Keep Your Head Up

By Ramzy Nasrallah on January 12, 2022 at 1:15 pm
2022 Rose Bowl

Only 66 FBS players had more tackles in 2021 than Ohio State's tackling leader Ronnie Hickman.

If you're wondering how to quantify that, Hickman finished with 98 tackles - 53 solo - for an average of 7.54 per game. America's top tackler last season was Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell. He had 143 tackles, averaging 10.21 per game.

Hickman is the first Buckeye to finish in the FBS' top 100 since Raekwon McMillan did it in 2016, ending a four-season drought. McMillan and 11W contributor Joshua Perry were both top 100 tacklers in 2015, a memorable season back when defense was not The Problem.

Ronnie Hickman is the first Ohio State non-linebacker to rank nationally in tackles since the Paleotressel Era.

Perry was top 20 in 2014, Ryan Shazier was among the nation’s top five tacklers in 2013 and top 50 in 2012. Ross Homan was top 50 in 2009. So in order: Hickman, [FOUR YEAR GAP], linebacker, linebacker, linebacker, linebacker, linebacker, linebacker. This seems pretty obvious but let’s break it down anyway:

  • Hickman, a boundary safety, was Ohio State's first prolific non-LB tackler since the Paleotressel Era
  • This web site is in a seven-year drought without a Who's The Real Linebacker U debate, hmm
  • A well-known phenomenon occurs when defense is off the field a lot: Fewer tackles can be made

That last one is fine, we'll keep it. As for the others, first you should know Oklahoma State had no fewer than two tacklers among the FBS top 100 in each of Jim Knowles' four seasons in Stillwater. In 2020, the Cowboys had three nationally-ranked tacklers.

A reminder from two paragraphs ago: Ohio State just went four full seasons with zero.

So we're talking about some problems for which Ohio State's football boss is already addressing through talent acquisition and human capital. But let's document this anyway, while we have well north of 200 offseason days to air our grievances:

  • Ohio State's poor tackling fundamentals reached a crisis state in 2021
  • A long history of crippling ejections and cautionary tales may contribute to tepid tackling
  • Strength and conditioning may also be a factor in declining tackling efficacy

Yes dear reader, I am mixing tackling quantity and quality. I believe the two are related.

Missed tackles happen all of the time in tackle football, and the Buckeyes' young, confused unit that kept the team from national title contention made them an art form this season. Here's team tackling leader Hickman and fellow safety Bryson Shaw combining for an absolutely gruesome missed-missed tackle-tackle:

W R A P  H I M  U P
Utah's Brant Kuithe picks up 17 extra yards after contact during the 1st quarter of the 2022 Rose Bowl.

This column could have been a GIF jungle of moments like this, but I don’t have the stomach for it and neither do you. We all watched the same games; one GIF is enough.

It didn't take long for Knowles' hiring to produce chatter here about the return of rugby-style tackling, a practice he (and former DC Jeff Hafley) both subscribe to. The last time Ohio State was this bad at tackling was 2013, and Urban Meyer responded by hiring Chris Ash, who quickly installed the practice at the Woody.

Here, enjoy these seven-year old practice tidbits:

  • (Kerry) Coombs said he doesn't believe there is another team in the country that practices tackling more than Ohio State does.
  • Coombs said tackling has been addressed every day possible at Ohio State. Live tackling and individual one-on-one tackling is what Coombs said specifically that the program does more than any other in the country.
  • Coombs also said Ohio State's switch to rugby style tackling was a "game-changer" for the Buckeye defense last season.

That sounds great. Let's do that again. Alright, tackling technique is solved - now onto strength and conditioning, which I delicately touched on last week and thought about again Monday night.

Michigan pushed Ohio State around. Georgia pushed Michigan around. If you watched Alabama-Georgia, their guys just look different. The Buckeyes have had guys like that, but recently...they've had fewer. Pivoting back to our central thesis, our guys miss a lot of tackles.

My position is that form and physique would both be helpful - a bundled approach to improvement. As for the Strength & Conditioning guru in charge, he's not beyond reproach. Woody Hayes had losing records in his 9th and 16th season in Columbus, with national championships sandwiching each of those campaigns.

Legends reinvigorate and refresh their methods all the time. It's required to avoid becoming stale.

As for the final possible reason for Ohio State's shoddy tackling - fear of targeting penalties - I have no idea how to reconcile this with a replay booth and officiating cabal that has consistently been more intent on chaos than order. Just steer clear of the obvious ones and hope for the best?

Alright, now we should be good to go! Here's to Hickman having an All America season in the Ohio State backfield - while someone lined up in front of him leads the team in tackles.

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