Yes, the 2020 Ohio State defense was bad, but it wasn't completely void of talent. Nearly half of the starting lineup was selected in the NFL draft while two others signed deals as undrafted free agents.
Within that group, defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs lost his top five tacklers in Pete Werner, Tuf Borland, Shaun Wade, Justin Hilliard and Baron Browning. Those five defenders not only topped Ohio State's leaderboard, they also accounted for 42% of the team's tackles (and 50% of the tackles for loss) last season.
Since Urban Meyer's arrival back in 2012, the Buckeye defense has never had to reload its top five tacklers.
The 2014 edition was forced to replace its top three tacklers from the season prior (Ryan Shazier, Bradley Roby, C.J. Barnett) but did so admirably as Joshua Perry went off for 124 stops, Vonn Bell posted 92 and Darron Lee came out of nowhere to log 81. Perry was the team's fourth-leading tackler in 2013 so his surge wasn't shocking. Bell, with Pitt Brown no longer in his path, showed what kind of force he'd be for the next couple seasons while Tyvis Powell (76) and Doran Grant (63) rounded out the top five.
En route to the national title, the 2014 defense ranked a solid but not dominant No. 26 in scoring defense (26.0 ppg) and No. 19 in total defense (342.4 ypg).
The 2016 defense also had a tough task after losing four of its top five tacklers (Perry, Powell, Lee and Bell). That said, it at least returned Raekwon McMillan, the squad's top tackler in 2015 with 119, who promptly repeated with another 102 stops. Jerome Baker and Malik Hooker both burst on the scene with 83 and 74 stops, respectively. Chris Worley and Damon Webb rounded out the top five.
Despite losing all that 2015 production, the 2016 defense slotted No. 3 nationally in scoring defense, yielding just 15.5 points per game, and No. 6 in total defense, giving up 296.1 yards per contest.
The only other defense since 2012 to replace at least three of its top five leading tacklers came in 2018. That season, Ohio State was forced to reload following the departures of leading tackler Jerome Baker, along with third-leading tackler Damon Webb and the fifth-most prolific stopper in Chris Worley.
Filling those voids proved difficult as the 2018 squad finished No. 50 in scoring defense (25.5) and No. 71 in total defense (403.4) thanks in large part to a leaky secondary ranked No. 86 in pass defense (245.2 ypg).
In another typically problematic sign, a safety, Jordan Fuller, co-led the team in tackles (81), joined by linebacker Malik Harrison. Borland, Werner and Brendon White rounded out the top five.
For those three teams forced to replenish the most production since 2012, results were a bit of a mixed bag, and now the 2021 defense faces an uphill climb of its own. On one hand, the roster turnover could be a good thing considering last season's struggles in slowing down good-to-great offenses. On the other hand, losing the entire linebacking corps, its top corner and a key interior defensive tackle leaves work to do.
With the top five tacklers of 2020 no longer wearing the scarlet and gray, who might Kerry Coombs turn to as a linchpin of this year's defense?
You can certainly make the case for a handful of names. As a seasoned veteran, Josh Proctor could do it from the safety position, although that would be less than ideal. From the linebacker/bullet spots, maybe you're leaning toward Craig Young busting onto the scene, or maybe Dallas Gant blowing up after a few productive seasons on special teams as a reserve linebacker.
But if I had to make a bet right now on Ohio State's leading tackler in 2021, I'm going with the expected first-year starter at weakside linebacker: Teradja Mitchell.
That, of course, would be a huge leap in both responsibility and production for Mitchell. Last season, he ranked 18th on the team with seven stops while logging just 95 snaps. Those 95 plays did rank as the most among linebackers not named Werner, Borland, Browning or Hilliard. He logged five more snaps that fellow reserve linebacker Gant, 56 more than bullet Young and 78 more than linebacker K'Vaughan Pope.
Our own Dan Hope profiled Mitchell during spring ball and the No. 44 overall prospect in the 2018 recruiting cycle sounded like a young man who understood he had to pay his dues with so many vets in front of him but is now ready to seize his opportunity.
Mitchell spoke of how difficult it was to mostly sit on the sidelines, but that he never wavered in honoring his commitment to the program while watching and learning from his older peers. Now he's relishing the role of being a leader for the young guys while providing production on the field. Oh, and he likes to hit.
“I’d say I’m a very aggressive linebacker. I’m a contact-seeker. I love contact. So I look forward to thumping some guys,” Mitchell said back in April.
At 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, Mitchell has the frame and attitude to do exactly that. What he lacks is experience so despite his seniority, there could still be some growing pains that come with the lack of experience.
Still, it feels like the time is now for Mitchell to make a significant mark on the program. He's certainly hungry to show what he can do, and Coombs would love for Mitchell to evolve into a cornerstone on a defense seeking dramatic improvement over a season ago.