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What we learned about Ohio State’s defense from the 2017 spring game

Spoiler: They’re still really, really good.

NCAA Football: Ohio State Spring Game Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

You may have heard that Ohio state didn’t really tackle for nearly the entire first quarter of their spring game this past Saturday. The first quarter’s “thud tempo” resulted in the game resembling more of a seven-on-seven matchup than a full-fledged war — but maybe that’s exactly what this veteran team needed.

While Ohio State’s secondary is still a work in progress, the entire front-seven is already filled with returning starters and players who are more than capable of thwarting opposing offense. The real question mark for this team is the passing game, and handcuffing the defense’s ability to create pressure and big hits allowed the offense to flourish.

For example, take a look at Joe Burrow’s early touchdown pass to Ke’Von Huguely:

In the stat book, this goes down as a 35-yard touchdown. In a real football game, Ohio State’s backup quarterback controversy could’ve been solved on account of Burrow’s untimely decapitation at the hands of Nick Conner, who strolled into the backfield completely untouched before peeling off at the last second.

Everything we just saw in the spring game should be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s not always a useless endeavor. Last year, we saw flash plays from eventual starters Jerome Baker, Malik Hooker and Denzel Ward. Let’s take a look at some of the defensive takeaways from this year’s spring game.

The No. 2 cornerback job is still open for competition.

Denzel Ward is locked in as the Buckeyes’ starting cornerback, but the team is still looking for someone to line up across from him. Damon Arnette has the early lead, but new-comers Shaun Wade and Kendall Sheffield are making noise as well.

So what did the spring game tell us? That it’s a lot harder to play quarters coverage without a pass rush. Ohio State had two excellent cornerbacks last season, but even they would struggle against a quarterback who has no fear of ever being touched in the pocket. We saw almost every cornerback get beat at one point or another, but they all still showed plenty of the raw ability that got them recruited to Ohio State in the first place.

Take, for instance, Sheffield absolutely demolishing a screen in the third quarter:

Sheffield does a great job deciphering the play and is rewarded with a kill shot on Antonio Williams. We already know that Ward can hit, and adding another cornerback that can hit like a safety would certainly be a frightening thought for offense’s around the country.

Of course, cornerback isn’t the only spot on Ohio State’s defense where they’ll need to replace a future draft pick.

Chris Worley may never be Raekwon McMillan, but he doesn’t have to be.

Worley had a great first season as a full-time starter, racking up 69 tackles with 4.5 coming for a loss and an interception against Michigan State. Still, he largely played the Darron Lee role as the defense’s strong-side linebacker. This season Worley will step in as the starting middle linebacker. No one questions his speed or playmaking ability, but at 6’2 230 pounds, he’s smaller than your typical in-the-box mike linebacker.

Well, size doesn’t really matter when you’re capable of stopping one of the Big Ten’s best running backs in their tracks:

Mike Weber probably would’ve scored on the previous play if it wasn’t for a quick whistle, but Worley made sure there was no doubt about this play. The middle linebacker is often the heart and soul of a defense and it was great seeing Worley show no fear in stepping into the A-gap to deny a touchdown at the goal line. Ohio State’s decision to value speed over size at linebacker has paid dividends in the past and it will continue to do so in the future as long as the country continues to embrace spread offenses.

Worley may be a different animal than McMillan, but he’s the same beast.

There’s still plenty of talent behind the starters.

Barring any injuries, Ohio State’s starting front-seven is essentially already decided for next season. Of course, shit happens and backups will inevitably need to step up and perform in pressure situations.

It looks like that won’t be a problem for Worley’s backup, Justin Hilliard:

Yes, Ohio State’s backup middle linebacker is also capable of running sideline-to-sideline to make impact tackles. Hilliard obviously benefited from being left unblocked on the above play, but it’s still not an easy task to run down a wide receiver on a sweep. The Buckeyes were among the best teams in the country at forcing stops in the run game last season and plays like this will go a long ways towards duplicating that feat this season.

There are still plenty of questions for the Buckeyes’ defense to answer. Can Damon Webb step up as Ohio State’s best safety? Will Arnette hold off the Buckeyes’ new options at cornerback? Is Michael Hill or Tracy Sprinkle going to step in as a starter on perhaps the most talented defensive line in the country?

A 40-minute scrimmage wasn’t nearly enough time to answer any of those questions, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t learn anything. It was great to see the defense’s mike linebackers show plenty of toughness in the middle of the defense. Ohio State’s long, athletic cornerbacks made plays that we’d expect them to at #DBU. All in all it appears that Ohio State’s defense will once again be a helluva problem to solve for offense’s around the country, and now we’ll all wait for that day to come.