11W Football Mailbag: How Will Ohio State Defend USC, What Will Ohio State's 2018 Defense Look Like and Which Buckeyes Will Be Drafted First?

By Dan Hope on December 14, 2017 at 10:10 am
Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker
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While Ohio State is set to play in the Cotton Bowl in just over two weeks, some of you already want to talk about the 2018 season.

So while I received a few questions about the Buckeyes’ matchup with the Trojans for this special edition of the Eleven Warriors Mailbag, I also opened up the floor for questions about next season and for that matter, anything else our readers wanted to ask me about … as long as it was at least somewhat related to Ohio State football.

How will Ohio State defend Sam Darnold, what will the Buckeyes’ defense look like next year and how many steps does it take to connect Ohio State football with Kevin Bacon? I do my best to answer all of those questions, and many more, in our pre-pre-Cotton Bowl football mailbag.


Without doing much research, I think this game (as much as any other game that we've played this year) comes down to whether or not USC can block our D-Line – or at least give Darnold enough time to connect downfield. Is their O-Line athletic enough to keep us out of the backfield, and is Darnold mobile enough to avoid a sack party? I'm betting that the seniors in our front four are looking to go out with a bang. GVerrilli92

Ohio State’s defensive line should have the advantage over USC’s offensive line. That’s not to say that the Trojans don’t have good athletes up front, but that unit has been the weak point of USC’s offense this year – as illustrated by our Kyle Jones in this week’s Film Study – which should enable Ohio State’s talented defensive line to put pressure on Darnold.

That said, USC has allowed only 22 sacks in 13 games this year, and a big reason for that is because Darnold is not only a better athlete than people might realize, but also skilled in knowing when he needs to release the football to avoid sacks. So while I expect the Buckeyes defensive line to create plenty of disruption in the Trojans backfield, and force incomplete passes as a result, Darnold’s pocket awareness and quick release will likely keep the Buckeyes from accumulating a large number of sacks.

Do you think the defense might try to spy Darnold, seeing as he'll likely represent the lion's share of USC's offensive threat?MiamiBuckeye

While Darnold and his ability to pass the ball are USC’s biggest offensive threat, the Trojans also have an excellent running back in Ronald Jones II, who has rushed for 1,486 yards and 18 touchdowns. Additionally, Darnold hasn’t had much success keeping and running the ball himself this season, with only 100 rushing yards. So while the Buckeyes certainly might drop an extra defender into coverage at times because of Darnold’s passing ability – which could, in turn, open running lanes for Jones – I wouldn’t expect the Buckeyes to spy the quarterback. He is athletic enough to extend plays and make plays himself with his feet if he has room to run, but the Buckeyes will have bigger threats to worry about.

What players will benefit the most from the extra bowl practice and will shine in the Cotton Bowl?KiddBuckeye

Our James Grega just published a story this morning on five young players who could benefit most from bowl practices, so I don’t want to steal his thunder. But in regards to players who are likely to see at least some playing time on offense or defense in the Cotton Bowl, one name who comes to mind for me is Rashod Berry, who has shown flashes of brilliance this season but can really benefit from the fundamentals portion of bowl practice as he tries to become a more complete player. Another player who the Buckeyes will need to be at his best in this game, and who could potentially be looking for a big showing to impress NFL scouts: Kendall Sheffield, who has the talent to be Ohio State’s next great cornerback if he sticks around, but is another player who needs continued fundamental development after his season of play at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

The all-important uniform question: I have not seen if Ohio State will wear the scarlet or white.Sword52

Once again, I am going to defer to one of my talented colleagues on this question. While Ohio State is considered to be the home team for this matchup, which means the Buckeyes would presumably wear scarlet, it has not yet been revealed whether the Buckeyes will wear their regular home uniforms, their road whites or one of their alternate looks. I can assure you, however, that our resident uniform expert Andrew Lind will keep Eleven Warriors informed as soon as it is known what the Buckeyes will be wearing in Dallas.

Love this year but already excited to see what next year’s Silver Bullets will look like. Name the starting 11 on defense in 2018.SoulPatrol32

This, of course, depends greatly on which draft-eligible players decide to go pro and which players decide to return, but for the purposes of this question, I’m going to operate under the assumption that Denzel Ward, Sam Hubbard, Dre’Mont Jones and Jerome Baker – the four Buckeyes I believe are most likely to leave early – will declare for the 2018 draft, while every other non-senior will return.

Given that, I’ll project that Nick Bosa and Chase Young will be the 2018 starting defensive ends (with Jonathon Cooper rotating in regularly), while Robert Landers and either Jashon Cornell or Davon Hamilton will start at defensive tackle (with Haskell Garrett, incoming five-star freshman Taron Vincent and others rotating in). Baron Browning likely slides to weakside linebacker with Tuf Borland starting at middle linebacker and Malik Harrison at strongside linebacker. Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield likely begin the year as starting cornerbacks if both return, but Jeffrey Okudah will be a regular in the rotation either way. Isaiah Pryor looks like the top candidate to start alongside Jordan Fuller at safety, though Jaiden Woodbey, Josh Proctor and Tyreke Johnson are all talented enough to push for immediate playing time too as freshmen.

Of the players likely to leave, do you have a prediction as to the first five draft picks and their order? – NOLABuckeye

1. Denzel Ward – Ohio State has had two cornerbacks selected in the top 11 picks of the past two drafts (Eli Apple and Marshon Lattimore), and Ward might be a more highly rated prospect than both of them, considering that Lattimore slid a bit due to injury concerns. I expect Ward to come off the board in the draft’s top 15 picks.

2. Billy Price – Even though Pat Elflein fell to the third round with similar accolades last year (and ended up starting as a rookie nonetheless), I think Price will be graded as a physically superior prospect by scouts and be both a first-round pick and the first center drafted as a result.

3. Sam Hubbard – Hubbard isn’t a Bosa-level prospect as a pass-rusher, but his ability to play the run should impress NFL scouts, while he should also perform well in pre-draft testing. That should be enough to make him a late first-round pick.

4. Dre’Mont Jones – Jones might still only be scratching the surface of how good he can be, but his upside could make him a first-round pick as well, as his physical attributes and demonstrated ability to disrupt plays in the backfield should make him an appealing prospect for both 4-3 defenses as a tackle and 3-4 defenses as an end.

5. Jamarco Jones – I could have gone with either Jerome Baker or Tyquan Lewis here, too, but I think Jones has likely solidified himself as a second- or third-round pick with an excellent senior season at left tackle, one of the toughest positions to draft and a position where it is difficult to find players with multiple seasons of experience with the quality of play Jones has exhibited.

Denzel Ward
Denzel Ward projects as Ohio State's top prospect for the 2018 NFL draft.

Assuming Isaiah Prince sticks around, who do you feel is best suited to take over at the other tackle spot next year?UniotoTank55

I think the most likely candidate to start opposite Prince is Branden Bowen, given that he was considered to be the Buckeyes’ third offensive tackle before his season-ending leg injury. Bowen moved inside to guard so that Ohio State could put its best five offensive linemen on the field this year, and moving him to tackle might be necessary for Ohio State to put its best five on the field next year, with as well as Demetrius Knox has played since replacing Bowen. That said, Thayer Munford has made a big impression in his freshman year and should also make a serious push for a starting spot.

Do Kendall Sheffield and Damon Arnette have legs up on the young guns for starting cornerbacks next year, or will it be an open competition?Gutterwaste

If Sheffield and Arnette both return next season, the starting cornerback jobs will be theirs to lose. With that being said, I’d expect Ohio State to continue with a three-man cornerback rotation next year, and whether he starts or comes off the bench, I absolutely expect Jeffrey Okudah to be a part of that rotation. Like this year, Arnette should continue to kick inside and play the slot in nickel packages, with Sheffield and Okudah on the outside. Should either Arnette or Sheffield leave, however, that could open the door for Marcus Williamson to take over the slot cornerback role. Shaun Wade will also push for playing time outside.

Do you see Malik Harrison possibly transitioning to DE if we are short on numbers going into ‘18? Is it possible Jashon Cornell could be asked to shed 10 pounds and transition back to DE?SoulPatrol32 / Buckeyeclassof18

I combined two questions here, since I received numerous questions about how the Buckeyes could address their projected lack of defensive end depth. I’d be surprised if Harrison moved to defensive end, because he projects better as an athlete in space than as a hand-in-the-dirt pass-rusher, and could be the leading candidate to start at strongside linebacker next year. Moving Cornell to defensive end, though, could be a real possibility.

While I think Cornell would be the leading candidate to replace Dre’Mont Jones at 3-technique defensive tackle if Jones goes pro, the presence of Davon Hamilton, Haskell Garrett, Jerron Cage and three incoming recruits would afford them to make that move if needed. I think it would be preferable to keep Cornell at defensive tackle, but he does look like the strongest candidate to move into the defensive end rotation if the Buckeyes are unable to add a top defensive end to their 2018 recruiting class.

Jashon Cornell (9)
Jashon Cornell (9) is a candidate to move to defensive end next season if the Buckeyes need another player at that position.

Will LB play improve next season, and will Bill Davis be here to oversee it?BuckeyeChief

This is a two-pronged question, and it starts with personnel, because chances are good that the Buckeyes will be losing two starters in Chris Worley and Jerome Baker. Ohio State has plenty of talented young linebackers waiting in the wings for a chance to start – Malik Harrison, Baron Browning, Keandre Jones, Pete Werner and Justin Hilliard among them – but whether the linebackers’ play will improve next year will ultimately depend on how well those players, along with current middle linebacker Tuf Borland, develop from this year to next.

This year’s linebackers’ play set the bar pretty low, especially with their play in coverage, but I can’t confidently say that they will be better knowing that they will be an inexperienced unit next year. That also, of course, depends on coaching, as the linebackers did appear to take a real step back this season with Bill Davis coaching them instead of Luke Fickell. I don’t think Urban Meyer would fire Davis after just one season, so my guess would be that Davis will be back next season unless he gets offered an assistant coaching position in the NFL. I do wonder, though, if Davis could potentially be moved into a different role on staff with the Buckeyes being able to add a 10th assistant coach in January.

Is there any truth to the rumors that Larry Johnson will retire?Reuben

Does this look like a man who is ready to call it a career? In all seriousness, I can’t say for sure that there is no truth to the rumors, but I haven’t heard anything from anyone close to the program that would indicate his retirement is imminent. By all indications, Johnson remains very passionate about coaching defensive linemen, so my perception would be that those rumors have been built up by other teams recruiting against Ohio State. I won’t rule out the possibility, because if he was going to retire, that isn’t something he’d want us to know right now. My expectation, though, is that Johnson will be back with the Buckeyes next season and beyond.

Bowl games, sans the playoff semifinals and the Cotton Bowl … any standing out to you?Hovenaut

I’d be lying if I said I was making plans to watch any of the other bowl games, because to be honest, my interest in the non-playoff bowl games has waned in recent years. I will likely watch the Peach Bowl before the playoff games on New Year’s Day, as I will be interested to see how hard UCF plays – and whether the Knights can spring the upset over Auburn – in one final game with Scott Frost and his outgoing coaching staff. The Thursday night before the Cotton Bowl should present a good slate of games, with three matchups between top-25 teams (Virginia Tech vs. Oklahoma State, Stanford vs. TCU and Washington State vs. Michigan State). I’ll end up turning some of the other games on too, with the realization that football season is nearing its end, but there aren’t any other games I’m circling on my calendar.

What is Kevin Bacon's Six Degrees of Separation from Ohio State Football?JohnnyKozmo

JohnnyKozmo probably thought I’d skip this question, but I do like a fun challenge, so even though I know very little about movies (I couldn’t have named one movie starring Kevin Bacon before starting this exercise), here’s a few I came up with (with the help of IMDb):

  • Ohio State safety Jordan Fuller’s mom is Cindy Mizelle, who provided character vocals for the movie "Anastasia," which starred Meg Ryan, who was in the movie "In the Cut" with Kevin Bacon.
  • Former Ohio State running back Eddie George was in the movie "The Game Plan" with Kyra Sedgwick, who has not only been in multiple movies with but is married to Kevin Bacon.
  • Former Ohio State running back Maurice Hall was in the movie "A Date to Die For" with Jennifer Taylor, who was in the movie "Wild Things" with Kevin Bacon.

And that, while hopefully encouraging you all to come up with your own links between Kevin Bacon and Ohio State football, seems like a good note on which to end this edition of the Eleven Warriors Mailbag.

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