Although one should be cautious in drawing too much from a split squad scrimmage where most returning starters were held out, the Spring Game nonetheless provided insight into schematic frameworks and individual position battles. Below I examine the main takeaway from the scrimmage – the Buckeyes' new look defense under Chris Ash.
A Complete Makeover
Anyone who believed that Ash was not brought in to transform the defense was quickly disabused of that notion Saturday. The Buckeye defensive framework was entirely different from last season.
Up front, the defense played a 4-3 under or over to the offense's formation strength. The defensive linemen's roles are altered. Previously, the Buckeye front four played techniques, such as as a one-technique nose guard or three technique defensive tackle. And the defender aligned wherever that technique was called in the front. In practice, that meant that the defensive line would flip sides depending upon the call to play that technique. So for, instance, with an over call the three technique played to the call, while with an under he aligned away from the call.
But the Buckeye defensive coaches have moved away with that model. Now, the Buckeye defensive linemen stay to the left and right side, i.e. a left defensive tackle and right defensive tackle. They will then slide to a technique depending upon the call. So the left defensive tackle may be a three technique one play but a one technique the next. This provides for less specialization but allows the defense to more easily adjust to shifts and motions by the offense. It also fits well with Ohio State's front four personnel, particularly its starting defensive tackles Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington, neither of which are traditional nose guards.
A Flip Flop
As to the second level defenders, the primary change is that the Sam and Will linebacker's roles are flipped.
In Ohio State's 4-3 under defense last season the Sam was a bigger linebacker whose primary role was to jam the tight end and maintain edge support. Now the Sam – where Darron Lee and Chris Worley are competing to start – is a hybrid linebacker/safety position. Against the Buckeye offense's spread formations, the Sam often aligned in space over the slot receiver.
The Will linebacker – manned by Josh Perry – is an in the box player, often aligning in the weak side B gap. Perry played Sam linebacker last year, and his transition from Sam to WIll is perhaps the most concrete example of the flipping of the linebacker roles. The Mike rounds out the linebacking trio, aligning to the strong side B gap.
The linebackers as a unit have expanded duties. Unlike last season, when the Buckeye coaches generally brought in their nickel defender against spread offenses, the Spring Game featured exclusively base defense with three linebackers. This is part of the Buckeyes' plan, and why the Sam position features hybrid players such as Lee.
According to Urban Meyer, when the Buckeyes do utilize nickel it will be with Armani Reeves as a third cornerback. This demonstrates the Buckeye nickel defense is now reserved for pass-heavy down and distances. Ash will entrust his base defense to a wider variety of situations, including against spread to run offenses.
A Seismic Shift
But the secondary is perhaps where the Buckeye defense has undergone the biggest transition. Gone is cover 3 as the base coverage. As surmised, in its place is cover 4. Pre-snap the Buckeyes aligned from a cover 4 shell, and the coverage was utilized on a majority of snaps. To play cover 4, the Buckeyes consistently aligned in press coverage, employing what is known as a a loose man shadow press technique.
When the Buckeyes did not play cover 4, the secondary shifted at the snap to cover 1 robber. One safety would rotate to the middle of the field with the other coming down in man coverage. The Mike or Will filled the underneath zone robber role with the remaining linebackers locked in man.
In sum, the coverage calls fulfilled Meyer and Ash's promise to utilize more aggressive coverage schemes. As a result, the Buckeye defense does not resemble last season's unit. It instead closely resembles a defense that caused difficulty for Meyer's and other team's offenses in recent years – Pat Narduzzi's Michigan State defenses.