Ohio State seems to have figured some things out on defense over the past few weeks, but a rigid 11-man starting lineup is not one of them.
In six games so far this season, the Buckeyes have utilized five different defensive starting lineups. In fact, only two players – Ronnie Hickman and Denzel Burke – have started every game on defense this year. Some of those week-to-week changes have been due to injuries, but several others have been the result of the Ohio State coaching staff searching for the right answer at a given position.
While Ryan Day and defensive play caller Matt Barnes have previously said they hoped to solidify certain spots as the season wears on, defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said Tuesday that lineups will likely continue to vary depending on the matchup.
“Our personnel is going to be a continual work in progress, and you will see evolution throughout many of the 11 positions on defense,” Coombs said. “Some of that is based on the youth that we have, and the fact that some guys are better suited in some weeks to play – and some structures – than other guys.”
At cover safety, three different Buckeyes have held the starting job already through the first half of the season. Sophomore Lathan Ransom started the first three games, redshirt freshman Cameron Martinez took over for the next two after that and 2020 starter Marcus Williamson got the nod for the first time against Maryland this past week.
In the wake of Josh Proctor’s season-ending injury, Ransom made the move to free safety to help shore up depth at the position behind Bryson Shaw. However, it sounds like Williamson and Martinez will both be contending to start on a weekly basis.
“You may see games where Marcus plays the lion’s share of plays, and then you may see games where somebody else does,” Coombs said. “In specific reference to Cam Martinez, he was playing really well in man coverage, particularly against throwing teams. And so that was a highlighted thing.
“Based on who we’re playing, I think the thing for us going forward is to continue to put the puzzle pieces in the right places for that week, and for that game. And sometimes that can be challenging, because guys need to flow and guys need to play. And at the same time, there are guys whose skill set is gonna match better with certain teams and certain schemes.”
Ohio State’s top four leaders in snaps played on defense are all members of the secondary, and all of them are new starters in 2021. While the emergence of young talent has brought into question the production of veterans in the program, Coombs believes it has created healthy competition on the back end that will only benefit the team.
“The competition right now, certainly in the back end, is good, and it’s making a difference,” Coombs said. “First of all, you gotta show up to practice every day, you gotta practice hard. Somebody’s chipping at your heels. And the good news is, if you didn’t play as much last week, you can fix that next week. Go have a great week of practice and go fix it, and go play more.”
Unlike years past, when starting jobs may have been settled long before the season opener, Coombs said Ohio State players must legitimately compete for their spot in the starting lineup each week in practice.
For those that would prefer not to look over their shoulder, that reality may not be their preferred one. For others that have played their way into a surprisingly large role earlier than expected at Ohio State, it’s a breath of fresh air.
“I talked to the kids about this last week, as a matter of fact. That the beauty of what we have right now is, it’s real competition, it’s real practice,” Coombs said. “We literally went back on Friday and watched practice clips of a couple of kids, trying to figure out who is it that may or may not start, how many reps, what’s the rotation gonna be like. So we look at our ones versus ones clips. How do they stand up and stack up against our No. 1 offense, and those opportunities they have in practice, because that’s stuff they’re gonna see.”
The secondary is not the only level of the defense in which there’s been fluidity. Three different Buckeye linebackers have already started in different combinations among Ohio State’s two starting spots inside, and Maryland defensive player of the game Steele Chambers – who hasn’t yet started a game – has made a strong case to earn an increase in snaps.
Coombs said if the third-year Buckeye – who was a running back as recently as this past spring – continues to play with confidence and without hesitation, he will be rewarded with more reps.
“When he sees it, he goes, and guys like that are fun to coach, and we’ve had a bunch of them here. Some people listed some comparisons. He’s gonna play more,” Coombs said. “We go back to the whole experience thing and the competition thing and how things will go at practice – he’s got to have a great week at practice – but if he sees it, he goes, and if he keeps doing that, he’s gonna play a lot of ball for the Buckeyes.”
Fluidity has been apparent on the defensive line as well. Four different players have started at defensive end through six games – including two starts for true freshman J.T. Tuimoloau – and Jack Sawyer has more sacks than Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith and Javontae Jean-Baptiste combined.
Nine different defensive tackles played against Maryland, and even with Haskell Garrett and Antwuan Jackson figuring to hold down starting responsibilities in the immediate future, it's impossible to ignore the impact of a rising talent like Tyleik Williams. The true freshman leads the team with four sacks despite having played fewer than 100 snaps so far this year.
Statistical improvements are evident across the board for the Buckeye defense in recent weeks, as schematic changes have been implemented. Just don’t expect the newfound stability the unit has showcased to be reflected in the form of a starting lineup that never changes from game to game.