Kerry Coombs is looking to get "DBU" back on track after a rough 2020.
Outside of the obvious battle under center, the Buckeye defensive backfield has been the biggest offseason storyline. After the 2020 campaign saw the unit struggle against the likes of Indiana, Penn State, and Alabama, it will need to get better if Ryan Day wants to make yet another playoff run.
In his return to Columbus, Kerry Coombs saw his pass defense finish the season ranked No. 122 in America. Shaun Wade struggled in his move to the outside corner spot, Cam Brown suffered a season-ending injury in week two, and several young players were thrown into the fire. The personnel will be a bit different in 2021, and Coombs will be looking for far different results.
Ohio State's schedule doesn't feature all that much talent at quarterback. Outside of Michael Penix Jr., the Buckeyes may not face an imposing signal-caller until a potential playoff game. There are, however, a number of talented wideouts that could cause some more problems in 2021.
Sept. 2 • Chris Autman-Bell • Minnesota
When looking at the season opener against the Golden Gophers, it's P.J. Fleck's ground game that is understandably a cause for concern. Mohamed Ibrahim is the league's top returning rusher, Minny's offensive line was good in 2020 and returns all its starters plus two others that were out with injuries/COVID, and Al Washington lost his four top linebackers from a season ago.
Now a redshirt senior, Chris Autman-Bell shouldn't be overlooked. He's spent the last few seasons playing behind big names like Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, but it is Autman-Bell who will now be leading the Gophs' wideout room. It certainly doesn't hurt that he'll have a veteran quarterback tossing the ball his way in Tanner Morgan. The senior has totaled 1,250 receiving yards and six scores in three seasons of action. Ibrahim is going to be the primary weapon on offense. but Sevyn Banks and Co. also have a challenge in Autman-Bell.
Oct. 2 • Bo Melton • Rutgers
I know, I know. It's just Rutgers. But Greg Schiano is a much better head coach than Chris Ash, so the Scarlet Knights at least have a reason for a little bit of optimism. The situation under center is not great in Piscataway, but Bo Melton's return will help out veteran quarterback Noah Vedral in a big way.
Melton is heading into his fifth season and has produced nearly 1,400 yards and eight scores. Nearly half of his career total came in 2020 when he hauled in 47 passes for 638 yards and six touchdowns in nine games. The Knights aren't going to pull off a shocker when the Buckeyes come to town, but Melton is a good player and should continue to improve in 2021. He went for 86 yards against Ohio State the last time the two teams met.
Oct. 9 • Dontay Demus Jr. • Maryland
Mike Locksley is not a good football coach. Mike Locksley is a good recruiter and fine offensive mind. His passing offense should be in good hands in 2021 with Taulia Tagovailoa and a solid pair of wideouts. Sophomore Rakim Jarrett was a five-star prospect, but Dontay Demus Jr. is a veteran and the guy we should be watching most closely.
Though the Terps played just five games, Demus had the opportunity to build a bit of chemistry with Tagovailoa during the abbreviated season. As a junior, he led the team with 24 catches for 365 yards and four touchdowns. That included a pair of 100+ yard games against Indiana and Minnesota. He caught just one pass the last time the Buckeyes and Terrapins met, but it did go for a 26-yard touchdown in the blowout loss. Demus had a 56-yard catch during the 2018 nail-biter in College Park.
Oct. 23 • Ty Fryfogle • Indiana
The Buckeyes got up big before Michael Penix Jr. and the Hoosiers stormed back for 28 second-half points in Columbus. Ty Fryfogle did pretty much whatever he wanted against Shaun Wade and the Ohio State secondary. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder caught seven passes for 218 yards and three scores. In the Hoosiers' eight games, he recorded 37 receptions for 721 yards and seven touchdowns.
We're stating the obvious here, but a lot of Fryfogle's success is going to depend on Penix staying healthy. In the two games with Penix on the sideline in 2020, he caught just four passes for 69 yards. The Buckeyes will head to Bloomington looking for a far better performance this time around. Sevyn Banks and Cam Brown will need to do what Wade could not in 2020.
Oct. 30 • Jahan Dotson • Penn State
A season ago, Ohio State didn't have much of a problem with Penn State in Happy Valley. The Buckeye defensive backs looking to contain Jahan Dotson was an entirely different story. We're not trying to pick on Shaun Wade here, but the lasting images from the game were Dotson's circus catches and trio of second-half scores; two of which came against Wade. All in all, he caught eight passes for 144 yards to go along with the three touchdowns.
The problem for Penn State? We already know what Sean Clifford is. He's really just another guy at quarterback who's not going to set the world on fire through the air. The Nittany Lions have one of the nation's most talented running back stables, but Jahan Dotson is clearly going to be the guy in the passing game; especially with Pat Freiermuth now suiting up for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Nov. 13 • David Bell • Purdue
I'd be lying if I told you that I'm not all that worried about Purdue and Jeff Brohm's passing attack. We all know what happened last time the two teams met, and thankfully this matchup will go down in Columbus. The real concern here is that the Boilermaker offense has several good pass-catchers rather than just one guy the Buckeyes will need to contain.
David Bell is the best of the bunch and he's probably the league's top wide receiver outside of the Olave/Wilson duo. His eight touchdowns tied Dotson for the Big Ten lead in 2020. He caught 53 passes for 625 yards in just six games as a sophomore. Aidan O'Connell and Jack Plummer each started three games last year, but it was O'Connell who had won the job coming out of camp. His foot surgery ultimately led to Plummer taking over.
We'll see who wins the job this time around, but Bell's production didn't change much regardless of who was tossing the ball his way. He torched Nebraska for 10 catches and 132 yards to end the season; including an 89-yard score in the losing effort. For Ohio State, it's good that this game comes late in the season. Cam Brown should be fully healthy by then and some of the young defensive backs will also have some more experience under their belts. A Rondale Moore-like performance would be far from ideal.