A staple of Urban Meyer's career as a head coach has always been a dominant defense to pair with an explosive, up-tempo offense. His defenses at Florida, particularly in 2009, are some of the best and most physical of all time, and despite a rough start to his tenure in Columbus defensively, Ohio State has become one of the country’s most dangerous defenses. Some great recruiting and some fantastic coaches like Larry Johnson, Chris Ash, Luke Fickell, and Kerry Coombs have helped turn the Buckeye defense around in the six short years Meyer has spent in Columbus.
Ohio State Defensive S&P+
However, while all of those coaches have been vital for the success and growth of the defense, none are as valuable as defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. Schiano has been known as one of the game’s brightest defensive minds since his time at the same position at Miami, and his dominant variation on 4-3 defense even turned Rutgers into a consistently solid program. His individual-based, Tampa 2 reminiscent scheme, as well as the personnel needs that come with it, led directly to Ohio State’s dominant 2016 defense, and if the Buckeyes want to win their second championship under Meyer this year, the defense will need to be even better than last year. Today, the film room takes a look at Schiano’s scheme, and why it worked at Ohio State immediately.
Football is won and lost in the trenches, and no defense would be successful without great line play. Ohio State had nearly perfect line play last year, with the always-solid Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, and Jalyn Holmes book-ending the line, and a steady cast of tackles, mainly Robert Landers, Dre’Mont Jones, Michael Hill, and Davon Hamilton all contributing well inside. Schiano’s interior defense is based around the “one-gap” technique, in which the defenders are responsible for filling one hole in an attempt to trap a runner. This, paired with a blitz from the linebackers, was Ohio State’s preferred approach to shutting down the run in 2016.
Schiano gives his linemen a clear, obvious path, and leaves the reads to his linebackers, who have more time to read the play and build up speed and power. This scheme looks for agile, well-rounded linemen and athletic, smart linebackers. The 2017 and 2018 recruiting classes are packed with guys like that, such as linemen Chase Young, Haskell Garrett, Jerron Cage, Taron Vincent, and Brenton Cox, as well as linebackers Baron Browning, Pete Werner, Teradja Mitchell, and Dallas Gant. Every single one of those guys fits into Schiano’s defense, and it’s scheme fits like them that make this system so successful.
Schiano walked into pretty much the perfect front seven to build his defense around, because Ohio State is absolutely packed with athletes at every position. Lewis, Hubbard, Holmes, Nick Bosa, Jerome Baker, Dante Booker, Dre’Mont Jones, and Robert Landers all fit the bill. Even guys like Raekwon McMillan that are more traditional linebackers with a little lower athletic ceiling can thrive under Schiano if they know the game — which McMillan showed he did.
Ohio State has two primary ways they like to set up their linebackers, and the form they send out depends mainly on the situation. In running situations, they’ll go with a a traditional look: three linebackers lined up in the gaps looking to stuff or contain the run by reading the blocking and tracking the ball, like we see in the GIF above. Schiano and former defensive coordinator Luke Fickell both value having someone to set the edge out of this formation, which is where Chris Worley (above) and guys like Darron Lee have fit into the system. Their athleticism allows them to essentially serve as a box safety without actually bringing in a box safety. You’ll see this a lot against teams like Penn State or Oklahoma that have quarterbacks that like to scramble, or against run-heavy teams like Michigan.
The other variation Schiano and Fickell used was primarily for passing downs, and it involved bringing the box safety (almost always Damon Webb) down, leaving Malik Hooker over top as a center fielder, and matching up the corners in man. This formation usually meant one of two things: either it was an obvious passing situation, in which case the box safety would also drop into coverage while two linebackers played a shallow zone, or it was an obvious run, and the linebackers were set to spy while everyone else played tight man with the intent to jump at a run.
This heavy man, cover-one with dual linebacker spy look works for three reasons. Firstly, Ohio State tackles very well, and with the linebackers on an island like they are, it’s important that they, along with the corners and safeties, can get to the ball quickly and secure the ball carrier if the offense tries to dump it off to a halfback. Secondly, Ohio State had excellent cornerbacks last year. You can’t play man coverage without good corners. The third and most important piece to this system working is that free safety/center fielder having the range and playmaking ability to essentially cover the entire back half of the field based entirely on a read of the quarterback. That’s where Malik Hooker came in.
THE DEFENSIVE BACKS
While the linebackers are making the majority of the reads in Schiano’s system, the defensive backs are responsible for the entire part of the field past seven yards or so. Greg Schiano depends on athletic, physical cornerbacks to play man coverage in his schemes, and rangy, freakish safeties to lock down the deep ball in the mold of Ed Reed or Earl Thomas (or even Rod Woodson, if you really want to go back).
With that in mind, it’s really hard to imagine a better fit for Greg Schiano’s center field role than Malik Hooker. Malik is a tall, rangy, playmaking safety with questionable tacking skills and a nose for the football. His speed and tendency to pluck any ball thrown near him out of the air makes him a quarterback's worst nightmare, and a Tampa 2 system’s best friend.
With the corners in man most of the time, and his fellow safety serving as an impromptu linebacker as his main priority, the free safety is given an unprecedented amount of responsibility to support his corners and eliminate the deep ball. Malik Hooker did that exceptionally well all last year because of that range and athleticism, like here, when he read the roll to the right, and sprinted for the back corner of the end zone to steal Deshaun Watson’s lunch.
Having a guy like Malik backing up your defense to clean up after the corners and take away the deep ball has allowed Schiano to move the other safety into the box, spy the linebackers, and put his corners in zone. If there’s no center fielder, he can’t do that. That’s why it’s so crucial that Ohio State continues recruiting physical cornerbacks like Jeffrey Okudah, Shaun Wade, Amir Riep, Marcus Williamson, Kendall Sheffield, and Sevyn Banks, as well as ball-hawking safeties like Isaiah Pryor, Jaiden Woodbey, Josh Proctor, and Marcus Hooker. Always having guys that can play this style is what leads to dominant defenses and, ultimately, national championships.
Once again in 2017, Ohio State has all the pieces they need to be one of the most dominant defenses in the country. They return pretty much everyone on the line, and despite the loss of McMillan, likely won’t miss a step at linebacker with Worley, Baker, and Booker all returning. The defensive backfield has three starters to replace, but Sheffield, Damon Arnette, Denzel Ward, Erick Smith, and Jordan Fuller—as well as many others—all fit the Schiano prototype, and honestly may not miss a beat. With the way Ohio State is producing defensive backfield talent, that really wouldn’t be a surprise.
As Urban Meyer said, Greg Schiano will be a head coach again, sooner rather than later. But for now, just sit back and enjoy one of the smartest defensive coaches in the country running his scheme with 11 of the best athletes in college football.
It’s a good time to be a Buckeye.