Better or worse? Previewing Ohio State’s defense in 2020
Editor’s note: This is the 1st in a series previewing every B1G team’s defense.
Well, welcome back Kerry Coombs. Nice to have you in Columbus again.
During your first stint here, you were much-admired for your ability to put every member of the Buckeyes secondary into the NFL. Guys like Denzel Ward. Bradley Roby. Marshon Lattimore.
— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) April 25, 2020
Now it looks like you’re going to have to work with a much more inexperienced crew — and it’s going to be just one part of a pretty big rebuilding effort. In your first season as the new defensive coordinator, you’ve got to replace Chase Young, one of the great players the school has ever seen, as well as tackle machine Malik Harrison, All-American corner Jeff Okudah and pretty much all the rest of the secondary, which means those backup guys are going to have to step up in a hurry.
On paper, Ohio State’s 2020 defense prompts tons of questions: Who will get pressure on quarterbacks to take the burden off of these young DBs? Who will step up to become the third corner that the Buckeyes utilized so much in 2019? Further, who will lock down that second corner position? Who steps up to fill in holes at linebacker and defensive line? Some of the answers seem clear, but the results are anyone’s guess.
In 2019, Ohio State put up extraordinary numbers, holding opponents to just 13.7 points, 104 rushing yards and 130 passing yards per game. By yardage, that ranked as the No. 1 defense in the nation. Their 54 sacks were the most in school history, and they helped their team run the table in the B1G. Any of that would be a Herculean effort to repeat.
And no one is really expecting them to come close. However, could the nation be sleeping on the stable of talent that exists in Columbus? How often does one player leaving equal another player’s chance to shine? Will that be the story of the 2020 Buckeyes D?
It could be that in 2020, we learn just who was waiting for their chance. And what about Coombs’ ability to develop talent? He will have the opportunity to do that as well. With an offense that could once again average scores in the mid-40s, his defense could have time to develop, which means those backups — as well as a deep recruiting class of ridiculously athletic freshmen — could be in championship form when it counts.
So … what will happen?
Let’s play better or worse.
Pressuring the QB: Worse
Led by the talented quint of Chase Young (16.5 sacks, 21 tackles for loss in 2019) Davon Hamilton (6 sacks), Baron Browning (5), Malik Harrison (4.5 sacks, 75 total tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss), and Jashon Cornell (4), the Buckeyes were the nation’s best defense at pressuring the quarterback in 2019. Now, with 4 of those forces of nature gone, (only Browning returns) the duties will fall to others to help, including Zach Harrison (3.5 sacks in 2019), Tyreke Smith (3), Tyler Friday (2), Dallas Gant (1.5) and Javontae Jean-Baptiste (1.5).
Make no mistake, the defensive line is young but formidable — Coombs has a lot of talent at his disposal. However, the question remains: How do these youngsters respond without a player like Young, who could single-handedly wreak havoc? In 2019, many benefitted by the attention he received from opposing offensive lines. Can anyone make up even a small part of Young’s productivity in sacks or Harrison’s in total tackles? Pete Werner, who was 2nd in team tackles with 64 in 2019 (5.5 tackles for loss), looks ready to assume that lead role, and Tuf Borland (55 tackles and 1 sack in 2019) and Browning (43 total tackles) round out a trio of formidable linebackers.
Run defense: Worse
The only reason I’m going to rate these guys worse than last year is that last season was so good. Ohio State was 9th in the country in run defense, but there are so many unknown, young quantities on this defensive line. That doesn’t mean they will be bad (it probably means that someone we don’t know will step up and be great). The linebackers look like they will produce, and I’ll bet that at least one of the athletes on the line develops into a great run-stopper during the course of the season. The bench will come through once again and this group will be better than what people think. Plus, I’m a big believer in Coombs — just like Ryan Day.
— Ryan Day (@ryandaytime) January 20, 2020
Passing defense: Worse
Coombs’ most difficult task will be dealing with the loss of the majority of the secondary. It will be imperative for the line and linebackers to get pressure to be able to give these guys a bit of a cushion. On the flip side, it would be nice for the secondary to stay with opposing receivers to give the front seven time to hassle the QB.
In 2019, Ohio State had the No. 1 pass defense in all the land. So what does the secondary have left?
Shaun Wade, basically. No more All-American Jeff Okudah. No more Damon Arnette or Jordan Fuller. And in February, the program cut ties with Jahsen Wint and Amir Riep. So it all comes back to Wade (25 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble and 1 interception in 2019), who was last seen being escorted out of the Fiesta Bowl for a targeting call on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Wade will use that as fuel to become the next great corner for the Buckeyes. He’ll provide a blanket for half the field, and look for Cam Brown (14 tackles), Sevyn Banks (11 tackles, 1 interception) and Josh Proctor (13 tackles, 1 interception) to join him. The guess is they will surprise a lot of people.
In the end, it’s just too much to overcome, right? Eight of the top 9 tacklers, and 5 of the top 6 pass-rushers, are gone. How can any team overcome that? Most of the experts across the country will say they can’t. But then again, only a few programs have the kind of talent Ohio State can deploy. We shouldn’t sleep on those athletes. Maybe they’re just waiting for their chance to get on the field.