Joey Bosa is a freak.
The newest San Diego Charger's exploits at the collegiate level have been well-documented, including in this very space. In three years at Ohio State, the Ft. Lauderdale native tallied 26 sacks while serving as both the focal point of the Buckeye pass rush, and as a dominant run-stuffer.
Few players come to mind that brought power, technique, and athleticism to the table, all at one time. It came as no surprise, then, that containing Bosa became the first bullet on the game plans of OSU opponents over the past two years. During his time on campus, the Ohio State pass rush was consistently one of the Big Ten's best, finishing first in sacks in 2013 and 2014 before falling to second in 2015.
Even in his third, and final, season in Columbus, Bosa was still a force despite lower traditional statistics. Though he recorded only five sacks last fall, he still managed 24 hurries and 24 hits on the quarterback, leading the nation in the latter category. Lest we forget, he did all of this in 11 games effectively, as he missed the season opener against Virginia Tech due to suspension, and was ejected from the Fiesta Bowl in the first quarter.
As we look to a future without #97 drawing double-teams from opposing pass protectors on nearly every play, the question remains for who will provide the production that Bosa brought to the table during the past three seasons. With three new starters in the secondary, the Silver Bullet defense won't have the luxury of depending on their backfield alone to shut down the passing game of Oklahoma or Indiana.
Of the returning Buckeye defenders, three candidates immediately come to mind when looking to fill this void. Yet, all three bring very different skill-sets to the table.
To the surprise of many, Tyquan Lewis led the OSU defense in sacks in 2015 with 8. How he got those sacks, however, might not lead one to believe he'll easily replicate that tally this fall.
Though the Redshirt Junior will be looked at as one of the defense's few immediate leaders, his game is far more about effort than it technique or athleticism. Lewis does not immediately jump out on tape when compared to monsters like Bosa or former D-line mate Adolphus Washington, but his motor never stops turning, allowing him to chase down quarterbacks that sit in the pocket for too long.
Though Lewis (#59) lacks the initial burst to beat the left tackle up the field, he does a good job of keeping his arms extended as to not let the blocker get a strong hold on the breastplate of his shoulder pads, a death knell for pass rushers. Once the QB steps up in the pocket, Lewis is able to spin off the block and track down the Hoosier signal-caller.
Most of Lewis' quarterback takedowns came in this manner, on plays in which the Buckeye secondary seemed to blanket any routes downfield and force a scramble. Staying alert and adjusting the pass rush to a new aiming point isn't easy or fun, but the fourth-year player seems to shine on these rare occasions.
But as we can also see above, Bosa was the recipient of a double-team on the opposite end of the line, meaning Lewis didn't have to get past a second blocker on his path to the QB. Without a known star to occupy blockers, the question remains of how the Buckeyes will free up Lewis to get in the backfield. Luckily, Bosa's absence against Virginia Tech may have given us a hint of what's to come.
Once again lined up at the bottom of the screen, Lewis starts his rush with a hard step to the outside, drawing the eyes of the right tackle to him before Washington (#92) rushes hard to the outside. Now, with both the right tackle and guard stepping hard to the outside, Lewis cuts inside into the 'A' gap between the guard and center.
With the nose tackle occupying the center, the right guard is now alone in space against Lewis, and the defensive end has both an athletic advantage and a running start. Though Lewis doesn't get a clean shot on the QB, the contact is enough to force him into the oncoming arms of another Buckeye defender.
Given that Lewis has struggled to beat tackles in solo pass rushes to the outside, it's likely we'll see him line up inside over guards on passing downs, as well as in stunts like this one. Whatever the means, the goal should be to free Lewis from initial blocks wherever possible, allowing him to use his chase-down ability more often.
Sam Hubbard's journey to becoming an Ohio State defensive end has been well-chronicled. The former Notre Dame Lacrosse recruit and Cincinnati Moeller safety joined the Buckeyes' class of 2014 with his eventual position in question.
At 6'6" and 215 lbs as a high school senior, Hubbard played center field for a state championship team, covering receivers downfield and making tackles in open space. Needless to say, by the time he found himself in Larry Johnson's defensive line meetings, he was far behind the others in the room when it came to basic fundamentals.
But Hubbard has proved to be a relatively quick study. It certainly helps to have a frame that would make some NBA players jealous, but Hubbard came of age in 2015 with 6 sacks in limited duty thanks in large part to his technique.
In the example above, we see him delivering a strong blow to the chest of the tackle across from him, knocking the blocker back on his heels. Much as we saw from Lewis, Hubbard stays free from the blocker's hands, allowing him to easily shed the block and use his athleticism to change direction and close on the play.
Though it doesn't initially appear impressive, the example below shows us the more of Hubbard's potential at the position.
Clearly, the entire Hokie offensive line was tasked with 'cut' blocking their opponents, meaning a quick, three-step pass play was called. These types of blocks are fairly common for 'pro-style' offenses, as the cut block forces the defensive line to use their hands to shed the block instead of putting them up to knock down the pass.
While his teammates get stuck trying to get around these cut blocks, Hubbard easily steps through with near-perfect technique. After a hard first step to the outside, he reads the cut attempt perfectly, stepping through the inside gap in the opposite direction of the blocker's initial momentum, while keeping his hands up to swat down the lunging shoulder pad.
Few players with such little experience at the position make such a technique look so easy. Many players can be drilled and coached how to stay clean from a cut block (as Washington does on the right side of the screen), but few have the balance to get past it at the same time. Hubbard changes direction, uses his hands, and explodes upfield toward the QB in one, continuous motion.
With another spring and summer camp to work with the coaching staff, he has all the tools necessary to take the next step toward becoming an elite pass rusher.
Unlike the others on this list, Jalyn Holmes was a known commodity at defensive end when he came to Columbus. While Lewis was a bit unknown, coming from a small community in North Carolina, and Hubbard was trying to figure out what position to play, Holmes was always penciled in as a pass-rushing end.
The reason for such certainty was his possession of the one trait all other pass-rushers covet: burst off the line. Technique can be taught and mastered over time, and effort is certainly subjective, but being able to blow past a blocker before he can get his hands on you is rare.
Though he gets an head-start thanks to the initial inside step taken by the left tackle, Holmes does an excellent job of turning on the jets as he goes by the blocker. In the process, he uses the classic speed-rush 'dip-and-rip' move, keeping his shoulders perpendicular to the blocker as not to give much surface to grab, and getting lower than his opponent before ripping his inside arm through to create separation.
Despite being one of the few players in recent OSU recruiting classes to play as a true freshman in 2014, he fell behind Lewis and Hubbard on the depth chart last fall. While he'll have a tough time winning a starting job at either end, Holmes may still see quite a bit of playing time in passing situations.
With Holmes and Hubbard on the ends with Lewis bumping inside to the '3' technique tackle spot between a guard and tackle, all three might find themselves in the position best suited to their unique skill sets.
Holmes has the ability to beat a single blocker thanks to his speed, meaning he's likely to line up to the same side as the '1' technique nose guard, who should occupy the block of the guard to that side along with the center. Meanwhile, Lewis and Hubbard can go two-on-two against a guard and tackle to their side, giving Lewis a better athletic matchup while keeping Hubbard from facing eventual double-teams.
The process of replacing a player like Bosa certainly isn't easy, but thanks to the recruiting and development of players behind him, the Buckeyes have the pieces in place to once again be one of the conference's best pass rushes.