How do you prepare for an offense without knowing what it will look like?
That’s a challenge the Ohio State defense has faced as it prepares for Thursday’s season opener at Indiana.
While much has been made of the impending changes to Ohio State’s offense, with former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson entering his first game as the Buckeyes’ offensive coordinator, the Hoosiers also enter their first game with a new offensive coordinator in Mike DeBord.
So while the Buckeyes play the Hoosiers every year, and are familiar with many of their offensive players (while there’s also a coach on staff who knows them as well as anyone), they haven’t seen the Hoosiers’ new offensive scheme – not even on game film.
The Buckeyes say they have watched Indiana’s spring game to get a glimpse of the Hoosiers’ personnel in DeBord’s offense, but coaches typically don’t show much of their playbook in a spring game. So the Buckeyes have also been watching game tape from Tennessee, where DeBord was offensive coordinator for the past two seasons, to get a feel for what his scheme and tendencies might be.
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"It’s kind of tricky," Ohio State defensive end Jalyn Holmes said of preparing for Indiana’s new offense. "You just try to look at the school that the coach came from, and just look at tendencies more than personnel. I can’t study Tennessee’s players, but I can study the plays they ran."
The consensus opinion among Ohio State’s five defensive captains, each of whom met with the media Monday, is that DeBord’s offense at Tennessee was similar to what Indiana ran last year with Wilson as head coach and Kevin Johns as offensive coordinator.
"I’d say it’s basically like same, almost exactly the same," said defensive end Tyquan Lewis. "Identical schemes. Fast tempo, lot of screens, quick game, RPOs, just different things like that."
The Buckeyes know Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow is a pocket passer who is talented throwing the ball downfield but is not much of a threat to run, so they can prepare for that. They expect the Hoosiers to continue to play with tempo, even though Wilson is now in Ohio State’s locker room, and they expect Lagow to look to get the ball out of his hand quickly.
Even so, it’s hard to predict exactly what DeBord’s offense at Indiana will look like. The Hoosiers’ offensive coaching staff, which has no holdovers from last year’s offensive staff, includes coaches who came to Indiana from four different schools, each of whom could bring their own elements to the offensive scheme. DeBord has also likely changed his offense to better suit the personnel he inherited at Indiana versus the personnel he had at Tennessee.
"You look at who the offensive staff is, who the offensive coordinator is, you kind of start your investigation there, but you try to gather whatever you can and then you hope that your defense is adaptable to whatever comes up on the night on the game," Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said last week. "What they did at other places was with different people. So you may not do those same things, depending on if your people are like or not."
With all the unknowns surrounding Indiana’s offense, Ohio State’s defense has had to prepare for a wide variety of possible plays and formations.
"They can throw anything at us, and we’re not really sure what we’re going to get, so we’re preparing for everything," said defensive end Sam Hubbard.
The challenge of preparing for a new offense isn’t limited to Ohio State in Thursday’s game. While Indiana’s returning defensive players and coaching staff have firsthand insight into Wilson’s schematic preferences and play calling tendencies from his time as their head coach, they won’t know exactly how Wilson will have changed his scheme to adapt to Ohio State’s personnel.
Even if their first opponent had a returning offensive coordinator, the Buckeyes’ defenders would have to be prepared for new wrinkles and schematic changes from the season before. So they know they will have to make adjustments once the game begins.
"First game of the season, you really don’t know what you’re going to get, so you really just got to go out there and play," said defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle.
Ohio State’s defenders are confident, though, that they will be up to the challenge.
"We’re going to be ready for a lot of different things, and it comes down to playing fast," Hubbard said.