2022 Season Preview: Key Players, Breakout Candidates and Expectations for Ohio State’s Defense

By Dan Hope on August 28, 2022 at 8:35 am
Ronnie Hickman

Ohio State’s efforts to improve its defense have been the story of the Buckeyes’ offseason.

Ryan Day started making changes even before last season ended, announcing in December he had hired Jim Knowles away from Oklahoma State to be Ohio State’s new defensive coordinator. The changes continued in January as Day hired Tim Walton and Perry Eliano to be the Buckeyes’ new secondary coaches while Kerry Coombs, Matt Barnes and Al Washington departed the staff.

Ever since then, Ohio State’s confidence that it will have a much better defense than last season – when the Buckeyes finished 59th nationally in total defense for the second year in a row – has seemingly skyrocketed.

Armed with a new scheme and a more experienced group of returning defensive players than last season, Ohio State’s coaches and players have been unafraid to set high expectations for the group. Day said at Big Ten Media Days that he thinks Ohio State should have a top-10 defense this season. Knowles doubled down by saying he expects the Buckeyes to have a top-five defense this season. Several players have gone even further, as Teradja Mitchell says he thinks the Buckeyes should be aiming to have the No. 1 defense in the country while Kourt Williams said this past week that he expects a top-three unit.

Knowles has proven he can build an elite defense, as his Oklahoma State defense ranked in the top nine nationally in both yards and pointed allowed per game last season, and he has more talent to work with at Ohio State than he’s ever had before in his coaching career. But there are still plenty of questions that must be answered and players who must step up if the Buckeyes are going to live up to the lofty expectations they’ve set for themselves.

Three Most Important Players

Ronnie Hickman (S)

Knowles has described his system as a “safety-driven defense,” and Hickman is poised to lead that effort. After leading the Buckeyes with 100 tackles as their starting strong safety last season, Hickman is now playing free safety – a position Knowles calls adjuster “because he is the guy that has to really adjust to the formation.”

Hickman proved last season to be a ballhawk who can make plays all over the field, and Ohio State will be expecting more of that from him this year. But they’ll also be counting on him to be the last line of defense at the top end of the formation while providing crucial on-field leadership, and Knowles believes Hickman is the right guy to fill that role.

“I love Ronnie Hickman,” Knowles said this spring. “I think he's got the skill. I think he's got the savvy. I just think he's a great piece in the middle there to run the show back there. I just like the way he plays and handles his business.”

Denzel Burke (CB)

It’s not often a true freshman immediately becomes a college football team’s No. 1 cornerback, but that’s exactly what Burke did for the Buckeyes last season, when he earned Freshman All-American honors and started all 13 of Ohio State’s games. As a result, expectations are now sky-high for Burke entering his sophomore campaign.

Even as a first-year college football player, Burke was arguably Ohio State’s best defensive player as he regularly matched up with opponents’ top wideouts. Now that he has a year under his belt, Ohio State will be expecting him to even more consistently provide lockdown coverage and be one of the best cornerbacks in college football.

In the pass-heavy modern game of college football, there may not be anything more important to a defense’s success than consistent cornerback play, and Burke can be a huge asset to the Buckeyes’ pass defense if he lives up to his potential.

Steele Chambers (LB)

Ohio State’s linebacker play was its most glaring weakness last season, so the Buckeyes need to be much better at the second level of the defense if they’re going to be a championship-caliber squad this year. Chambers will play a major role in leading those efforts.

Despite being a running back at Ohio State until last year’s preseason camp, Chambers was the Buckeyes’ best linebacker during the second half of last season. He battled the inconsistency you might expect from a player lining up on defense at the collegiate level for the first time, but showed natural playmaking ability and sideline-to-sideline range that his unit otherwise lacked in 2021.

Now that he’s had a full offseason to truly develop as a linebacker under Knowles’ guidance, Ohio State is expecting him to be a consistent tone-setter for its defense this year. The Will linebacker is a key player in Knowles’ defense – Malcolm Rodriguez had 131 tackles playing that position for Knowles at Oklahoma State last season – and Chambers is in line to play the majority of snaps at that spot.

What’s Changed

As aforementioned, Ohio State has an almost entirely new defensive coaching staff this season. Defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who is entering his ninth year on staff, is the only returning full-time assistant coach on the defensive side of the ball from last season.

Although Ohio State is maintaining the same 4-2-5 defensive structure that it deployed a year ago, Knowles’ defense will likely look different in many ways from the one that took the field in 2021. Knowles is known for not only using a variety of personnel groupings but also for running a multitude of different concepts from the same alignments, with the objective of creating confusion for opposing offenses and aggressively trying to make game-changing plays.

Jim Knowles
Jim Knowles’ arrival as defensive coordinator means big changes for Ohio State’s defense in 2022.

Knowles is also the position coach for Ohio State’s linebackers while Walton is Ohio State’s cornerbacks coach and Eliano is coaching the safeties, though Eliano and Walton are working closely together to lead the secondary as a collective unit.

Ohio State lost six players this offseason who played at least 300 snaps on defense a year ago. Tyreke Smith is now in the NFL, Haskell Garrett, Antwuan Jackson and Marcus Williamson exhausted their eligibility and Sevyn Banks (LSU) and Bryson Shaw (USC) transferred to new schools. Smith and Garrett are the only players among them who would have been likely to start this season, though, and Ohio State has no shortage of talented defensive linemen to replace them.

The Buckeyes added two defensive transfers of their own in former Oklahoma State safety Tanner McCalister, who followed Knowles to Columbus to be the Buckeyes’ starting nickel safety this year, and former Arizona State running back Chip Trayanum, who’s expected to be a top backup at linebacker. They also brought in a recruiting class that includes two five-star recruits on defense, linebacker C.J. Hicks and safety Sonny Styles.

Biggest Unknowns

Will Game-Changers Emerge?

Ohio State’s 2019 defense, which led the nation in total defense in Jeff Hafley’s only season in Columbus after the worst statistical defense season in school history in 2018, has been oft-cited as an example of the immediate defensive turnaround Knowles is looking to spearhead this year. It can’t be forgotten, however, that the 2019 defense included a pair of top-five NFL draft picks in Chase Young and Jeff Okudah leading the way.

If Ohio State is going to have an elite defense this year, that starts with having elite defensive players. There are plenty of defensive players on the current roster who have the talent to emerge as superstars, but a lack of game-changers on the defensive side of the ball is a big reason why Ohio State’s defense has underperformed for the past two years.

Will Talent Accelerate Timeline?

Although Knowles has a demonstrated track record of making defenses better, that improvement has taken multiple years to achieve at previous stops. His first defense at Oklahoma State ranked 112th in total defense. He didn’t have a top-25 defense at Oklahoma State or Duke until his final season at each school.

Knowles knows he’ll be expected to achieve immediate results at Ohio State, and he’s embraced that expectation. He’s said this offseason the Buckeyes have picked up his scheme more quickly than he expected, and he believes he has all the talent he needs to field an elite defense right away. But that’s all easier said than done, and history is reason to believe there could be some growing pains for the defense in Knowles’ first season.

How Much Substitution Will We See?

Knowles is on record saying he doesn’t plan to rotate much in the back seven of his defense, believing it is important for the linebackers and defensive backs to stay in the flow of the game. But while it’s likely the starters at those positions will see most of the snaps in the base defense, there could still be ample opportunities for backups to earn roles in subpackages.

Ohio State is expected to use three-linebacker packages at times against bigger offensive personnel alignments, while it could also use six- and even seven-defensive back packages at times against spread offenses. There are also expected to be packages that utilize a hybrid Jack linebacker in place of a defensive end – though defensive ends like Sawyer and Javontae Jean-Baptiste will likely see most of the snaps in that role, and Ohio State is expected to rotate heavily on the defensive line anyway, as Johnson has said he could play as many as 12 players up front.

Three Breakout Candidates

J.T. Tuimoloau (DE)

As the highest-rated defensive line recruit in Ohio State history, Tuimoloau is an obvious candidate to have a breakout year as a sophomore. He made an immediate impression on Johnson and the rest of Ohio State’s coaching staff, earning a spot in the defensive end rotation right away even though he didn’t arrive in Columbus until July, and he’s expected to be ready to take his game to a new level this year now that he’s had a full offseason at Ohio State.

Johnson has said he expects to have an “alpha dog” on the defensive line this year, and even though Johnson didn’t specify who, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Tuimoloau ends up being that guy as both a pass rusher and run stopper.

Jack Sawyer (DE)

Tuimoloau and Sawyer often get paired together because they were both top-five overall prospects in the 2021 recruiting class, and it feels wrong to mention one without the other here. While Sawyer didn’t see as much playing time as Tuimoloau as a freshman, he’s flashed elite potential as a pass rusher, and the 35 pounds he’s put on since he arrived at Ohio State should also lead to more trust in the run game.

Sawyer is the leading candidate to play the Jack role in Knowles’ defense, and that’s a role that could lead to big sack and tackle for loss numbers as he’ll be tasked with getting into the backfield to disrupt plays.

Jack Sawyer
Jack Sawyer is among the potential breakout stars on Ohio State’s defensive line this season.

Josh Proctor (S)

While a fifth-year senior who’s already been a starter for Ohio State might not be the traditional choice for a breakout player, it feels like we still haven’t seen the full extent of what Josh Proctor can be for the Buckeyes. In what was set to be his first season as a full-time starter last year, Proctor suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 2, forcing us to wait another year to see if Proctor can live up to his star potential.

That said, Proctor has flashed throughout his career that he can be both a rangy pass defender in coverage and an intimidating hitter. He’s had injury setbacks and inconsistent play, but Knowles said this preseason he thinks Proctor “could be the best in the country,” and the combination of health, experience and a new defense just might be what allows Proctor to be the star he’s always looked like he could become.

Freshman to Watch

Kye Stokes (S)

Realistically, it would be a surprise if any true freshman plays a major role on defense this season, as there aren’t any who are currently projected to be on the two-deep. But the freshman who has looked like he could be the toughest to keep off the field is Stokes, who became the first member of the class to lose his black stripe and had a standout spring game performance. He’ll likely start the year third on the adjuster depth chart behind Hickman and Lathan Ransom, but he has the versatility to line up in various spots in the secondary and has length, range and ball skills Ohio State will want to utilize sooner than later.


Ohio State has set the bar high for itself. Rather than trying to manage expectations after back-to-back down years on defense, the Buckeyes have fully leaned into the notion they should have one of the nation’s best defenses this year.

That’s certainly not impossible, as the Buckeyes are loaded with four- and five-star defensive talent that only a few other teams can match. A new scheme, coupled with 19 defensive players who have at least 250 snaps of collegiate experience, could be the combination needed for Ohio State to play up to its talent and set the tone on defense the way it should.

It’s still bold to predict Ohio State will have a top-five defense this season after performing well below that level for both of the past two seasons, but the Buckeyes don’t necessarily even need that level of defense to win a national championship. Anything less than a top-25 defense would be a big disappointment, but anything better than that paired with an elite offense would give the Buckeyes a chance to achieve all of their goals.

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