How Much Could Ohio State's Defense Improve in 2014?

By Vico on January 9, 2014 at 11:30a
Tyvis Powell walks off the field after the 2014 Orange Bowl

For losing only two games in the last two years combined, Urban Meyer's tenure at Ohio State may be best characterized by missed opportunities. Meyer's first season in 2012 is inexorably connected to the scandal of the two seasons before it. Ineligible to compete in the postseason, a solid-to-great Ohio State football team missed opportunities to wax Nebraska again in the Big Ten Championship Game and demolish Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game.

Fans may object that is undue bravado for a team that was arguably not as good as Alabama, but I don't think it that much of an inferential leap, given how the Big Ten Championship Game and BCS National Championship Game unfolded in Ohio State's absence.

The missed opportunity in 2013 hangs largely on Ohio State's defense. Despite having comparably meek schedules through the regular season, Florida State got a pass through November and the first week of December by passing every qualitative and quantitative eye test that Ohio State could not. Florida State complemented a very good offense with a great defense, which finished third in the country in total defense (281.4 yards per game). It won its first 13 games by no fewer than two touchdowns for it.

Ohio State, meanwhile, needed a very good offense to bail out a porous, unsound defense best known for conceding career bests to several players of the opposition in its final three games. The worst of it was Ohio State's pass defense, which finished 112th in the country (268.0 yards per game). It conceded just 13 yards less a game than Florida State did overall. Ohio State's total defense conceded 377.4 yards per game, which finished 47th in the country.

Ohio State loses several key contributors from the offense, most notably almost the entirety of the offensive line, but the pressing question involves this defense. Could it improve in 2014? The short answer is that it must. Could it, though? In what follows, I offer some preliminary comments about Ohio State's 2014 defense and what fans may expect from the unit in the next season.

Ohio State fans are rightly fixated on the issue of the pass defense. After all, glaring and fundamental errors by Ohio State's back seven resulted in Devin Gardner having a career day against Ohio State's defense while playing on one foot.

Similar errors resulted in Connor Cook having a career day, including that first Michigan State touchdown made possible by an almost unforgivable error in judgment by Corey Brown. It then followed that game by making sure Sammy Watkins' signing bonus will be a nice, fat check.

However, Ohio State's rush defense was quite good. Ohio State's 2013 team had the no. 9 rush defense in the country, conceding only 109.4 yards per contest. There is an essential "game theoretic" qualifier that may need to be said here. Namely, teams may have been reticent to run the ball against Ohio State because the skies were open for safe travel against the Ohio State secondary.

While true in some measure, this does a disservice to Ohio State's ability to plug gaps in running lanes. Ohio State's defense was rushed against 466 times for 3.29 yards per carry, though these statistics would not exclude sacks and TFLs. The rushes against statistic is around the national average and the yards per carry statistic was 12th best in the country. Ohio State's defense was stout against the run, and it was not for lack of effort by the opposition. Ohio State's defensive line played with active, "violent" hands and Ryan Shazier was much better in run support than he was in 2012.

Adolphus Wshington and Joey Bosa during the Orange BowlWashington and Bosa should be excellent in 2014.

The good news is that Ohio State fans can expect the Buckeyes to be comparably good against the run. A lot of that will be on the defensive line. Joey Bosa, the break-out star from the defense, returns for a sophomore season after collecting Freshman All-American honors. Noah Spence will return after a two-game hiatus. Adolphus Washington, Jamal Marcus, Tommy Schutt, and Joel Hale return as well.

Really, every defensive linemen returns in 2014, which may only be complemented by the addition of freshmen and, perhaps, the maturity and development of a unique player like Chris Carter. Carter showed some flashes as a red zone defensive lineman.

The departure of Ryan Shazier to the NFL Draft will raise questions for the run defense in 2014. By the end of the regular season, Shazier had become a TFL machine that will be hard to replicate with the returning linebackers and incoming freshmen.

That said, questions about players like Josh Perry, Curtis Grant, and Camren Williams in 2013 did not seem to focus on their ability to stop the run, more on their susceptibility in play-action and in coverage, more generally. Those may sadly persist in 2014, but I don't believe Ohio State's rush defense will be that much worse for the wear in Shazier's absence.

The bigger problem will be Ohio State's pass defense. By some important measures, bad may just get worse in 2014. Ohio State lost its only competent safety to a season-ending injury in the tail-end of the Wisconsin game. It lost its best defensive back and only quality cornerback to the NFL Draft, even if Roby was not healthy enough to finish his career in the Orange Bowl. While Ohio State fans will not miss what Everett Withers did with the unit in 2013, adding a new safety coach, and likely co-defensive coordinator, may just invite more growing pains for a young unit already plagued with them.

One issue that will need to be ironed out is beyond just the returning personnel. Ohio State's defense lacked a coherent identity, something for which our own Ross Fulton has already elaborated extensively. The drift in philosophies from 2012 to 2013 between Cover 3 and Cover 4, with alternating force responsibilities characterizes a defensive game plan without a coherent identity and a defense ill-suited to adapt quickly to what opposing offenses threw at it. Whether the departure of Everett Withers and arrival of a new safety coach exacerbates this problem or ameliorates it will be a critical question for Ohio State fans to ask of Urban Meyer entering his third year in Columbus.

Technique issues frustrated Ohio State fans to no end. Ohio State fans had grown accustomed to moaning at Josh Perry or Curtis Grant for their lack of coverage awareness and lack of depth on zone drops. By season's end, we were bemoaning Doran Grant's inability to turn his head around and locate a ball in mid-air. That, perhaps more than anything else that Grant was doing, drew flags from officials in Ohio State's final two games. That's in large part what officials are monitoring when their hand reaches for their yellow flag. These are also questions to ask of Luke Fickell and Kerry Coombs in their duties as position coaches.

With all that in mind, could we actually see improvement from Ohio State's secondary in 2014? At 112th in the country of 125 teams, it is really difficult to say that the pass defense could go anywhere but up. Perhaps losing Withers to an FCS coaching gig may be addition by subtraction. This statement could also be afforded to the graduation of a player like Corey Brown.

As long as Urban Meyer and his defensive staff are fully aware of the extent of the problems, faith in the ability to correct them may be warranted. After all, Ohio State is already stout against the run, which is a foundation of just about every opposing offense both in the league and across the country.

Further, Ohio State's youth movement in the secondary may pay dividends in 2014. Guys like Doran Grant, Tyvis Powell, and Armani Reeves were inexperienced players or underclassmen. Vonn Bell showed some flashes in the Orange Bowl, even if playing Sammy Watkins on occasion with no help from a linebacker redirect was an unfair trial by fire for him.

I'm also very optimistic about a player like Eli Apple, who was one of the better freshmen defenders in fall camp. However, Ohio State's coaching staff felt comfortable redshirting him in 2013 in anticipation of what he could start contributing in 2014.

To answer the motivating question, could Ohio State's defense improve in 2014, especially its pass defense? The issues are multiple and difficult. Losing Withers should be a necessary step in the right direction, but it speaks to the magnitude of challenges left in the wake of the 2013 season. While the projection is uncertain, an answer of "yes" is not inconceivable. Ohio State's run defense already serves as a solid foundation on which to build a defense in college football. Youth, inexperience, and poor recruiting returns can be corrected from one season to the next.

While Michigan State's defense in 2013 was the gold standard for all college football, it too had a similar situation between 2009 and 2011. Michigan State's defense in 2009 was comically bad, averaging 380 yards per game (73rd nationally) to the opposition. This was capped by a 2010 Alamo Bowl against Texas Tech in which the Spartan defenders played as if they were chickens with their heads severed. In 2010's Big Ten championship season, this improved to 353 yards per game (43rd nationally). In 2011, Michigan State was 6th nationally in total defense, conceding only 277 yards per game. Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State's celebrated defensive coordinator and current Broyles Award winner, was there for all this.

That Ohio State could enjoy a similar trajectory starting in 2014 is not necessarily out of the question.


Comments Show All Comments

Thomas's picture

Not sure we could go anywhere but up. With the athletes that have been put in place, the future looks very, very bright.

RufusVonDufus's picture

The only thing that could screw these young talented defensive kids up would be the coaches as we have already seen.


Thomas's picture

I agree, don't think think Urban will let the defense look as inept as they have for another year. If the defense doesn't improve, no more blaming the defensive coaches. At that point you have to point the finger at the HC. Like I said, I don't think Urban will let that happen.

OhioSlim2014's picture

I agree we have alot of young talent coming in, guys that are willing to play and make a great impact on defense. Bosa will definitely step up and be a leader. Bell will be a huge step in the right direction with our secondary.

You can have the pain of discipline, or the pain of regret. Take your pick. -Urban Meyer

Hovenaut's picture

Excellent overall look at what may come on "that side of the ball".
I'm fine with the guys in the trenches - there's enough depth, talent and experience with proven results there.
There's talent and depth (now at linebacker) in the back seven, but lacking in experience and, ahem, defending the pass.
I'm hopeful we get the results we so desperately are looking for there. Aside from the coaching and performance aspect, it's going to be important the units find a way to get on the same page chemistry-wise.
There's no replacing RDS or Christian Bryant, but the Buckeyes are going to need folks to step into leadership roles in the LB and DB units as well.

dubjayfootball90's picture

ets hope we have a similar, yet faster rising trajectory that was MSU experienced during that three year stretch.

You can feed a bobcat all the chili it wants. That don't mean it's going to crap out diamonds.

brylee's picture

nice write up...

buckskin's picture

We have the change to be very good, my issue is with the talent evaluation.  Von Bell was obviously better for one game in all facets of the game except maybe leadership.  Who else is standing on the sidelines that is much better on the field?  Apple, Conley, Burrows, maybe, and this is just the dbs.  Urban needs to be held more accountable this upcoming year if we don't see marked improvement.  Either get more involved with the D, or find someome you can trust to teach an aggressive, dicplined, and fundamentally sound defense.  I know I do not was to hear we need to get better every week from the coaches again.  Lets get back to that historically great Buckeye D again.

Hoody Wayes's picture

Better tackling, maybe?

ziplock007's picture

Bravo on the graphic...

buckeyepastor's picture

I think with Apple, and maybe also with Bell, holding them out of more playing time or red-shirting them might have had to do with their positions on the field.  Playing corner and safety, coverage in general, is so much about confidence.  I think Eli Apple in 2013 might have contributed and shown flashes, but would have also had some really confidence-shakinig moments.   In 2014, he's likely in a better place in terms of his physical and mental development to handle those occurrences.   As for Vonn Bell, likely a light came on late in the season (as it should happen).   
I hope that Meyer's mindset is not set on the last two years.  It was a great run, but I'm done with hearing about this team as one that has won 24 out of 26.  They are now a team that has lost their last two games.   I think that's the truth that they need to face as they go into 2014.   
I like where the defense is headed.  Looking forward to hearing who Meyer taps to replace Withers.   
Any thoughts from 11W on the best candidates for that?   

"Woody would have wanted it that way" 

Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

If the fundamentals improve, the defense will improve drastically.  I believe the defense will improve, it's as simple as better tackling, and know/maintain your position in the defense.  Those two thing alone with allow this defense to be in the top 50.

Read my entire screen name....

740Bucks's picture

Coaching staff admitted that they probably red-shirted too many. My assumption that it was the youngsters on Defense... future is looking bright!
There is nobody more Buckeye than Luke Fickell - but something needs to change even if it's reassigning some responsibility.
On a side note - I LOVE Buckeye basketball... but man do I already miss football

"My idea of a good hit is when the guy wakes up on the sidelines with train whistles blowing in his head." - Jack Tatum

jamesrbrown322's picture

I am really looking forward to some of the positions battles. From what was seen of Mike Mitchell in H.S., I think he can be very good very early. He and Trey Johnson, along with the incoming freshmen, especially McMillan and Booker, should see the field for significant time this year. And perhaps, perhaps, it finally all comes together for Curtis Grant, once rated as the best LB in the nation coming out of H.S.
The same can be said of the defensive backfield where guys like Gareon Conley and Jayme Thompson have gone virtually unmentioned by anyone during the season and looking towards next year. If you believe in recruiting rankings, they have talent AND depth at DB from the last 2 recruiting cycles (including the incoming freshmen). However, what they do not have is a great deal of experience, at least not positive experience anyway.
I foresee a defensive backfield, and overall unit, that gets better as the season wears on, but may cost them a game or two with a big mistake/gamble that springs from inexperience. You never know though...remember when no one thought they could recover from the offensive exodus of the 1995 and 2007 teams...thos seasons turned out pretty well, and they included incorporating a new starting QB, which OSU assumedly will not have to do.
Either way, Meyer and Co. are recruiting nationally again, and actually getting very good players from the areas of the country that produce elite athletes. It will only be a matter of time before they are playing for national titles again, with only 2 opponents that could prevent it from happening - perception and maybe, maybe, Mich St.

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." - Winston Churchill

Barnsey69's picture

"arrival of a new safety coach exacerbates this problem or ameliorates it"
Ok, is it me, or does anyone else hear Mike Tyson using these words to describe something out of context at some future public speaking engagement?
Great write-up sir!
*Goes to Google Dictionary to look up "ameliorates"*

Thank the Maker that I was born in Ohio, cradle of coaches, US Presidents, confederate-stomping Generals, and home of The Ohio State University Football Buckeyes- 2014 UNDISPUTED National Champions!

andretolstoy's picture

We don't hear this part of the Narduzzi - myth much. Coach Narduzzi came aboard in '07, I wonder if MSU fans wanted his head in 2009?
While Michigan State's defense in 2013 was the gold standard for all college football, it too had a similar situation between 2009 and 2011. Michigan State's defense in 2009 was comically bad, averaging 380 yards per game (73rd nationally) to the opposition. This was capped by a 2010 Alamo Bowl against Texas Tech in which the Spartan defenders played as if they were chickens with their heads severed. In 2010's Big Ten championship season, this improved to 353 yards per game (43rd nationally). In 2011, Michigan State was 6th nationally in total defense, conceding only 277 yards per game. Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State's celebrated defensive coordinator and current Broyles Award winner, was there for all this.

mobboss1984's picture

I think the lost of Withers was a small part of the problem. I think we need a more aggressive defensive coordinator in general. We have talent everywhere on this team and some lock down corners ready for the big game. Mike Mitchell will be ready this year guaranteed and Trey Johnson as well. Vonn Bell will be a star next year, also we get a big hitter back in devin Bogard. So many weapons I haven't mentioned will also be ready next year after sitting out. With a new scheme we will be dangerous.

Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.
Bruce Lee

Bamabucknut's picture

If we don't replace some of our defensive coaches ....NOW......we should expect the same defensive failures we have been experiencing for the last THREE years.
Meyer turned around the "clown show"  he hasn't "fixed"  our clueless defensive backfield coaching and Fickell in particular.
We have been recruiting talent more highly rated than most teams.....we don't have great backfield coaches and great defensive play calling.

Mella's picture

I really think you will begin to see improvement on D as more and more of Urban's commits begin to see the field.  Besides Roby, Shazier, and Bryant the talent just wasn't there this year in the secondary and lb's.  Tressel's last two recruiting classes on defense were crap.  You also need to have one D-Coordinator calling the shots.

jamesrbrown322's picture

I agree. I think he should get a shot at being the only DC. Too much blame gets laid on Fickell, and granted he shoulders a lot of it, as co-DC. However, the talent level has not been that great in the back 7, and IMO mistakes were made using RS on Mitchell, Apple, and Conley.
I think the D next year will be much like 1995, 1997, and 2004, "bend don't break," on the verge of greatness. Then, in 2015, I really think they'll be back to the Silver Bullets we all know and love...hopefully sooner.

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." - Winston Churchill

FLAMikey's picture

The CB's looked every bit as inept/lost/confused/addled as the safeties. How can we trust that the young CB studs can be coached to stardom by Kerry Coombs? We may not like the scheme, but the corners should have (independent of scheme) demonstrated solid fundamentals and they have not in two seasons.

Ethos's picture

haha, i can't wait to the see the comments on here when he promotes Luke to DC and just hires a defensive backs coach under him thus eliminating the co-D thing. 

"I spent 90 percent of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted." - George Best

Furious George 27's picture

There is no such thing as a "CO" DC, because ultimately someone was making the final call when it mattered. My guess is Withers had the final say and therefore is why he is leaving for JMU. I think Fickell is in title only out of respect

Yeah, well…that’s just like, your opinion, man.

vitaminB's picture

Connor Cook lit up Stanford as well, he just might be a pretty good QB after all.  Not saying that bails out the defense, just something think about.  I also think that if Roby plays against Watkins that game would have played out a little different as well.

Ethos's picture

corner blitzes would of worked with Roby in, boy is fast.  HE is going to be a great nfl player.

"I spent 90 percent of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted." - George Best

Mella's picture

Guys like Curtis Grant, Josh Perry, and Doran Grant had better be working their tale's off this offseason because these RS Frosh and True Frosh coming in like McMillan, Mitchell, Lattimore, and Erik Smith(looked like a stud in the Army All American Game) are the real deal.  The key for the secondary is to be able to have the enough studs out there to play man coverage.  When you have to play zone coverage all the time your at a disadvantage.

JLP36's picture

There are a lot of good players that most any team would love to have.  Maybe the D coaches need to think about getting a set of players on the field that can wreak havoc, then matching a scheme to what they have instead of fitting guys into their scheme.  That seems to lead to a lot of good players standing on the sideline all of the time.
Just as important:  Fundamentals and Technique.  Get off blocks.  Make tackles.  Find the ball.  Break to the ball.  For years our LBs were rock solid at worst and our DBs tackled like lightening strikes.  Got to get back to that or no scheme will work, especially the dumb ass passive ones employed of late.



It's simple, the D will be improved if the following happens:
1. Pass rush improves a little more (takes pressure off secondary). Would love to see Spence, Marcus and Bosa with double digit sacks and TFLs next year.
2. Corners and safeties stop blowing coverages in the zone and get better at going 1-on-1 vs. receivers
3. LBs start altering receiver routes. Hoping Trey can do this in place of RDS. Grant and Perry too.
4. Safeties can consistently break up those damned flash screens
Seems like a tall order but really, our safeties and LBs getting better will take care of a big part of it. I think the DL is going to be freaking awesome next season.

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

NeilAve's picture

this seems like a silly question. it can't get much worse. I hope the new D coordinator only has to answer to meyer and fickel is essentially a position coach. Guy is a true OSU man but we aren't playing midget football here where feelings are important. we need to win and his D isn't the answer

Jbucks's picture

not worried bout getting run on at all, our D-Line & LB's even without Shazier should stop the run, Mike Abusement Park Mitchell, Trey Johnson, Kwon, Booker, Perry all have the Potential to shine in the future. As for the 2ndary coaching is all we need!!! We have the talent, speed, size to be physical on tge back end of defense.

Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it-John 1:5 SEC meet Ohio State, Ohio State meet SEC

BenArazi4's picture

Tyvis Powell is very, very underrated.  This defense next season should be pretty damn good if Fickell somehow starts using his brain.




tcm1968's picture

Professional and college sports history is riddled with talented teams of athletes who don't produce because of poor coaching. Anyone who has watched tape on Withers at NC knows he wasn't in charge the past two seasons. Luke ran the ship. 
The fact that rumors are swirling that Urban is looking at defensive back coaches with NO play-calling experience tells me two things. Fickell is gone and we don't know it yet and a new DC will be named. Or tat-gate is the gift that keeps on giving and Luke was granted 100% job security until his contract expires after next season ( April 2015 ).
No coach survives two seasons of spear-heading the worst defenses in school history unless they have it in their contract that they are not fire-able. Nothing else makes sense at the point.

sivaDavis's picture

They already came out and said Fickell was making the calls and scheme changes. If you check out the article someone posted on 11W, Withers likes an aggressive, press coverage style defense. Total opposite of what we saw this year. Fickell needs to go back to just coaching LB's. He is a great LB coach but a terrible defensive coordinator. Vance Joseph please?

"I've had smarter people around me all my life, but I haven't run into one yet that can outwork me. And if they can't outwork you, then smarts aren't going to do them much good." - Woody Hayes

analyticalguy's picture

I think that a most important step is hiring one top-notch defensive secondary coach.  I've checked around, and that's what other college teams seem to have (or at least those with top-notch defenses), rather than a safeties coach and a cornerbacks coach. That also solves the problem of Coombs' not getting the job done with cornerbacks. 
I get the impression that Meyer wanted Coombs on staff for recruiting and motivational reasons, and carved out "cornerbacks" as a responsibility to give him a position group, and to try to help out Withers in the backfield.  I don't think it worked.  Leave Coombs as special teams coach (we did see improvement in this area with him in charge).  Perhaps give him some other title-responsibilities ("recruiting coordinator" is a title many college teams give to a coach; or perhaps a co-position coach).  Let him be a coach "at large" as a motivator.
Although there have seemingly been problems at linebacker of late, Fickell really has shown in the past that he can produce good ones.  He has some new materials to work with.  He should stay to work with these young players.
Defensive coordinator?  Was Fickell in over his head, or were there problems with a scheme negotiated between him and a "co-" that could be ironed out by placing responsibility in one person's hands.  Even if he was calling the plays, perhaps he was limited in what he felt comfortable calling by a dysfunctional defensive backfield.  If this is what Meyer sees from the inside, then perhaps Fickell staying as sole DC may work.  If not, then the new defensive backfield coach need to be someone who can be THE defensive coordinator, even if Fickell retains a "co-" title.  He's been a loyal Buckeye.  
I think the BIG issue is fixing the defensive backfield, under one first-rate defensive backfield coach.  Whoever is then DC then has a chance to succeed.

Buckeye58's picture

It is never a good situation for there to be "co" anything on a coaching staff. My opinion, we will never develop a clear identity until there is one person in charge. It was obvious for the past two years the players were suffering "paralysis by analysis". Look at how we performed in 2011 when obviously we had a very unsettled situation as team overall but the defense seemed to play well.

AKA Li'l Woody