
- What it means: The Buckeyes still have Perry listed on the depth chart as the starter in place of Sabino, just like last week before an undisclosed injury kept him from moving into the rotation against the Hoosiers and lending a hand. It may still be too early in the week for the Buckeyes to know for sure if he'll be able to fill in against Purdue, but they could certainly use his blend of size at 6-foot-4 and athleticism to help patch up the defense.
- He said it: "He got hurt on either Tuesday or Wednesday, I want to say Tuesday when the whole shift with Zach went on. ... Josh Perry is also going to be [a contributor] -- we're just dealing with young kids and they have to play better." -- Meyer
- Position: Defensive tackle
- Stats sheet: 1 tackle
- What it means: The 6-2, 295-pound athlete hadn't made a tackle since the season-opening win over Miami (Ohio), but he snapped that streak with a stuff on a fourth-quarter run by the Hoosiers. It's a small sample size of plays, obviously, and it's just one takedown. But getting Schutt some experience on the inside should only help the Buckeyes moving forward given his impressive credentials coming out of high school.
Smash and grab: After flexing its muscles a week ago, Ohio State now gets a crack at the only rushing defense in the Big Ten weaker than the one it carved up in a blowout win over Nebraska.
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Breathing room: The Buckeyes didn't make it through a physical, two-week gauntlet to open conference play unscathed, but they did survive with their perfect record in one piece. The Hoosiers aren't likely to make life nearly as difficult as Nebraska or Michigan State did defensively, but with a few injury concerns and another spread offense coming at it, Ohio State will have to guard against a letdown. The schedule is loaded with the difficult games at the front and the back for the Buckeyes, but if they don't take care of business in the middle stretch, they won't even have a case for the increasing talk about an AP national championship.
Friendly face: The coaches on either sideline go back more than a decade, and the mutual respect between two innovators of the spread offense hasn't faded at all with time or the fact that they're now competing against each other in the same conference. Indiana coach Kevin Wilson was famously once part of a staff at Northwestern that welcomed Urban Meyer to campus to talk some shop, and while the Buckeyes coach obviously has no shortage of ideas of his own, he still hasn't forgotten some of the help he got back when he was at Bowling Green. Their current programs both rank in the top three in the Big Ten in total offense, and there could be plenty of fireworks in Bloomington.
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A senior has been removed from the equation at linebacker for at least three weeks for Ohio State, and it's going to be up to a freshman to fill the void at the second level starting on Saturday at Indiana.
There is no shortage of options with a handful of talented defenders waiting for a chance to contribute, but to this point they've all largely been limited to special teams work. Two of them were given opportunities to show what they could offer in a blowout win against Nebraska with some inconsistent results that reflected their youth, but they both factored in this week's Freshman Focus and could be critical players to watch on the road against the Hoosiers.
- Position: Defensive back/special teams
- Stats sheet: Two tackles
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That might be all Ohio State needs this week.
The loss of Etienne Sabino for at least three games due to a broken bone in his right leg will test the depth at a position that was already perhaps the most inexperienced on the roster. But as the Buckeyes prepare for a trip to Indiana on Saturday, they might be in position to survive for a week without the senior captain given the amount of Nickel they're likely to be playing against a pass-happy offense.
"Tremendous blow," Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. "Very good player ... and we’re going to miss him.
The Buckeyes are going to need at least one of those young guys to contribute in the base personnel package, and Joshua Perry is in line for the start in place of Sabino.
They're also looking for more contributions from guys like David Perkins, Jamal Marcus and Camren Williams, who are much more likely to see action on defense now that the team's third-leading tackler is on the shelf for an extended period of time. But when Ohio State puts an extra defensive back on the field to match up with a passing attack that is throwing for more than 300 yards per game, it will be sticking with its veterans -- even if Shazier just barely counts as one as a sophomore.
"Any time one of your captains goes down, especially a big leader on the team, you need a lot of guys to step up," defensive end John Simon said. "[Sabino] gave a pretty good speech there in the locker room, and he just kind of laid it out for us.
"We’ve got a lot of guys who need to step up this week, and I think we’re starting to prepare for that task and looking forward to it."
Awards talk: Meyer still isn't ready to anoint Braxton Miller as a Heisman Trophy candidate. But the time appears to be getting closer.
The sophomore was named the Davey O'Brien National Quarterback of the Week after another wildly productive outing in a win over Nebraska on Saturday, and his work on the ground over the last two games to open Big Ten action has only strengthened his case as a potential option for Heisman voters at the end of the season.
But Meyer isn't ready to do any campaigning for his guy just yet.
"I don’t think Braxton is a Heisman candidate right now," Meyer said. "I think he’s certainly one to watch, he’s got the ability, but I don’t know who is [a candidate now]. We’re only halfway through the season, in two or three games I think you can start talking about it.
"I’m not talking to Braxton about it. We’re trying to win some games. I think at the right time, he will be a candidate if he continues to play very well."
Bumps and bruises: C.J. Barnett appeared to have a chance to get back on the field since he was in uniform for the win over the Huskers, though his high-ankle sprain again kept him on the sideline.
The Buckeyes might finally be able to turn the safety loose again this week at Indiana.
"Good sign yesterday, he was out there running around," Meyer said. "We need to have him back for obvious reasons."
- Offense: Running back Carlos Hyde (player of the game), fullback Zach Boren, wide receiver Corey "Philly" Brown, left tackle Jack Mewhort, left guard Andrew Norwell, center Corey Linsley
- Defense: Cornerback Bradley Roby and defensive end John Simon (co-players of the game), safety Christian Bryant
- Special teams: Corey "Philly" Brown (player of the game), kicker Drew Basil, Armani Reeves, Zach Domicone, Devan Bogard and Rod Smith