What is Next for Ohio State's Defense? Improving From an Impressive 2016 Campaign With Seven Returning Starters

By Eric Seger on February 16, 2017 at 1:05 pm
How does Ohio State's defense improve from a historic season in 2016?

Much is made — and rightfully so — about the talent Ohio State lost early to the NFL Draft. Especially on defense.

The Buckeyes said goodbye to three defensive backs who still had eligibility remaining when safety Malik Hooker began an onslaught of draft declarations that also included cornerbacks Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore. Raekwon McMillan made it four members gone from a unit that finished sixth in the nation in total defense.

What is perhaps more staggering is how Hooker and Lattimore were both first-year starters and now look like top-10 picks in the 2017 NFL Draft. In fact, they were two of six first-time starters on Luke Fickell's defense in 2016.

The unit actually statistically improved from a terrific 2015 campaign, one that saw stars Darron Lee, Joey Bosa, Vonn Bell, Eli Apple, Adolphus Washington and all Joshua Perry leave school and get drafted. Safety Tyvis Powell also bolted early and even though he didn't hear his name called on draft weekend, first made the Seattle Seahawks 53-man roster and recently was claimed by the Cleveland Browns.

The roster attrition was unlike anything we've ever seen and happened again after Ohio State's 31-0 loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, though not quite on the same scale. The addition of Greg Schiano as co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach ahead of the 2016 season clearly helped despite all the new starters, as the numbers show. Here is a look at Ohio State's three most recent defenses, starting with the unit that helped bring the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship back to Columbus.

Last Three Ohio State Defenses
2014 15 22.0 4th, 26th 342.4 5th, 19th 201.1 6th, 29th 141.3 5th, 34th 45 33 6
2015 13 15.1 2nd, 2nd 311.3 3rd, 9th 184.5 6th, 16th 126.8 7th, 22nd 38 21 4
2016 13 15.5 2nd, 3rd 296.1 2nd, 6th 172.2 2nd, 7th 123.8 4th, 19th 28 27 7

Ohio State's lack of sacks in 2016 is really the only glaring thing from the chart above, at least in comparison to its defensive statistics from the season before. Even still, Tyquan Lewis won Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year for his efforts.

It is also important to remember the Buckeyes played two more games in 2014 as opposed to the last two seasons. That aided its sacks and takeaways totals.

In any event, Ohio State has seven returning starters on its defense as it trudges through winter workouts and toward spring practice. Lewis spurned the NFL to bookend the defensive line yet again with Sam Hubbard, Dre'Mont Jones and Michael Hill. Jayln Holmes could also be considered a starter — Ohio State listed him as such all year on its depth chart.

Jerome Baker and Chris Worley are also back, in addition to safety Damon Webb. Denzel Ward is in line to start at one of the vacant corner positions and was listed as a co-starter with Lattimore for the duration of the 2016 season. But you know who the actual starter was by season's end.

Replacing Fickell will be a significant challenge too. Billy Davis must find someone to fill the massive shoes left behind by McMillan at middle linebacker and continue to recruit and develop talent at the position. What made Fickell so valuable was his connections to high school coaches in Ohio and a penchant for nabbing under the radar talent. Lee and defensive tackle Robert Landers are a pair of names that come to mind in recent memory.

Seven starters back in the fold and a bevy of game-ready talent in the form of the 2017 recruiting class gives Ohio State an opportunity to be great again this fall. That is especially true on defense, as signees Kendall Sheffield, Baron Browning, Shaun Wade, Jeffrey Okudah and Chase Young are particularly sought after players. Marcus Williamson, Isaiah Pryor and Brendon White (if he plays defense) are already on campus.

Whether or not the defense continues its ascension statistically largely depends on the implementation of Davis and if Kerry Coombs can find capable corners to step in for Lattimore and Conley. His track record is pretty stellar at doing so.

But what is noteworthy is that even though Ohio State's defenses the last three years have been more than formidable, they have not ranked as the best in the Big Ten. Larry Johnson's defensive line will lead the way with Hubbard, Lewis, Holmes, Hill, Jones and many, many more all back in the fold with a wide range of experience.

Can it be better in 2017 after back-to-back terrific campaigns? The pieces are certainly in place.

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