Youth has been shunned for decades, centuries even. In all walks of life, experience and a higher number in the age column is often thought to be an advantage. That line of thinking has become antiquated, though, as a youth movement has taken hold in the sports world.
Major League Baseball’s postseason has already been a showcase for rookies, and the World Series is still more than a week away. The young NFL season has seen first- and second-year players not only become impact players but among the elite in the league. Youth has also been served in Columbus.
Entering the season, a premium was put on Ohio State’s upperclassmen, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The unit was replacing its entire line and two of three starting linebackers were raw. That put the onus on a secondary filled with returning starters who doubled as some of the most veteran players in Scarlet and Gray.
But the D-line carried the defense in the first six games as the secondary languished. Football’s evolution to a pass-happy game has contributed to the “alarming” play, as Urban Meyer referred to it, by the likes of Bradley Roby, C.J. Barnett and the now-injured Christian Bryant. It’s been no fault of the line having an inability to apply pressure on quarterbacks.
At the midway point of the season, the Buckeyes have 16 sacks, including seven against ranked opponents. Sophomore Noah Spence leads the team with three sacks and true freshman Joey Bosa is just one spot back. Another underclassmen, sophomore defensive end Adolphus Washington, has 1.5 tackles for loss.
Together, these three defensive linemen have turned an inexperienced line into one of the top units on the nation’s fourth-ranked team.
The first challenge came against Wisconsin, when a two-headed monster backfield that was averaging 350 yards rushing was limited to just over 100. After allowing 20 first-half points the next week at Northwestern, the defense, most notably the defensive line, limited the Wildcats to 10 points and two third-down conversations after halftime.
Rank inside the top 10 in stopping opponents on third down – Ohio State does – and you’re going to win a lot of football games. The Buckeyes do that, too. After all, they’re winners of their past 18 games and counting.
“The ability of our guys up front to pin their ears back and get the pass rush, we’ve got a multitude of guys that can mix in there and do a good job of it,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said.
At the heart of it is Bosa, a fantastic freshman who’s quickly becoming a household name. Meyer called Bosa the starter – with emphasis – last week.
“He’s a starting defensive lineman as a true freshman at Ohio State, which is quite a mouthful,” Meyer said. Bosa subbed for Washington in September after the latter suffered a groin injury. He’s almost Wally Pipp’ed him with stout performances turning into a constant.
In the dozen years Meyer has been a head coach, he said he’s never witnessed a freshman become such a dominating force on the defensive line.
Said Fickell: “[Bosa] is very mature beyond his years, both physically and mentally. A lot of things don’t rattle him, whether it’s a big stage or different situations. He’s a kid who has come a long ways, but it wasn’t like when he walked through these doors, he wasn’t built and ready to go.”
The SEC’s seven consecutive national championships – two won by Meyer – have been spearheaded by strong defensive line play. It was a big goal of Meyer’s from Day 1 at Ohio State. Mission accomplished.
Mike Vrabel said the work began in the spring and everyone is now seeing countless hours of technique and film study come to fruition. The Buckeyes rank seventh nationally in rush defense, allowing less than 90 yards per game.
Spence has been in the backfield as frequently as Carlos Hyde and Jordan Hall. He ranks sixth in the Big Ten in tackles for loss and his sack total is fourth best. On Saturday, the ever-maturing line welcomes back sophomore Tommy Schutt, which only strengthens the burgeoning front four.
Not to be left out are linebackers Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry – and Dontre Wilson and Cameron Johnston. Grant is an experienced junior who’s finally beginning to live up to immense hype that followed him to Ohio State after being the No. 2 recruit in the country. Perry, a sophomore, has steadily progressed from Game 1 to Game 6.
“His future is kind of silly around here if he keeps going.”
Depth and production along the front seven is just as surprising as the lack of success with the pass defense. But Fickell sees all 11 as one, not an adequate front seven and questionable back four.
“We all work together,” he said. “The reality is that with a young front seven we put a lot of heat on our back end. Maybe that comes with some of the territory and the situations, and that’s why some of the yards are up where they are.”
Still, it’s Bosa who continues to turn heads around these parts.
“He’s an impact player,” Meyer said. “His future is kind of silly around here if he keeps going. He’s just so strong. He torques people.”
Bosa’s response to the hoopla is quite simple, really. He may have come to Ohio State as a five-star recruit with football bloodlines reminiscent of the Adams and Kennedys. But his approach is as simple as young apprentice.
“I didn't really have any expectations,” Bosa said. “I just go out and work. I do what I can do, and when I get the opportunity, then go in and make an impact.”