7 way-too-early predictions for OSU's defense in 2022
Everybody knows about the offense in Columbus, with arguably the nation’s top QB (CJ Stroud), RB (TreVeyon Henderson) and WR (Jaxon Smith-Njigba) headlining a point-scoring machine.
On the other hand, everybody also knows about the defense. Look at OSU’s struggles from 2021, and it’s not hard to figure out where the blame goes: 269 rushing yards allowed one week and 297 another? Allowing over 450 yards 5 times in the season? Giving up 87 points in the last 2 games of the year?
Jim Knowles has replaced Kerry Coombs, and OSU’s ability to stay at the top of college football is largely dependent on a retooled and reimagined defense. So how will it go? Here are 7 predictions for the 2022 season.
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1. OSU allows less than 20 points per game
OSU was 9th in scoring defense in the B1G in 2021, giving up 22.8 points per game. A majestic improvement might be a lot to hope for — particularly given OSU’s quick-strike offensive potential, which will likely keep the defense on the field a lot and in non-competitive games on several occasions.
Giving up just under 20 points per game would have jumped OSU to 6th last year in the conference, and that seems like a reasonable marker of progression. Knowles’ defense has been built to deal with pass-heavy Big 12 offenses, so it should offer a more consistent approach to secondary play.
The guess here is that OSU holds opponents to about a field goal per game less than 2021 — with big improvement coming in the games that matter, and maybe a few more points here and there in one-sided blowouts.
2. OSU picks off half a dozen more passes
Speaking of that secondary, OSU’s group was routinely beaten in 2021. The Buckeyes allowed 245.8 passing yards per game, 12th in the conference. They also allowed 21 TD passes; only 4 B1G defenses gave up more. And yes, some of that was shootout games and blowouts, but OSU ranked 9th in the conference in pass defense as expressed in QB rating, so it wasn’t all just empty yards.
OSU grabbed 12 interceptions, which isn’t a great total for a team that was giving up tons of passing yards. Knowles’ Oklahoma State defense, meanwhile, held opposing teams to just 6.4 yards per passing attempt, almost a full yard ahead of the rest of the Big 12 (OSU allowed 6.9 yards per passing attempt last year).
Veteran DB Tanner McCalister transferred to OSU with Knowles, and he’ll help install Knowles’ 4-2-5 system in Columbus. Look for Denzel Burke to grab several more picks, and the pass defense in general to spend more time making plays and less time on the other side of various offenses’ poster moments.
The prediction? OSU intercepts 18 passes in 2022, which would be their most since the 2016 team picked 21. The 2014 national champions picked off 25 passes.
3. JT gets 10 sacks
OSU’s pass rush hasn’t been explosive since Chase Young’s epic 2019 season. Part of Knowles’ work will be retooling that group, and the guess here is that late 2021 addition JT Tuimoloau is the guy who breaks through. JT and Jack Sawyer both showed definite strides in the OSU spring game, but the ceiling is just a bit higher for Tuimoloau. The early projection here is that he’s the first double-digit sack guy for the Buckeyes since Young.
4. And OSU’s pass rush becomes a strength
Ohio State lacked a single dominant pass rusher, but their 36 sacks tied them for 34th in college football and put them 3rd in the Big Ten. What impact will Knowles have? Well, his Oklahoma State defense was 2nd in the NCAA with 56 sacks (and actually, the only team ahead of them, Alabama with 57, played 1 more game than OSU). Oklahoma State’s top pass rusher, Collin Oliver had a respectable but not overwhelming 10.5 sacks. But the Cowboys had 7 players with 3 or more sacks. For an Ohio State team with lots of still-developing young talent, look for a 40+ sack season with many, many young Bucks contributing.
5. Hickman hits a number
Ronnie Hickman was one of the more pleasant surprises of 2021. Hickman can play in coverage and to come up and lower the boom in run support. How important was Hickman? Well, not only did he lead OSU with 98 tackles, but he was 34 tackles ahead of the 2nd-leading tackler, LB Tommy Eichenberg. This year, Hickman will continue to shine, posting OSU’s first 100 tackle season since Raekwon McMillan in 2016.
6. Eichenberg goes All-B1G
Speaking of Eichenberg, he’s the favorite to shine as the be-everywhere ‘backer in Knowles’ 4-2-5 look. Despite not playing a ton of snaps in the spring game, he still managed 10 tackles, a game-high. With a bigger pass rush and a deeper secondary, don’t be surprised if Eichenberg becomes an All-Big Ten selection this year.
7. Kye Stokes is a standout frosh
If Eichenberg is the returnee most likely to blow up, don’t lose sight of Kye Stokes in the secondary. As the spring game illustrated, Stokes clearly gets the big picture of Knowles’ defense. His 2 pass break-ups tied for team-high, and he just seems like a guy who will be too talented to keep off the field. Stokes will be on the B1G’s all-freshman team and will establish himself as the next tough OSU secondary standout.