“What I keep coming back to, though, is Lewis’ knack for finding the passer. More importantly, he might be even more skilled at finishing the play once he gets there.”
The power and depth of the Ohio State defensive line is, even before the start of the season, undeniable. Especially at the defensive end position, which is two-deep in former four- and five-star recruits, the Buckeyes have plenty of options for pressuring the quarterback. With that depth, though, the question remains as to who will emerge as the overall leader in sacks for Ohio State, or if there will be a clear leader at all.
Tyquan Lewis, who opted to return for his senior season in Columbus, is the obvious choice to lead in the category. He is the reigning Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and a two-time captain, and is currently 14th in career sacks in program history with 16.5. While it seems unlikely that he’ll catch up to Mike Vrabel’s program-best 36, 11 more sacks would firmly plant Lewis in the No. 2 spot. Lewis has led his team in sacks for each of the last two seasons, and has shown an innate ability to get to the quarterback on a consistent basis.
Still, there are a number of challengers to Lewis’ title. Nick Bosa is the likely upstart as he enters his second year with the program. In his freshman season, Bosa recorded five quarterback sacks on his way to freshman All-American honors. He’ll likely be coming off the bench for much of the season, but that situation might prove to be an advantage against a worn-down offensive line later in the game.
We also can’t count out defensive end Sam Hubbard, widely considered a future first-round pick, or defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones, who has proven effective at getting to the quarterback from the interior of the line, from the conversation. Collectively, the line will be a terror for opposing passers and offensive lines.
“After graduation and yet another NFL exodus, the Buckeyes are searching for players to step up and fill the voids left by the departed players, or in some cases, improve upon lackluster production from last season.”
Despite the loss of a core group of players to the NFL Draft (again), Ohio State has plenty of unproven talent with a huge potential upside remaining to fill gaps. On offense, especially with Kevin Wilson taking over as coordinator, there are new possibilities for wide receivers like Binjimen Victor and Johnnie Dixon. While Victor began to emerge at the end of last season, he has acknowledged that he has finally gained a grasp of the offense, which he lacked last year. “Now I feel more comfortable and I can play,” he said. Dixon, meanwhile, is well-familiar with the program as he enters his fourth season at Ohio State, but has been plagued with knee issues throughout his time in Columbus. However, he was named the MVP of the spring game, with 108 receiving yards on six catches, including two touchdowns.
At H-back, Parris Campbell has a lot to live up to after the loss of Curtis Samuel to the draft, but he brings significant natural talent to the position. Campbell is the fastest player on the team in the “Flying 20” and has the longest broad jump at more than 11 feet. The junior’s versatility extends to the return game as well, and he is expected to continue his special teams role in 2017.
On defense, a quartet of defensive backs look to collectively fill the shoes of three departed first-round picks from the unit. Cornerbacks Kendall Sheffield, Damon Arnette and Denzel Ward and safety Damon Webb have tremendous capacity to lead the defensive secondary. Sheffield, a former five-star recruit and junior college transfer, is new to the program, while Arnette and Ward both saw significant playing time last season. Webb, entering his senior season, remains the only returning starter in the unit, but was largely overshadowed last season.
“On defense, that’s the name of the game--if you stop the big plays, you’ll win a high percentage of the games.”
The Ohio State defense is expected to be among the elite defensive units in the country come the start of the season. Much of this buzz is due to an embarassment of riches in personnel, specifically on the defensive line. But defensive coordinator Greg Schiano is actively working to improve deficiencies from last season on a defense which was, statistically, already one of the best in the FBS. Specifically, Schiano is looking at how to limit “chunk” plays of 25 or more yards, which is one of the few areas where last year’s defense was deficient.
The 2016 Buckeyes allowed 30 plays of 25-plus yards on defense (not including special teams plays). And though Ohio State allowed just 14.2 points per game--good for third in the NCAA--they allowed a big play on 13 of the 20 touchdown drives against the defense. Coincidentally, just three “chunk” plays themselves went in for touchdowns. However, these big plays often proved to be the impetus for an eventual score by the opposing offense.
Of the long plays allowed, 11 came on runs, and more came on short- or medium-length passes with faulty coverage. Just four long passes got past the elite secondary, including two in the loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff Semifinal. Clemson also had a rare, 30-yard touchdown pass. This area will be one to watch, given the loss of Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker and Gareon Conley to the first round of this year’s NFL Draft.
In order to halt the big play, linebackers coach Bill Davis says that personnel, especially linebackers, need to improve at recognizing and filling gaps that might be left open for the offense. And, perhaps more apparent, players need to be efficient tacklers. “That’s what we do; that’s what we’re paid to do,” Davis said. “We’re going to get to the ball and we’re going to tackle.”