Better or worse? Previewing Ohio State's defense in 2021
Might as well get it out of the way. Will the OSU defense be good? Of course. Will it do enough to be successful in the Big Ten? Without a doubt. But will the OSU defense manage to avoid letting top QBs pick it to pieces in the Playoff? That is the question.
OSU gave up 25.8 points per game in the shortened 2021 season. Much of that was due to a trio of QBs — IU’s Michael Penix, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Alabama’s Mac Jones, each of whom passed for over 400 yards against the Buckeyes, and the last of whom delivered the national championship loss that will sadly define the 2020 season.
How much better does OSU have to be in 2021? Not necessarily a ton. Bear in mind, the 2014 defense that brought home the big trophy allowed 22.0 points per game. Buckeyes fans would probably prefer something closer to 2019, when OSU allowed 13.7 points per game and just 260 yards on average (which soared to 402 in 2020).
As the Buckeyes prepare to introduce an entirely new linebacker corps and some new names up front, there’s reason for optimism. Also, the secondary that took some big hits last season will be battle-tested and experienced in 2021.
What should we expect? Let’s take a look:
Pressuring the QB: Better
OSU had just 21 sacks last season, although that total is somewhat misleading with only 8 games played. Still, 2.6 sacks per game is quite a drop from 54 sacks in 2019 (that’s just under 4.0 per game). Still, the 2014 group has 45 sacks in 15 games, which is a fairly minor improvement over the 2020 pace.
Junior Tyreke Smith and sophomore Zach Harrison could show out from the defensive end spots. Inside, veteran Haskell Garrett will help, but the wild card of the group up front could be true frosh Jack Sawyer, who had a trio of sacks in the spring game and will certainly contribute from Day 1. Garrett and Harrison are the top returning sack leaders, with just a pair of sacks each. But given State’s size and devastating depth, it would not be surprising to see them back in the 40-50 sack range this season.
Pass defense: Better
Frankly, the pass defense better improve in 2021, or DC Kerry Coombs could be on the hot seat in a hurry. OSU allowed 304 passing yards per game last year, almost double the 2019 total (156). The Buckeyes have had 13 DBs drafted by the NFL in the 1st round since 1997, but you wouldn’t have known it based on 2020. The good news is that 3/4ths of the secondary returns, with veterans Sevyn Banks and Josh Proctor expected to lead at corner and safety, respectively.
There’s plenty of depth here, with some of the freshmen, like second-year man Ryan Watts and true newcomer Denzel Burke, showing the chance to star. Watts particularly impressed with a nice pick in the spring game. It’s worth watching to see if the 4-2-5 look OSU featured in the spring game was just a one-off stunt because of a lack of experienced linebackers or if the Buckeyes will commonly feature a 5th DB, even potentially a converted linebacker line Craig Young.
In any case, OSU has nowhere to go but up. They were dead last in the B1G in yards per game allowed in conference play — and that didn’t even include the 400+ yards passing for Clemson and Bama. Given that passing is more fashionable in the league than it was, we might not see 150 yards per game again, but if OSU could hold opponents around 200, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
Run defense: Worse
Unlike the secondary, the linebacking corps is horribly depleted. Given the massive amount of talent biding their collective time, it’s not like the Buckeyes are down to third-stringers and walk-ons here. But OSU did lose their 1st (Pete Werner), 2nd (Tuf Borland), 4th (Justin Hilliard) and 5th (Baron Browning) leading tacklers from their LB group last season.
That team did a fine job in run support. Ohio State allowed just 98 rushing yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry. Only Nebraska topped 160 rushing yards against the Buckeyes, and that was in the opener (and was partially aided by a one-sided game that got plenty of clock for the reserves). It’s a tall order to replicate those kinds of results, and OSU will do it with a relatively untested group of backers.
Granted, junior Teradja Mitchell looks poised to take over at one spot. Expected starter Dallas Gant missed the spring due to injury, but reserves like Tommy Eichenberg and Reid Carrico showed plenty of ability in his absence. Freshman Cody Simon was also impressive. Again, whether OSU goes 4-2-5 or a traditional 4-3 look will matter here.
Up front, as discussed above, there’s plenty of talent, but not a ton of experience. It stands to reason that OSU takes a small step back in stopping the run. 120ish yards per game would be likely, and perhaps a slight step back in yards per carry will follow, maybe to 3.6 or 3.7.
Special teams: Mixed, but better overall
Not that OSU will be hopeless here, but they did graduate punter Drue Chrisman, whose 45.0 yards per kick average was typically solid. That said, true frosh Jesse Mirco should be ready to replace him. Meanwhile, on kickoffs, OSU had just 11 touchbacks on 60 kicks last year, and they allowed 17.7 yards per return, while picking up just 13.3 themselves on the handful of returnable kickoffs they faced. If the Buckeyes take a small step backward on punting, it’ll be offset by an improvement on kickoffs and kick coverage.
COVID-19 affected everybody differently, but at OSU, it left the pass defense a little off timing, which better opponents were able to exploit. The thought here is that a full spring and an ample summer to reflect and re-engage will result in a significantly improve OSU defense. How much better? Reasonable growth would be 3-4 points per game fewer, 50 yards per game less allowed … and maybe improved results on the Playoff stage.