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Sam Hubbard at outside linebacker for Ohio State is a scary thought for the Big Ten

OSU’s abundance of talent at defensive end has led to some intriguing ideas in spring practice.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not a stretch to call Ohio State’s defensive ends the best unit on the team. The group is led by reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year Tyquan Lewis, but don’t forget the 6’5, 270 pound Jalyn Holmes, Nick freaking Bosa, and of course, Sam Hubbard.

It was surprising to see Lewis return for his senior season, but it was really surprising to see Hubbard not declare for the NFL Draft. He was regularly mentioned in the high end of mock drafts and he has the size/speed combination that would surely blow away scouts at the combine. But here we are and the Buckeyes now have four defensive ends who could feasibly star at any school in the country.

In addition to the four ends, Urban Meyer recently dubbed defensive tackle Dre'Mont Jones as a "premier" defensive lineman. Ohio State has used their “Rushmen” package in recent seasons to get their four-best pass rushers on the field at the same time, but now the coaches are exploring options to get all five of their best defensive lineman on the field at the same time.

This is where Hubbard’s freakish athleticism comes in. He’s taken reps as a standup outside linebacker in spring practice, and while he’ll still likely have his hand in the ground on the majority of his snaps, this new wrinkle in the Buckeyes defense could open up a world of pain for opponents around the country

Let’s take a look at why Ohio State feels confident using Hubbard as an outside linebacker and what we might expect from him in this package.

The ability to play in space

Hubbard’s experience in lacrosse and as a high school safety have helped him thrive in the open field. Most defensive ends don’t have the athleticism to hang with elite athletes one-on-one. Sam Hubbard isn’t most defensive ends.

As a stand up linebacker, Hubbard will be asked to keep contain just like he does as a defensive end. He’s proven to be more than capable of handling playmakers in space thanks to his closing speed and ability to not get deterred by blocks from tight ends and running backs.

In addition to needing to keep contain on run plays, outside linebackers will be asked to drop back in coverage when they aren’t rushing the passer. We don’t have a ton of film on Hubbard doing this, but Ohio State won’t ask him to cover a wheel route or anything too extraordinary. Instead, they’ll look to drop Hubbard in coverage in an attempt to confuse blocking schemes and take away any short passes. It’s what the defense regularly deployed with Joey Bosa during his junior season:

Why would Ohio State ask one of the best pass rushers in the country to drop back in coverage? Because it opens up the entire field for his teammates. In the above clip, Western Michigan slid their projection towards Bosa at the top of the screen, so they were left without enough offensive linemen to account for the blitz on the other side after Bosa dropped into coverage. Good scouting by the coaches resulted in Bosa dropping back directly into the quarterbacks “hot” read and the play was doomed from the start.

Hubbard might not demand the same level of attention on the line that Bosa did, but he’s more athletic and should be more than capable at handling some short-zone responsibilities. Of course, the real upside to using Hubbard as an outside linebacker is the chance for him to feast on one-on-one matchups when the Buckeyes decide to deplore their five-man defensive line.

What a five-man defensive line might look like

Ohio State utilized a five-man rush during their national championship win over Oregon:

The Buckeyes had Bosa line up in a “zero” technique directly over the center with Adolphus Washington and Steve Miller flanking him as three techniques. Darron Lee and Curtis Grant lined up as outside linebackers to rush the quarterback. Joshua Perry sat in the middle of the defense to watch for a pass to the running back or quarterback run. This formation in it of itself is troubling enough for opposing offenses, but the really scary part was watching the Buckeyes come up creative stunts to free up rushers:

Both Lee and Grant come inside on twists while Miller and Washington generate outside pressure. Obviously this formation was created with a different group of personnel, but we could see something similar this season with the following changes:

  • Zero technique = Joey Bosa = Dre’Mont Jones
  • Three techniques = Adolphus Washington and Steve Miller = Nick Bosa and Jalyn Holmes
  • Outside linebackers = Curtis Grant and Darron Lee = Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard
  • MIddle linebacker = Joshua Perry = Jerome Baker

Obviously the new-look version of this five-man front wouldn’t have quite as much speed without a player of Lee’s caliber on the field, but it would also unleash five potent pass rushers, all of whom have proven to be more than capable of defeating single blocks. Jones, Bosa and Holmes have all had experience playing in the interior of the defensive line. Lewis and Hubbard would have a new position at outside linebacker, but their responsibilities wouldn’t be any different than if they were playing defensive end. Baker got plenty of experience spying quarterbacks last season and he can also provide help on the blitz when necessary.

Around NFL Draft season, we often hear about how a certain prospect could thrive if they find the right “system”. The reality of football is that no single system will continuously optimize the potential from a new roster. The very best coaches will adjust their system in order to get their best players on the field and put them in a position to exceed.

Ohio State has an embarrassment of riches at defensive line this season. Instead of simply picking the best four players and being done with the discussion, they’re approaching this “problem” as a blessing and already looking for ways to get all of their best players on the field at once. We’ll see what comes from a package that features five defensive lineman on the field at once, but the fact that it’s even being discussed is a great sign for the future of Ohio State’s defense.