Returning just a handful of starters from the 2019 team, Ohio State’s defense still has the potential to be one of the nation’s best again — but will the talent deliver?
By Andy Anders for Press Pros
Columbus – It’s as though Ohio State’s defense just moved into an apartment in downtown New York City this season.
There’s a lot of potential given what’s around, but with the previous tenants — departed players in this case — taking everything except the kitchen sink when they left, the cupboards are bare and it’s up to returning secondary-coach-turned defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs to fill them.
Star defensive end Chase Young, a Heisman Trophy finalist who set a school record for single-season sacks in 2019, is gone. All-American cornerback Jeff Okudah, a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award as college football’s best defensive back, is gone. Cornerback Damon Arnette, a first round pick, along with three other defenders taken in the 2020 NFL Draft, is gone.
Despite such a talent exodus, the Buckeye defense still has top-tier potential entering this season, but it will require a number of talented first-year contributors to answer the question of whether they live up to their potential with an emphatic “yes.”
“All I can go by is what our players have done,” co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “What they do every day. How they have taken care of this, fought against this COVID. And what they’ve done to make sure they can play in this game. So I’m very optimistic.”
Now when Young and company departed from the program to pursue careers in the NFL, they did leave a couple furnishings around Ohio State’s proverbial apartment. The Buckeyes only lost one starting linebacker from last year’s team, with seven upperclassmen in tow ready to fill out the position room.
Senior Pete Werner is back off a breakout 2019 season, one so surprisingly good it effectively eliminated Ohio State’s use of the “bullet” position. The team instead opted to leave the Indiana native in the game to play Sam linebacker in the bullet’s place.
This season Werner shifts to Will linebacker, meaning more near-the-line-of-scrimmage run support play to take advantage of his physical style.
“It’s weird, playing in the box. I haven’t really done that since my high school days,” Werner said. “But it is a good feeling, a good transition. I feel like I have the opportunity to make, maybe, a little bit more plays.”
Multi-year contributors Baron Browning and Tuf Borland are surefire starters alongside him, with redshirt senior Justin Hilliard and juniors Teradja Mitchell, Dallas Gant and K’Vaughan Pope all factoring in.
“You just give people roles,” linebackers coach Al Washington said. “Our mindset hasn’t changed. You have to give a player a role, a focus. Give them the opportunity to exercise that. We are a deep group, but this year in particular we’re gonna need more than just three or four.”
While three of the four primary starters and a significant contributor are gone from the defensive line the linebackers are backing, under esteemed defensive line coach Larry Johnson, the Buckeyes have enough four- and five-star talent back to get to opposing quarterbacks.
Sophomore Zach Harrison seems as prime a candidate as any for a breakout season in 2020, the consensus No. 12 prospect in the country for the class of 2019. As a freshman he recorded 3.5 sacks and Johnson has provided nothing but praise for the Ohio native’s work ethic.
Junior Tyreke Smith should complement him well on the other side, an athletic defender Young had high opinions of in 2019. He recorded three sacks in rotational duty last season.
Redshirt senior Jonathon Cooper, awarded the “Block 0” jersey by Ohio State’s coaches as a player that represents the best of the team, should be another key piece at defensive end.
On the interior the top name to watch will be junior Tommy Togiai, known for two years by teammates as the strongest player on Ohio State’s squad. Joining him will be two former highly-touted recruits back off injury in redshirt sophomore Taron Vincent and senior Haskell Garrett. Redshirt junior Jerron Cage should also factor in, along with redshirt senior Antwuan Jackson.
There’s enough depth on the edges that defensive ends could mix in at tackle too.
“Between Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Tyler Friday and Cooper and Zach [and Smith], you really get a good chance to do a lot of things, those five guys,” Johnson said.
That leaves the secondary.
Only one player with a proven track record will be in the back end of Ohio State’s defense to start the season, redshirt junior and All-Big Ten cornerback Shaun Wade.
Wade opted out of the Buckeyes’ season initially. But once it became clear a fall campaign and national title shot were on the table, he jumped back in.
Junior cornerback Sevyn Banks is a shoe-in to start opposite Wade, a player that’s received many votes of confidence from the staff this fall camp. Fellow junior cornerback Cam Brown, one of the fastest players on Ohio State’s roster, should provide solid depth at the position.
The two big question marks are at slot corner and safety. Senior Marcus Williamson appears to be the starter at the former, but as a fourth-year player that’s yet to see significant time at the position, he may be someone that needs a few games to season.
“I’ve prepared for this moment for a long time,” Williamson said. “My teammates, they give me a lot of comfort being out there, being able to trust them to do their jobs as well.”
Safety is still a battle between junior Josh Proctor and redshirt sophomore Marcus Hooker.
While Proctor made an interception and showed flashes in 2019, a few missed tackles in Ohio State’s playoff game against Clemson are cause for concern. Hooker has “freakish” ball skills, according to defensive backs coach Matt Barnes, but it remains to be seen whether the two can’t separate from each other because both are of great quality or both show signs of trouble.
In either case, the secondary and Ohio State’s defense as a whole gets its first test against Nebraska Saturday at noon.