The regular season is over, and the postseason fate of the Ohio State Buckeyes won’t be decided for another couple of days. Whether or not the team makes the College Football Playoff for the second time in its three-year history, there is no question that they put on a defensive clinic week after week. This elite defensive performance kept the Buckeyes’ season alive throughout a few stretches of offensive mediocrity.
There was a little something for everybody, too. Like advanced stats? So do we, and the stats love the Buckeyes: the OSU defensive unit finished the season ranked No. 5 in S&P+, finishing behind only Alabama, Michigan, Wisconsin, and LSU. Like defensive touchdowns? The Buckeyes racked them up in bunches. Like bone-jarring hits laid on opposing QBs? You get the picture.
So, without further ado, here’s a completely objective and totally unquestionable ranking of Ohio State’s five best defensive players, with which no one will disagree in the slightest:
5) Tyquan Lewis
Position: Defensive end
Best single game: 5 solo tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble (Indiana)
On Tuesday, Tyquan Lewis was named the Big Ten defensive lineman of the year, and you’ll find little argument with that distinction here. Lewis was incredibly productive and disruptive for the Buckeyes in the 2016 regular season, amassing team-high totals in sacks (7.5) and forced fumbles (3). Quiet games against Bowling Green and Michigan bookended what was otherwise an excellent season for the junior defensive end.
Lewis is now in danger of becoming a “called underrated so often that he becomes overrated” guy, but screw it: he’s still underrated, despite the recent hardware he added to his shelf. (He joined several teammates on the conference’s First Team All-Big-Ten Defense this week, too.)
4) Marshon Lattimore
Best single game: 5 total tackles, 1 interception (Oklahoma)
It’s difficult to single out one performance in which Lattimore impressed this season, because there were quite a few. Do you go with his pair of interceptions and a touchdown against Tulsa? His nine tackles against Wisconsin in overtime? Ultimately, we settled on his standout effort against Oklahoma, in which he nabbed an interception against a Heisman-contending QB while guarding one of the most talented WR corps the Buckeyes faced all season.
Lattimore, stuck most of the season with an “OR” designation on the depth chart alongside Damon Arnette at the No. 2 corner spot, played like anything but a timeshare guy in the secondary. He reeled in four interceptions and broke up nine passes, numbers that put him ahead of No. 1 corner Gareon Conley on the season.
3) Malik Hooker
Best single game: 7 total tackles, 1 interception, 1 TD (Michigan)
Forget defense. There were stretches this season where Hooker looked like he could contend as one of Ohio State’s best players on offense, were he so inclined. The ballhawking sophomore safety took three of his six interceptions back to the house this season—it would’ve been four, but for a suspect penalty called during the return. That’s an absurd ratio of pick-sixes; despite that, Hooker’s name did not appear among the finalists for the Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back. (He did, however, join Tyquan Lewis in 1st-Team All-Big Ten honors this week.)
Hooker recorded a number of memorable performances in 2016. He racked up 14 total tackles against Northwestern in a game that saw the Buckeyes otherwise struggle defensively against a mediocre opponent. He caught two passes from Bowling Green’s quarterback in the season opener, more than several Falcons receivers did in the same game. He found pay dirt against Tulsa, Nebraska, and Michigan. It was a hell of a season for a young player who burst onto the national scene in the biggest possible way this year.
2) Raekwon McMillan
Position: Middle linebacker
Best single game: 16 total tackles (Michigan)
It feels borderline crazy to put Raekwon McMillan anywhere other than the top spot, but such is the embarrassment of riches on the Ohio State defense. (And remember, these rankings are scientific and absolutely above reproach.) The captain of the defense led by example, holding down the top spot in total tackles for just about the entire season. His total for the year also included five tackles for loss, one sack, and two forced fumbles.
McMillan hasn’t announced his plans for the future yet, but on Saturday, he sure as hell played like this would be the last time he’d ever face Michigan—he terrorized the Wolverine offense, racking up 16 tackles. His most impactful play? That’d be his perfect shoot-the-gap blitz on Wilton Speight, resulting in Malik Hooker’s game-changing pick-six. It’s hard to understate just how important Raekwon the chef has been to the Ohio State D.
1) Jerome Baker
Best single game: 15 total tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception (Michigan)
It’s fitting, really, that the team’s three most outstanding defensive players saved their best efforts for the game of the year. Granted, they got a little extra time to get the job done, but still—the stats racked up by Malik Hooker, Raekwon McMillan, and Jerome Baker against the Wolverines were absolutely eye-popping.
It was Jerome Baker who made the game-changing interception to keep the Buckeyes alive. Who else could it have been, really? Baker was a force of nature for Ohio State’s defense all season, your classic heart-and-soul type player. He was second only to McMillan in total tackles; 8.5 of those were for loss, second only to Tyquan Lewis. He picked off two passes, taking one back for a touchdown. He recorded 3.5 sacks. The list goes on and on.
He still has at least a year left as a Buckeye. Is it selfish to beg for two? It’s hard to imagine this team without Baker, who—despite being only an honorable mention on the season’s All Big-Ten team—was arguably the most impactful player on the entire defense in 2016. No one was a more complete player in as many areas of the game as Baker was this year. We wouldn’t bet against him in 2017, either.