According to Urban Meyer (via Cleveland.com), “I think the defense is way ahead of the offense... There are so many strengths on defense right now. Offensively you’re trying to find the right five up front, and that’s hard with Michael Jordan who is not practicing.” In the last scrimmage of spring practice, the offense didn’t feature any champion disignations, while Urban Meyer rattled off a number of champion defensive players.
But how much of that imbalance is due to a new quarterback and offensive linemen, and how much of the defense’s superiority is based on an overall higher talent level?
I dug into the last four recruiting classes on 247Sports to see.
Recruiting Ratings: Offense vs. Defense
Based solely on the overall offensive and defensive players, the last four recruiting classes have been astonishingly similar talent-wise. Both average roughly .93 in the 247 Composite.
Further, while all of the last four classes have been great, the last two classes saw a noticeable rise in average talent ratings. On offense, the 2015 and 2016 classes averaged a solid .919, but in 2017 and 2018 they averaged .945. On defense, the first two classes averaged .914, but rose to .948 during the last two classes.
Recruiting Ratings by Position
This table organizes the annual average recruiting ratings by position in ascending order -- so tight ends and defensive backs have had the lowest four-year average ratings, while H-backs and running backs have had the highest ratings.
Not only does this show overall recruiting and talent strengths and weaknesses, but it also shows which positions are prioritized by the offensive and defensive staffs, as well as which positions can accept more developmental players (which lower the positional averages).
For example, the staff generally only takes a few total running backs and H-backs in any recruiting class, so they have to be top-notch recruits. There’s much less room scholarship-wise for developmental players for only two starting spots. In contrast, the team takes a large number of defensive backs and offensive linemen in every class (an average of 5 DBs and 4.5 offensive linemen), so the team can get top-end players and also accept commitments from lower-rated developmental players (for instance, Jahsen Wint, Rodjay Burns, Damon Arnette, Josh Alabi, and Branden Bowen are all ten of the lowest-rated recruits in the last four classes).
Another interesting note — maybe the most improved position group, at least talent-wise, is on offensive line. The defensive line actually improved significantly as well.
While it’s hardly definitive, it’s interesting that the defensive line and linebackers are the third- and fourth-most talented position groups, which could explain some of the defense’s dominance in spring practice. Even though running backs and H-backs may be more talented overall, those are still just two of the players on the offense, while the defensive line and linebackers include six or seven starters.
Top 10 players
Finally, if you only look at Ohio State’s top ten overall recruits in the last four classes, you can see just how well-represented the defense is. Eight of the top 10 overall recruits are defenders, with just Wyatt Davis and Nicholas Petit-Frere, offensive linemen from the last two classes, as the only offensive players in the top 10.
What’s crazy is that nearly all of these players haven’t had a chance to make an impact on the field yet. Eight of those top 10 are from the last two recruiting classes, leaving just Nick Bosa and Justin Hilliard from the 2015 and 2016 classes. Bosa is the only returning starter in the top 10 talent-wise.
What does that mean? Well, it means that the top end of the 2018 team is more talented than just about anything that Ohio State has had before -- and most of that very top-end talent is on defense.
Those names are just starting to make some noise in spring practice: Justin Hilliard is getting mentioned by Meyer with Tuf Borland out, Shaun Wade is getting extensive time now that he’s healthy and Okudah is limited, Baron Browning was a champion in the last scrimmage, and Chase Young will be a starter after impressing as a backup end last season. The others, including Taron Vincent, Tyreke Johnson, and Nicholas Petit-Frere, are coming over the summer.
So yeah, no surprise that the defense is dominating spring practice so far.