If you watched Ohio State's defense play at all from 2014-2015, one particular player should have popped out to you: Joey Bosa. The third overall selection of the 2016 NFL Draft continuously demonstrated that he was the best player on the field, and Bosa's presence alone opened up opportunities for his teammates to make plays.
Having the best player on the field won't always result in team wide domination, but it certainly helps. Unfortunately for the 2016 Ohio State Buckeyes, their best player on both defense and offense is gone, and these are two massive holes to fill for any team. On the offensive side of the ball it appears that J.T Barrett will take the reigns as the go-to player, but a defense that returns just three starters is a bit less clear.
Raekwon McMillan, in addition to having the best name in college football, could very well be the best player on the Buckeyes next season. Having just led one of the best defenses in the country in total tackles, McMillan's combination of speed and pure football ability make him one of the top linebackers in college football.
For as great as McMillan is and can be, he will not be the most valuable defensive player for the 2016 Buckeyes. I hate the NBA's refusal to define ‘valuable' versus ‘best' as much as the next person, so let's make this perfectly clear. When I say ‘best player' I mean the guy who would be picked first overall if the entire team split up into an impromptu pickup game. When I say ‘valuable player' I mean the guy whose performance leads to the largest total improvement among the rest of the team. Enter: Sam Hubbard.
Hubbard the Athlete
Linebackers are a little bit like running backs in that they can be good on their own, but without a good line they will rarely be great. McMillan is going to make plays regardless of who is on his defensive line, but not having to fend off offensive guards and tackles makes life much easier for any linebacker. The easiest way to stop the offensive lineman from getting up to the linebackers? Having beastly defensive lineman like Sam Hubbard.
With all due respect to returning starter and leader in sacks Tyquan Lewis, Hubbard is the crown jewel of the Buckeyes' defensive line. His limitless potential has been gushed over plenty of times. The high school lacrosse standout, Hubbard was originally committed to Notre Dame, but decided #SchemeBeatsCulture after Urban Meyer offered the 6'6 225 lb high school safety after seeing him play dodgeball in gym class.
Let's recap this quickly: at 6'6 225, high school Hubbard was essentially Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor but three inches taller, and Hubbard earned a scholarship offer for football by going Peter La Fleur on the students of Moeller High School. You'd think this raw athletic ability, combined with the insane position change of safety to defense end, would make Hubbard a bit of unpolished mystery, but this simply isn't the case.
In a game with very few bright spots, Hubbard provided one here on third down to stop a Michigan State drive. Ohio State loves to get creative on third down passing situations, but here the defense is just rushing four with Darron Lee acting as the opposite defense end.
At the snap Hubbard does a great job of not only getting up field, but also of getting much needed extension from the Michigan State right tackle. When a good offensive lineman is able to get two hands firmly on a defender, the result is usually a good block. By Hubbard gaining this separation, it allows him to use his hands to get free from the block.
Hubbard easily ‘rips' past the over-matched tackle, and the bend that Hubbard shows above is why some are speculating that he could wind up being a day one pick in the 2017 NFL draft. By staying low, Hubbard not only makes himself harder to block, but he also gives himself a shorter route to the quarterback. Remember: this was Hubbard's first full season ever playing on the defensive line.
This is where Hubbard really becomes a scary player, as this type of closing speed is not normal for a defensive lineman of any shape or size. The result of the play was a sack and forced fumble, and one lovely image from an otherwise very ugly game.
Hubbard the Beast
While the above breakdown showcases Hubbard's electric pass rush ability, Hubbard was undoubtedly aided by the offensive line's double team on Bosa, as well as the running back's lack of interest with Hubbard's side of the line. Opportunities to simply pin his ears back and rush the passer against one blocker won't be as frequent for Hubbard in 2016, but if the end of last season was any indication, Ohio State's coaches are more than happy to move their walking, talking mismatch anywhere in the formation.
With Bosa having been ejected from the 2016 Fiesta Bowl between Ohio State and Notre Dame, it was Hubbard who assumed Bosa's role as the moving chess piece on the defensive line, and Hubbard didn't let the opportunity go to waste. Here, Hubbard lines up as the Buckeyes' three technique, and Ohio State lets #6 do his thing one-on-one against Notre Dame's left guard.
It doesn't matter to Hubbard that he is lined up on the interior of the defensive line. Hubbard has played essentially every position on the field over the past three years, and his ability to quickly learn and execute shows up in situations like the above. While Hubbard doesn't get great separation, it's enough for a player of his speed to still completely overwhelm the Notre Dame guard upon making a pass rush move.
By firing his left arm through the guard, Hubbard once again executes a picture perfect ‘rip' move that allows Hubbard to easily pass by the lineman. From here, it’s just a matter of time.
Hubbard finishes the play in style, leaving the Fighting Irish guard on the ground, and the quarterback in pain. Same result as we saw before, but from a completely different position and side of the line.
This is just the beginning for Hubbard
Whether or not Hubbard demands the same type of attention in 2016 as Bosa did in 2015 remains to be seen. We haven't seen a bunch of Hubbard defending the run, and it's not crazy to think he could struggle with a healthy dose of double teams. The good news for Buckeyes fans is that this extra attention for Hubbard is exactly what the rest of the defense needs.
Having to overly plan for a single defensive lineman can create big problems for an offensive line. Normal routines are thrown off, and all hell breaks loose when the player the entire line was shifted towards drops back into coverage as part of a zone blitz. Hubbard is unique in that he can actually make plays in coverage (like this interception last season against Maryland), and last season Ohio State regularly dropped Bosa back in pass coverage to create one-on-one match-ups for the rest of the defensive line.
If offenses like their chances against Hubbard with solo blocks, great. Expect to see a lot more of Hubbard in offensive backfields. If offenses decide to give Hubbard the Bosa treatment, great. Look for the rest of the defense to shine with Hubbard demanding so much attention. Either way, Hubbard's proven pass rush ability and knack for making big plays makes him the one Buckeye who opponents should have circled in their game plan, which bodes very well for the rest of the Ohio State defense.
Hubbard's backstory and the fact he didn't start last year make for sexy headlines calling him a ‘mystery' and a potential ‘break out star'. In reality, Hubbard's break-out season has already come and passed. With 6.5 sacks (one less than Bosa achieved as a freshman) and the growing confidence that comes with more experience at a position, it's no longer a matter of if Hubbard is capable of destroying opposing offense lines, but a matter of when.