After a Bounceback 2019 Season in Limiting Big Plays, Ohio State's Defense Looks to Make It a Trend in 2020

By Chris Lauderback on October 8, 2020 at 10:10 am
Pete Werner and Josh Proctor look to keep Ohio State's defensive momentum in reducing the opponent's big gainers.

Under the guidance of Greg Schiano, Alex Grinch, Billy Davis and Taver Johnson, Ohio State's 2018 defense was an abomination in a host of metrics. 

Average yards per carry allowed (4.52 - worst in school history), rushing touchdowns surrendered (26 - most in school history and more than the OSU offense tallied) and total defense (No. 71 nationally - 403.4) were a few such measuring sticks. 

The most frustrating thing to watch however was the rate at which the 2018 defense yielded big plays. 

The group ranked No. 95 nationally allowing 67 plays of 20+ yards, No. 118 in plays allowed of 30+ yards (39), and 119th plays of 40 or more yards (23). 

Believing the level of talent on the roster wasn't the issue, Ryan Day's 2019 defensive staff didn't include assistant coaching names Schiano, Grinch, Davis and Taver Johnson. Instead, Jeff Hafley, Greg Mattison, Al Washington and Matt Barnes joined the fray alongside mainstay Larry Johnson. 

Featuring a simplified approach, particularly at linebacker, and a predominantly single-high safety look with more zone coverages, Ohio State improved dramatically in just about every metric, including limiting gash plays. 

The Buckeyes gave up the 7th-fewest plays of 10+ yards, ranked No. 12 in 20+ yards plays allowed (44) and just 16 plays of at least 30 yards, good for No. 5 in the country. 

With the focus on assignment football and improved tackling, the reduction in big gainers vaulted Ohio State to No. 1 in the land in total defense with 259.7 yards allowed per game, a 143.7-yard improvement over 2018. 

This fall, the defense hopes to again limit big plays, making teams earn their way down the field. 

Doing exactly that will prove a new challenge with the departures of Hafley and stellar performers in Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette, Malik Harrison, Jordan Fuller and some big guys along the interior defensive line in DaVon Hamilton, Robert Landers and Jashon Cornell. 

Harrison led Ohio State's resurgent defense in tackles from his WILL linebacker spot and now it sounds like Pete Werner will shift from his SAM spot to fill Harrison's shoes. As our own Kyle Jones broke down earlier this week, that means Werner's ability to shed blocks from interior offensive linemen, reading keys and continuing his stellar pass coverage, now more likely of running backs than tight ends, will be critical if he's to do his part in keeping opposing offenses in check. 

I'm bullish on Werner being up to the task after he showed great versatility a year ago while finishing second on the team with 64 stops. 

Of course, keeping linemen off the linebackers so they are free to make plays is a huge factor in reducing big gainers and with the loss of Hamilton, Landers and Cornell, it would be fair to have some level of concern with the state of the interior defensive line.

Beyond those losses, redshirt sophomore Taron Vincent has battled a shoulder injury for what seems like forever. Johnson said yesterday he expects Vincent back by the season opener but will he be 100%? Ohio State is also counting on Haskell Garrett to provide rotational depth but the senior hasn't been cleared for contact following being shot in the freaking face on August 30. 

Those realities place a ton of pressure on junior nose tackle Tommy Togiai to blossom like we saw with Hamilton last year and for probable starting 3-technique Antwaun Jackson to answer the bell as a fifth-year senior. Even young guys like Ty Hamilton and Jaden McKenzie could be forced into bigger roles than anticipated, along with senior Jerron Cage, if Garrett and Vincent are out even longer than expected. It would not be a great situation if Ohio State's interior defensive line becomes its Achilles heel. 

The secondary was also virtually gutted with Okudah, Arnette and Fuller off to the NFL. Okudah barely allowed completions, let alone big plays, and Arnette certainly held up his end as a No. 2 corner. 

Talent still abounds especially with Shaun Wade's proven ability but there's no guarantee names like Sevyn Banks, Cameron Brown and Marcus Williamson can avoid a noticeable drop off in limiting big plays, not just through the air but also in run support when called upon. 

The less-heralded Fuller was often the literal last line of defense as Hafley went single-high safety frequently and while he wasn't the playmaker many wanted him to be, that wasn't his role. 

Instead, he was a steady, sure-tackler (62 stops, 3rd on the team) logging a unit-high 746 snaps and acting as a security blanket for the 10 guys in front of him. His importance to the defense's improvement in limiting big plays cannot be overstated. 

Now it's Josh Proctor's turn to act in that capacity. The junior has all the physical tools - even more so than Fuller - but does he have the discipline to always be in the right place at the right time? The playmaker will likely need to dial back the gambling a tad for Ohio State's defense to thrive. Helping him find that right balance of playing on the edge and making the disciplined decision will be a key task for Kerry Coombs and company. 

In total, the roster doesn't appear short on talent but a ton of proven commodities will need effectively replaced if the Buckeyes are to once again limit big plays and remain one of the nation's stingiest defenses. 

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