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Defensive line depth could be Ohio State's biggest problem in 2016

Ohio State is loaded with talent all over the roster, but that doesn't mean depth may not be an issue in some places.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

One of the areas that the SEC originally began to separate itself from other conferences was in maintaining elite, deep defensive lines. That was one of the first position groups that Urban Meyer addressed with recruiting when he got to Ohio State, maintaining the commitments of blue chipper Adolphus Washington and quickly adding Joey Bosa and Noah Spence. With only Tyquan Lewis returning as a starter in 2016 and poor performance in a few key metrics, the defensive line may be the area of most concern for Ohio State’s defense — and potentially, for Ohio State’s season as a whole.

While the defensive backfield also has to replace three former starters, many of the potential starters like Damon Webb, Cam Burrows, Malik Hooker, Erick Smith, and Marshon Lattimore are all former blue chip recruits and have been in the system for a long time. But there are only four defensive linemen that return with any statistical significant experience: Lewis, Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes, and Michael Hill.

The key is keeping defensive linemen fresh by creating a deep rotation. With a limited rotation, defensive S&P+ tends to dip by quarter as opposing offensive lines begin to take control of the tiring defensive line. That wasn’t a problem for last year’s Buckeyes. which averaged 12th, 8th, 7th, and 14th in defensive S&P+ by quarter. By rotating in three high-level backups in Hubbard, Holmes, and Hill, and rolling Darron Lee into a standup rush-end role on passing downs, the front seven was able to stay fresh and effective throughout games.

That doesn’t mean they were elite across the board, though. Even with that star-studded group, they were poor in stuff rate (18.7%, 84th), power success rate (66.7%, 69th), and overall adjusted line yards (36th). Stuff rate measures the percentage of runs that were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Power success rate looks at pressure situations where a run is likely — third or fourth down and less than two yards to go. Essentially, the Buckeye defensive line could have been much better at creating tackles for loss and winning in pressure conversion situations. That’s not to say that the defensive line play last season was poor -- it wasn’t at all, ranking 12th in defensive line havoc rate, 4th in adjusted sack rate, and 16th in rushing S&P+ — but there were definitely areas of concern.

So taking those poor metrics in to account along with the few returning starters or players with experience, how does next year look?


I took a look at the recruiting rankings for Ohio State’s 16 returning defensive linemen. Using the 247 Composite ratings, the Buckeyes returning defensive linemen averaged a .9048 rating. There was a big jump in average recruiting rating for the last class. That’s due in part to 2015 being an exceptional talent haul with Jonathon Cooper, Nick Bosa, and Malik Barrow, but it’s also due in part to NFL losses in older classes (i.e., Joey Bosa was part of the 2013 class) and a downturn in average defensive linemen talent in the 2014 and 2015 classes.

Recruiting class 247 Comp Avg
2013 0.8937
2014 0.9007
2015 0.8862
2016 0.9585

It’s important to remember that even though the sophomore and junior classes were relatively weak hauls compared to the freshman and senior classes, this is due in large part to those middle classes being larger and somewhat less selective overall. For instance, the 2014 class included Jalyn Holmes (.9622) and Sam Hubbard (.9230), but also Darius Slade (.8457). 2015 included Jashon Cornell (.9557) and Dre’Mont Jones (.9383), but also Rashod Berry (.8568) and DaVon Hamilton (.8291). Ohio State has gotten top-end talent consistently, but larger middle classes typically added a few linemen that were lower-rated as well.

Opportunities for young talent

The projected starters out of spring — Hubbard, Tracy Sprinkle, Michael Hill, and Tyquan Lewis — are all out of the 2013 or 2014 classes. Hubbard and Lewis have their spots more or less secure, but the tackle spots aren’t set in stone, and there is a need for at least three rotational guys as well. Simply put, there’s a need for young talent to step up.

The interior of the defensive line might be an area of concern for 2016 -- we just don’t know very much about how Sprinkle and Hill will fare. And we know even less about anyone else who might take their penciled-in starting spot. Based on last year’s numbers, Lewis and Hubabrd (14 TFLs and 8 sacks, 8 TFLs, 6 sacks) are quality edge-rushers, but how will they fare at both run-stopping (an area Bosa excelled at) and at pass rush when opposing offensive lines aren’t focusing on Bosa?

It would be extremely helpful if Ohio State’s blue chip linemen (those rated above .89 on the 247 Composite) would step in to big roles for next season: Jalyn Holmes, Jashon Cornell, Dre’Mont Jones, Nick Bosa, Jonathon Cooper, and Malik Barrow. That’s a solid group of potential backups, but it also includes three true freshmen.

The top-end talent is there. But the middle of the line especially is young, and the penciled-in starters at defensive tackle are untested. The rotation has potential as well, with up to six former blue chips waiting for their chance, but Jalyn Holmes is the only non-starter that has significant experience.

By season’s end, the lack of experience won’t be a problem — all of the young players will have gotten plenty of time by that point. But Oklahoma will be a tough game, since they will be able to challenge both the green secondary as well as the inexperienced middle of the defensive front thanks to Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Look for early signs in changes to those same metrics -- stuff rate, adjusted line yards, and power success rate -- because that could determine the overall effectiveness of the defense in 2016.