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Film Study: Ohio State has a new base defense

What can we take from the spring game?

NCAA Football: Ohio State Spring Game Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

From a takeaways perspective, spring games are tricky. It’s great to watch some Buckeye football to tide us over for a while as we now enter the longest stretch of the offseason, but for the purpose of film study, everything has to be qualified a bit. It has to be qualified because, well, it’s a scrimmage. It isn’t a real game. There are players out, there are personnel choices that we’ll never see on the field this fall, there are kinks being worked out, and this year, there was no tackling allowed.

On top of that, Ohio State is working with a very new staff, especially on defense, meaning that a lot of the changes are still being worked on. We still have four months before the Buckeyes have to be ready for a real game.

With that being said, we do still have to look at the spring game from a more technical perspective, and when we do that, there are some interesting things (see: changes from last year) to talk about. Almost all of them come on the defensive side of the ball, where Ohio State is breaking in four new assistants and what certainly looks like a brand new base defense.

Out with the 4-3, in with the 4-2-5?

The No. 1 thing to focus on from Saturday’s spring game is the new alignment Ohio State showed early and often on defense. It took several different forms, usually depending on where the bullet decided to line up, but for quite a few snaps on Saturday (probably about 50 percent) Ohio State sent the defense out in a 4-2-5 rather than the 4-3 that had become so common and entrenched under Greg Schiano.

With personnel, Ohio State actually took what I thought was a pretty interesting approach to implementing the 4-2-5, and an approach that compliments their talent pretty well. Rather than pairing that bullet position with two high safeties and two corners, Ohio State opted for three corners, one high safety, and a roving bullet. The bullet usually lined up in one of three places: near the box, essentially as a linebacker; in coverage, usually on a tight end; and back with the other high safety.

This is obviously a bit different than the usual expectations of a nickel defense, but given that Ohio State has three good to great cornerbacks in Jeffrey Okudah, Shaun Wade and Damon Arnette, one established safety in Jordan Fuller and a natural bullet in Brendon White, it makes a ton of sense. This alignment gets the best Buckeyes on the field, and gives Ohio State the option to handle a slot receiver like Rondale Moore with a cornerback, rather than a linebacker or hybrid player.

Now, this does not mean the 4-3 is gone from Ohio State’s playbook. The Buckeyes still ran plenty of 4-3, usually with Werner/Browning/Harrison, and that’s perfectly fine as long as it isn’t used every play. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Ohio State isn’t going to hire Gary Patterson to implement the full 4-2-5 anytime soon.

So, now that we’ve established that we’ll likely be seeing quite a bit of it this fall, what does the 4-2-5 actually look like in action? Well, this play halfway through the first quarter can give a pretty good idea.

Ohio State counters the five wide look with three corners (Arnette/Wade/Okudah) and two high safeties. The Buckeyes feign man with Isaiah Pryor lined up on the inside receiver out left, but this is a zone all the way. The safeties are responsible for the deep halves, and the three corners, along with the two linebackers are all floating right around the first down marker (we’re going to see this a ton on passing downs).

Because the linebackers are in a zone, rather than right up on the line as we saw them frequently last year, the offense’s attempt to attack the middle of the field is unsuccessful. That takes away Matthew Baldwin’s first and possibly second reads, and by the time he gets to his third progression, Chase Young is in the backfield—forcing Baldwin to escape. He throws right into the zone, and Shaun Wade is there for an easy breakup.

Hell, on the very next play, Ohio State drops into a zone again and Malik Harrison (side note: Malik Harrison is going to kill it in this scheme) nearly walks away with an interception.

This is how you use an elite defensive line on passing downs. There’s no reason to bring extra pressure from those linebackers unless the other team has elite pass protection. Ohio State seems to recognize that now, and their seven players dedicated to coverage make this an impossible situation for almost any quarterback, especially a redshirt freshman.

Ohio State can and will run this out of a 4-3 too. I think this new staff is far more willing to drop into a zone on passing downs and trust the big boys up front to get pressure on the quarterback. That’s good news for those who were tired of seeing Ohio State gashed on slants all year last season.

Wint thriving in the new system

The last takeaway is less focused on schematics (though I will talk about them a bit) and more on individual performance. Specifically, the individual performance of Jahsen Wint, the safety who was notoriously pushed into a starting role early last season despite being pretty obviously not ready for that role yet. He struggled, fell back into a backup role, and garnered quite a bit of ire from Buckeye fans that probably should’ve been directed at the coaches that put him in that spot.

Now, Wint and most of the defensive unit is getting a much needed clean slate.

Wint was probably the biggest winner on Saturday, as he brought the Horseshoe to an ovation twice after he snatched two late half interceptions—one from Matt Baldwin and the other from Chris Chugunov. Let’s break down those interceptions.

The first is mostly just a poor decision from Matthew Baldwin. Baldwin either doesn’t see or just ignores the double coverage, and Wint makes a nice catch on the sidelines for a pretty easy pick. Even though Baldwin made it pretty easy on him, Wint does still make a nice play here, reading his eyes and moving over from his deep zone to the sideline to make the play.

The second pick, however, was spectacular.

Ohio State drops, once again, into a full zone. The Buckeyes are in that 4-2-5 with three corners again, and Wint is serving as the rover on the left side, paired with cornerback Tyreke Johnson and linebacker Dallas Gant. Gant and Johnson are both playing in zones right near the first down marker, which takes away Garrett Wilson’s quick slant.

What that zone can’t account for, and the best way to beat it is with deep passes to the sideline. Ohio State, however, has Jahsen Wint. This play design is perfect to beat the zone, with Jaelen Gill running a pretty corner route that should be open. It isn’t, because Wint flashed the freak athleticism that got him to Columbus, made up seven yards in about a second, and snatched an easy first down right out of the air.

That’s what this defense was missing last season, above all else. Everything was so complex, so overdesigned, so tight. That’s fine in the NFL, and it’s fine if you have to make up for a talent deficiency. Ohio State doesn’t have to do that. Ohio State has athletes all over the field, and there’s no reason to limit that athleticism by throwing three linebackers out on the field every play, blitzing with them, and forcing your safeties and corners to play press coverage. Jahsen Wint was built to play in a defense that plays cover 2, in a defense that lets him roam and doesn’t force him to be excellent at man coverage or tackling. Ohio State’s new defensive staff seems to understand that, and if that’s the case, Wint isn’t the only Buckeye headed for a breakthrough in 2019.