There were many questions about what Ohio State’s defense would look like and which Ohio defenders would play the biggest roles this season going into last week’s season opener at Minnesota.
Going into Ohio State’s second game of the season against Oregon, some of those questions still remain unanswered.
Ohio State’s coaches said throughout the preseason that they expected to play a lot of depth on defense, and they weren’t lying. Twenty-four different Buckeyes played defensive snaps against Minnesota, including six defensive ends, four defensive tackles, five linebackers, four cornerbacks and five safeties (including bullets). Twenty-one of those players were on the field for at least 13 defensive snaps.
Building more depth on defense, particularly in the back seven, was a big point of emphasis for Ohio State this offseason after last season, when the Buckeyes largely relied upon the same defensive players week after week even though their pass defense struggled throughout the year. The fact that the Buckeyes rotated at every defensive position in a game they never led by more than 14 points shows they have far more defenders this year that they’re comfortable playing with the game on the line.
Actually playing that many defenders with the game on the line isn’t necessarily what’s best for Ohio State’s defense. It didn’t lead to great success for the Buckeyes against Minnesota, who scored 31 points on 408 yards – 205 through the air and 203 on the ground – on Thursday night. That leaves reason to believe the Buckeyes might be better off relying more heavily on a smaller core group of defenders in competitive games, like they had against Minnesota and will probably have again versus Oregon, rather than rotating as frequently as they did in the season opener.
One reason why Ohio State played as many defenders as it did against the Gophers, though, is because it’s still determining who its best defenders are. Day said the Buckeyes could shorten their defensive rotations as it becomes more clear which players belong on the field most.
“When you’re going in scrimmages and practice, you get a good feel for things, but you don’t really know until you get into a game,” Day said. “And I think it’s gonna sort itself out a little bit. But we do like playing depth. And guys who deserve to play are going to.
“We have a lot of depth. And so we’re playing a lot of depth right now. And maybe it sorts out a little bit differently as we watch the film and guys solidify some spots, but until then, it was really close at a lot of positions. And we’ll have to look at it and see if maybe we need to have a little more continuity in certain positions, but when it was that close, guys deserve to play and we’re gonna play depth. And that’s gonna serve us well certainly down the road.”
Whether one game will be enough for Ohio State’s defensive coaches to have a better feel of who its best players are is uncertain. Complicating matters, Ohio State was without projected starting cornerbacks Sevyn Banks and Cameron Brown against Minnesota, while starting free safety Josh Proctor’s status for this week’s game remains uncertain after he was injured in the fourth quarter against the Gophers. The Buckeyes are also hoping to add Palaie Gaoteote to their linebacker rotation, but he’s still awaiting word from the NCAA on his appeal for an eligibility waiver.
The first game did provide some answers about which defenders are in line to play major roles this season. Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith are leading the way at defensive end, as expected. Haskell Garrett, Antwuan Jackson and Taron Vincent will all be fixtures in the defensive tackle rotation, and Larry Johnson appears comfortable playing any combination of them together. Teradja Mitchell appears entrenched as a starting linebacker after playing a team-high 70 snaps and recording 10 tackles against Minnesota. Ronnie Hickman looks like he could be a staple of the defense at bullet after leading the Buckeyes with 11 tackles against the Gophers. Lathan Ransom appears to have beat out Marcus Williamson and Cameron Martinez at cover safety, considering he was the only one of that trio to play a defensive snap in the season opener, though he only played half of the game's defensive snaps.
Yet there are still plenty of questions that remain. Will Tommy Eichenberg, Cody Simon and Dallas Gant all continue to play in regular rotation at linebacker, or will one or two start to see the bulk of the snaps alongside Mitchell? When Banks and Brown return, will Denzel Burke and Ryan Watts continue to see regular playing time at cornerback? Will players like Craig Young, Steele Chambers, Demario McCall, Lejond Cavazos and Bryson Shaw continue to rotate in and play meaningful snaps – and could there be more opportunities to come for players like Williamson, Martinez and Kourt Williams?
The answers to those questions could vary from game to game. Ohio State’s defensive coaches, including defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, secondary coach Matt Barnes and linebackers coach Al Washington, all said during the preseason that depth charts and personnel alignments could change from week to week as they look to create favorable matchups for their defense against opposing offenses.
“It’ll be game-to-game, week-to-week, what gives us the best chance to win?” Barnes said in August. “It’s week-to-week, it’s by game plan, it’s what we think the matchups are, how we think we can make a team left-handed and we go from there.
“At every position, we’ve got multiple guys that we feel really good about … We’re gonna be in constant pursuit of getting the best players on the field.”
After this week, the Buckeyes should have plenty of flexibility to experiment with their defensive rotations in their next two games against Akron and Tulsa, a pair of Group of 5 teams that should pose no threat to Ohio State. Splitting up reps among a wide variety of players will certainly be part of the plan for those games.
This week’s game against Oregon, however, is one that could come down to the wire. And if the Buckeyes find themselves needing a defensive stop to win the game in the fourth quarter, having the right combination of players on the field could make the difference between success or failure.
Being able to play depth on defense is a good thing, and it’s likely something the Buckeyes will continue to do as much as they can. But that doesn’t decrease the importance of having players at the top of the depth chart who can consistently get the job done, and solidifying who those players are could be a key step toward defensive improvement.