Ohio State’s defense in 2019 will be defined by changes. Four new defensive coaches are all but certain to change how things are done in Columbus in an attempt to reverse the struggles of 2018, and with those scheme adjustments will likely come personnel changes. Luckily for Ohio State, those personnel changes will be almost entirely voluntary, because 85 percent of last season’s production on the defensive side of the ball is back on the roster in 2019.
The losses of Nick Bosa, Dre’Mont Jones, and Kendall Sheffield — among a few others — will certainly need addressing, but things could be a lot worse from an experience perspective. However, the key for this new staff when it comes to implementing new schemes and creating a new depth chart is recognizing that “returning starter” doesn’t necessarily mean “capable starter.”
As we saw last season, the Buckeye defense was carrying some dead weight. There were full position groups that just didn’t work correctly, and even if those groups return everyone (or almost everyone) in 2019, that doesn’t mean the depth chart should stay untouched.
Hell, that may be the most important thing of this whole season for the Buckeyes. Ryan Day’s willingness, or lack thereof (we don’t know yet) to go away from the older or more experienced players could be crucial in returning the fire to Ohio State that the Buckeyes, frankly, lacked over the past few seasons. That starts with personnel.
The defensive line was easily the least shaky of any group on the defense in 2018, for pretty obvious reasons. Firstly, it was loaded with talent, and secondly, Larry Johnson is almost certainly the best defensive line coach in the country, or at least in the top three. It’s hard to worry about one of his groups, and even with a few major departures to the NFL, that remains true entering 2019.
Because Ohio State spent most of 2018 without Nick Bosa, the only real questions on the line are at tackle, filling the spot left by Dre’Mont Jones, and on the second string. Ohio State is loaded with young talent at both end at tackle, but only has three truly proven starters: defensive ends Chase Young and Jonathon Cooper, and defensive tackle Robert Landers.
Tackle Davon Hamilton has played quite a bit, and is the expected starter next to Landers, but outside of him, there’s a whole lot of potential and very little production at tackle. In terms of time in college football, behind Hamilton, Ohio State has the junior duo of Haskell Garrett and Antwuan Jackson, neither of whom saw much time last season (Garrett played in five games, Jackson didn’t see the field). They seem like candidates to take a step towards playing time in 2019, but neither has done much so far in Columbus.
After that, the herd of talented sophomores and freshmen could push for some time, and some think at least one could break through and beat Hamilton for the starting job. Taron Vincent and Tommy Togiai both looked good in limited time, and their lofty recruiting rankings hint towards a big development towards stardom for both this summer. True freshman Jaden McKenzie will likely take a redshirt year.
Of that group, Johnson has quite a bit of talent and athleticism to work with, but not a whole lot of solid answers. We know whatever he produces will be good, but finding someone who isn’t just talented, but someone who fits next to the smaller Landers could be huge for a Buckeye defense that could experience some growing pains in the back seven.
At end, Ohio State is in a fairly similar, although a bit less ambiguous, spot. The starters are essentially solidified, and the number three option seems to be set as well after sophomore Tyreke Smith broke through at the end of 2018. Jashon Cornell is entering his final year in the program and seems unlikely to break into the starting lineup at this point, but should serve as really great depth.
Behind those four, it’s a battle of youth. Sophomore Tyler Friday and redshirt freshman Javontae Jean-Baptiste will both look to separate themselves from incoming five-star Zach Harrison and four-star Noah Potter.
Depth chart projection
- Chase Young/Robert Landers/Davon Hamilton/Johnathon Cooper
- Tyreke Smith/Haskell Garrett/Taron Vincent/Jashon Cornell
- Zach Harrison/Tommy Togiai/Antwuan Jackson/Tyler Friday
This is probably the group of starters I’m most comfortable in projecting. Hamilton isn’t a big name like some of his backups, but putting a big body like him next to the smaller (relative to the position) and quicker Landers makes a ton of sense. Allowing Landers to spend more time breaking into the backfield while Hamilton fills space with his strength and size feels ideal for the interior. Chase Young is a star, and will continue to dominate, and while Cooper isn’t quite on that level, he’s a very good starter.
I expect we’ll see quite a bit of time from all four members of the second group, because Larry Johnson loves rotating his players. Smith and Cornell are likely established at these spots already, and Garrett is the most proven of the non-starting tackles. Vincent gets the slight edge over Jackson and Togiai because of his ability to rush the quarterback from an interior line spot. That’s rare.
On the final group, Zach Harrison impresses enough with pure athleticism to break into the depth chart, but along with the rest of that third string, likely only sees the field in reserve time against lesser opponents.
From the easiest to project to the hardest, Ohio State’s linebacker group is an absolute mess right now. But, that isn’t to say that there’s no talent. This room is loaded with talent, both young and old. The issue, rather, is that several starters last year were below average to dreadful depending on the game, and unfortunately, all three return. There is also the chance that Ohio State might not even run a 4-3 defense this year, meaning that Malik Harrison may be joined by just one new starter, rather than two.
For the sake of this piece, we’re going to break the rules of football a bit and do two depth charts here, because Ohio State could switch to a 4-2-5, which would introduce a nickelback to the defense, and that’s a section of its own.
But, back to the linebackers, we’ll start with the good:
Malik Harrison! After an inconsistent 2017 and a rocky start to 2018, Harrison was legitimately awesome by the end of 2018, using his speed correctly, taking good angles, and serving as pretty much the only consistent tackler at linebacker for the Buckeyes. Getting him back for his senior year is a massive deal for Ohio State’s defense.
Now, the bad news. This is the returning starter at middle linebacker:
this is a different play. he did it again. i'm inconsolable pic.twitter.com/xMjX5rf3dg— patrick mayhorn (@patrick_mayhorn) January 2, 2019
And the other returning outside linebacker that isn’t Malik Harrison:
Okay, maybe it’s a bit too mean to reduce Tuf Borland and Pete Werner to those plays. However, those two pretty obviously weren’t up to par in 2018, and while some of their issues were coaching based, some were things that just really can’t be fixed. Borland isn’t fast enough after his Achilles injury to play linebacker the way he wants to, and Werner is too small to be a linebacker, but too slow to be a nickelback, which Ohio State tried to make him last year.
That likely means that new defensive coaches Al Washington, Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley will have to make some changes. They’ve all said that the defense is going to get faster, and go back to a system where we see linebackers permitted to read plays and react, rather than use them as, essentially, linemen, putting them right on the line and blitzing on nearly every play. Unfortunately for Werner and Borland, that all probably spells the end of their tenure as starters.
So, who steps into those roles? Junior Baron Browning seems like a popular answer at either spot. He has elite speed and tracking ability, and if Ohio State puts him in the correct position (outside linebacker, rather than inside linebacker), he could become a devastating force in the backfield. Redshirt senior Justin Hilliard has one last year to make an impact, and is probably the safest answer at middle linebacker.
After those two are a bunch of super talented, yet super unproven youngsters. Teradja Mitchell is reportedly the hardest hitter on the roster, Dallas Gant has elite speed and looked great coming out of high school, and while K’Vaughan Pope doesn’t get as much hype as his classmates, he was extremely dominant as a recruit. Tommy Eichenberg and Cade Stover will be new on campus this summer, and probably won’t be ready to play a ton by fall.
The question here is a philosophical one. If Ohio State’s new coaches are ultra-conservative, they won’t change much of anything. They’ll stick with Tuf and Pete, and who knows, maybe they’ll improve in a better scheme (probably not, but maybe).
If they’re conservative, but willing to take a few risks, they’ll likely go with Werner/Browning/Harrison or Browning/Hilliard/Harrison. Where it gets fun is when you consider the possibility of these new coaches being willing to take a risk.
If they’re willing to get weird, we could very easily see a Browning/Mitchell/Harrison pairing. That’s a whole lot of speed on the outside, and a whole lot of hitting on the inside. It’s probably not likely, but something like this could give Ohio State the spark that they need in the middle of the defense. So, what does the depth chart look like if they stick with the traditional 4-3?
Depth chart projection
- Baron Browning/Teradja Mitchell/Malik Harrison
- Pete Werner/Justin Hilliard/Dallas Gant
- K’Vaughan Pope/Tuf Borland/Case Stover
I’m willing to give this new staff the benefit of the doubt. So, let’s hope that they make the fun move and start Mitchell, and pair that with the smart move of moving Browning to the outside. With this, Browning is able to fill the Darron Lee role — so to speak — and with such a good tackler inside, Ohio State has someone to help out in stuffing the run.
With this group, I imagine Hilliard finds a ton of time too, although as a bit of a situational player when the Buckeyes really need to stop the run, and he can use his strength and instincts.
I don’t expect any of the rest of the guys on this depth chart to rotate in very often, because that just doesn’t really gel with how Mattison or Hafley appear to do things.
Now that we’ve looked at the possibilities if Ohio State sticks with the 4-3, let’s look towards the more modern option: 4-2-5. While a shift towards this scheme is still considered radical by quite a few college football (and football in general) traditionalists, it’s become the base defense for some pretty successful teams at both the college and pro levels. Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and a few more of college football’s elite programs have shifted away from the classic 4-3 in recent years, and after the struggles of the 2018 defense, it may be time for Ohio State to follow those shifts.
However, before getting into the intricacies of what the personnel might look like if Ohio State established a 4-2-5, I should probably establish a baseline of what the 4-2-5 actually does, and why it might be necessary in Columbus.
The 4-2-5 is, essentially, the defensive answer to the spread offense. It prioritizes speed over power by adding what is essentially an extra defensive back and removing a linebacker, which in turn gives the defense an extra capable player in pass coverage. It adds more range to the defense and allows it to react faster to an offense attempting to spread the field horizontally or vertically.
Obviously, it comes with drawbacks. In removing a linebacker, you’re sacrificing some size on the inside, and if the defense doesn’t have a good line, that can make running the ball pretty easy for opponents. The good news for Ohio State is that Larry Johnson is still employed by the football program, and for as long as that’s the case, Ohio State likely doesn’t have to worry about the line being anything but excellent.
On top of that, when looking at this roster and its returning production, the 4-2-5 makes a whole lot of sense, especially when considering how much of the Big Ten has moved away from power running and towards a more open passing attack. For that fifth defensive back spot, you generally want a bit of a tweener — someone who may be a bit too big for defensive back but a bit too fast for linebacker — and Ohio State has quite a few of those.
The obvious number one fit for this spot is Brendon White. White proved his athleticism and showed off a knack for tracking ball carriers at safety in 2018, but at 6-foot-2, 210, he could very easily spend more time closer to the line as a hybrid linebacker/safety. He’s capable in coverage (zone or man), and as mentioned, is a great tackler, which makes him a pretty perfect fit for the modern nickelback or “viper” spot.
However, if Ohio State wants to keep White in the more traditional safety spot he played in 2018, then there are quite a few options behind him. Linebacker Dallas Gant makes a lot of sense physically for the nickelback spot, and if coached correctly, Pete Werner would probably be solid as less of a linebacker and more of a hybrid. Incoming freshman Craig Young seems perfectly built to play nickelback in the future, but I’m not sure that Ohio State wants to start a true freshman at such an important spot.
With so many options, what might the Ohio State depth chart look like if they choose to go with two linebackers and a nickelback?
Depth chart projection
- LBs: Baron Browning/Malik Harrison NB: Brendon White
- LBs: Teradja Mitchell/Justin Hilliard NB: Dallas Gant
- LBs: Tuf Borland/K’Vaughan Pope NB: Pete Werner
If Ohio State wants to be fast, this is the best possible way to do it. Browning and Harrison can both cover a ton of ground from the linebacker spots in the middle of the field, and Brendon White is as good of a fit as you’ll find for the nickelback position. This is an excellent configuration to counter spread offenses, and would eliminate quite a few of the weaknesses that teams like Purdue and Nebraska exploited in 2018.
The second string could serve as a more situational answer when a team attacks Ohio State with a heavy running attack, because Mitchell and Hilliard provide the size and power that the starting group is missing, while Gant still gives them some speed and mobility on the outside.
The back four of the Buckeye defense entering 2019 is plagued by quite a few of the same issues that the linebacker group has. A lot of returning production (three of four starters back), but a whole lot of questions about the players returning, and a ton of unproven talent in the wings ready to claim their opportunities.
Of the defensive backfield that is returning, it seems that Jordan Fuller is just about the only sure thing. He struggled at times last year, but was pretty consistently the best player in the Buckeye back-seven. If he’s no longer forced to make so many open field tackles, he should be an All-American this year.
White was solid last year too, but as mentioned, I think there’s a pretty good chance he ends up at nickelback, so I’m going to operate under that hypothetical, meaning that Ohio State needs a new free safety. Isaiah Pryor saw plenty of time last year, and could return to that spot and see improvement in a friendlier scheme in 2019, but he, uhhh, struggled a bit in 2018, to put it nicely.
Jahsen Wint is in a similar boat, and unless he takes a big step forward, probably isn’t ready for the starting job this year. Behind them, there’s a ton of talent, with very little playing time under their belts.
Amir Riep has been on the cusp of starting for two years now, and could be ready to breakthrough. Josh Proctor came in with lofty expectations and seems to be the most talented pure safety on the roster. Freshman Ronnie Hickman and redshirt freshman Marcus Hooker likely don’t see the field much this year.
Shaun Wade and Tyreke Johnson were both considered safeties at one point, but have seemed to move towards cornerback full time (more on Wade in a bit). So, just like at linebacker, Ohio State is choosing between experience (Pryor/Wint) and potential (Riep/Proctor) to play alongside Fuller at safety.
Depth chart projection- Safeties
- Jordan Fuller/Josh Proctor
- Isaiah Pryor/Amir Riep
- Jahsen Wint/Marcus Hooker
Again, I’ll give Jeff Hafley the benefit of the doubt, and say that he goes with the highest ceiling option, pairing the rangey, coverage-oriented Proctor with the hard hitting run-stopper in Fuller. This gives Ohio State the most versatile possible pairing, and with White theoretically in a nickelback spot, the Buckeyes can afford to put a coverage-first player like Proctor in the Malik Hooker-style centerfield role.
I expect to see a lot of the second unit too, because I think both Pryor and Riep are talented enough to contribute in a bit of a rotation if put in situations where they can show off their talent.
While safety has some room for a position battle, cornerback feels quite a bit more cut and dry, even with the loss of Kendall Sheffield.
Shaun Wade and Jeffrey Okudah are pretty obviously the best two cornerbacks on the roster, and will almost certainly serve as CB1 and CB2 on the outside. Inside, we’ll likely see Damon Arnette. Given his size and speed, a move to slot could be the best possible thing for both Ohio State and Damon, who struggled greatly with bigger receivers on the outside.
Because the starters are set, I think there’s room for Ohio State to get pretty creative with the depth and use of younger players. Tyreke Johnson, off of a redshirt, should be ready to see some time and prove his five-star rating.
Sevyn Banks, Marcus Williamson and Cameron Brown fill out the rest of the depth chart, though I don’t expect any of them to see a ton of significant playing time.
Depth chart projection- Cornerbacks
- Jeffrey Okudah/Shaun Wade/Damon Arnette (slot)
- Tyreke Johnson/Sevyn Banks
- Marcu Williamson/Cameron Brown
After the struggles that Ohio State had at cornerback in 2018, this lineup should be pretty appealing to Buckeye fans. Wade and Okudah looked awesome at the end of the season, and should be ready to take over full-time as the main starters this fall.
Arnette moving inside makes him super valuable against smaller, quicker receivers, and gives Ohio State a lot more flexibility against the pass with their possible personnel packages (could go 4-2-5 with Arnette instead of White if they really need to stop the pass).
On top of that, the depth chart is filled with talent, and should be able to handle any possible injury issues the Buckeyes might encounter. All in all, this group could go from one of the team’s worst in 2018 to one of its best in 2019, and it may not be the only one on the defensive side of the ball.