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State of the Empire: Defense

You’ll have to get those shields down

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Star Wars vaccination campaign in Duisburg
Kerry Coombs eyes his secondary
Photo by Lino Mirgeler/picture alliance via Getty Images

The lasting image of the 2020 edition of the Buckeyes was probably watching Tuf Borland looking like a clumsy calf trying to cover DeVonta Smith in the national championship game. Ohio State’s inability to cover guys down the field wasn’t limited to that play, but you won’t find a more glaring example of the problem. Will DBU be back this year? Read on.

2020 in review

I’m not certain what value 2020 football gives us. No spring ball, weird practice conditions, ever present uncertainty on whether games would be played. It was a bit of a mess. Still, OSU’s defense was an adventure. While their line was strong and the linebackers experienced, guarding teams on the back end seemed pretty random. The raw numbers are gross - OSU finished 122nd in the entire country in passing yards given up. They were focused on stopping the run, which they did, finishing 6th, but they simply didn’t have the dudes to cover behind them. They gave up at least 25 points in five of their eight games. While the fancystats were better than that, hitting 24th in the F+, they were clearly not at the level you need to be to win a national championship. And they, you know, didn’t.

Coaching changes

Greg Mattison finally shuffled away from the game, leaving the somewhat maligned Kerry Coombs as the sole defensive coordinator. It is unclear what changes that will lead to - the expectation is that they will still be a mostly single high defense. The big difference may be mostly in personnel - it very likely they play a base with five defensive backs. Last year, they had oodles of experience at linebacker, and it felt like the coaches were scared to take those guys off the field in favor of younger defensive backs. That won’t be an issue this year. Still, they need to be able to play multiple coverages to be effective against the better teams.

Defensive Line

What isn’t in much doubt is that OSU is just loaded up front. While they did lose burly goat Tommy Togiai to the NFL, they return a truck’s worth of talent and experience. PFF’s top returning defensive tackle, Haskell Garrett, is the headliner. He overcame being shot in the face to become a very disruptive player. The starter next to him is still uncertain, though there are plenty of options. Sixth year tackle Antjuan Jackson may be the favorite, though Jerron Cage is also a contender. Former five star recruit Taron Vincent has struggled with injuries but certainly could be a major contributor.

End is even more stocked. Tyreke Smith is PFF’s 9th best returning end, and he is matched by former five star recruit Zach Harrison. Harrison was solid last year, though didn’t show a lot of highlight worthy plays. Backing them up are longtime reserves Tyler Friday (Friday may miss the season with an injury) and Javonte Jean-Baptiste. Oh, and also looking to get on the field are dual top five freshmen Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau. Sawyer especially looked fierce in the Spring Game (not that anyone should ever pay any attention to a Spring Game).


A sea change at linebacker this year. Gone are stalwarts Tuf Borland, Pete Werner, Baron Browning, and Justin Hilliard. Replacing them is going to be a challenge, and predicting who will replace them an even bigger challenge. Teradja Mitchell is penciled in at one spot. He has been constantly mentioned for years, but never quite broke through the top group. Next to him will likely be Dallas Gant, who was also first off the bench last year. Other guys will be in the mix. Former five star recruit and USC linebacker Palaie Gaoteote is on campus but mysteriously not eligible to play. Tommy Eichenberg and Cody Simon seem like the primary other options, with Simon getting the most hype so far.

OSU will likely play a lot of nickel this season. However, there is some expectation that OSU will play more of the “Bullet” position this year. That linebacker/safety hybrid was ballyhooed but ended up just being Pete Werner covering guys more. With Werner now a Saint, the replacement is going to be...someone. Craig Young and Ronnie Hickman seem to be getting the most looks here, with Young more of the run thumper and Hickman more the pass defender.


Ah, the thermal exhaust port of the otherwise fully operational Death Star. Things were rough last year, and that was with Shaun Wade, who while struggling at times was still an All-American and first team all-B1G. But he’s so Raven now, and the replacements are going to be interesting.

Sevyn Banks is the easiest to project. He started opposite Wade last year and figures to be the number one guy this year. Opposite him is a mystery. Cam Brown would be the easy one to project, but he is coming off a torn Achilles, which seems sub-optimal for a corner. There is no obvious replacement. Marcus Williamson played a lot of snaps last year but wasn’t very good and doesn’t seem to be in the mix this year. Ryan Watts and Lejond Cavazos are the youngsters who could break through. Another name is freshman Denzel Burke, who is getting some practice hype.

Safety is another mystery. No one really played very well in the position last year. Josh Proctor is the most experienced guy, but it didn’t feel like the coaches trusted him. Marcus Hooker actually started last year, but was ineffective and is coming off a DUI arrest. A trio of younger guys figure to be in the mix - Lathan Ransom seems to get the most pub on being a starter this year. But Cam Martinez and Kourt Williams are guys who figure to get on the field, though in what capacity is still up in the air.


Defense these days ain’t what it used to be. Nick Saban more or less capitulated in the last few years, moving his team from the plodding run first and play great defense into the death machine they are now. What’s a good defensive performance against Alabama? Holding them to 30?

That’s not to defend OSU - they were relatively poor last year for a contending team. But it is also difficult to tell what is good defense anymore. Ohio State plays some teams that have some punch - especially starting the season against Minny and Oregon. While looking at the roster makes me skeptical of mass improvement, I do think a more normal practice routine will allow them to play a variety of coverages and look like a more functional unit. In other words, while being great is probably out of the question, being a bit more solid should be the goal. We’ll shoot for a top 15 group on the F+, good enough to win, but not good enough to carry the team all season if the offense isn’t right.