As we get into the meat of fall camp, Ohio State Buckeyes fans are still waiting to see if the football team’s new coaching staff — particularly on the defensive side of the ball — has addressed the shifting status quo in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes are certainly aware that the conference is embracing offense, embracing pace, and embracing passing in a way that we’ve never really seen up north before. However, it seems that Ohio State is assuming that the change is happening in pockets, mostly on the western side of the conference.
That makes sense. After all, Ohio State saw the changes up close in their loss to a high powered Purdue offense, and close wins over Nebraska and Minnesota teams that are pushing the envelope offensively. They’ve seen the RPO, the speedy slot receivers, and the damage that can be done with the newest trends of offense.
It seems, at least based off of early reports from fall camp, that Ohio State’s staff has the same mindset towards those upstart offenses as quite a few others in the country, writing it off as a phase tearing through the Big Ten West following a big hiring spree in that division, in attempt to catch up with the East. In other terms, not a full scale change, but a small uprising, organized by a few teams that lack the elite talent of Ohio State.
How do we know that Ohio State hasn’t fully bought into the “Big 12-ification” of the Big Ten? Well, everything seems to indicate that Tuf Borland and Pete Werner are still starting at linebacker, Shaun Wade is playing safety, and Damon Arnette is playing outside cornerback.
Ohio State has shown plenty of interest in the 4-2-5, the new bullet position, and defensive evolution, but they seem to be holding on to at least some of the 4-3 sensibilities that gripped the Big Ten for decades when the conference leaned heavily on massive halfbacks.
Obviously, a lot of this is still conjecture. We can’t say for sure what Ohio State’s defense looks like against the Nebraskas and Purdues of the world until we see it in action, and there’s at least a chance that the Buckeyes have learned their lesson and accepted that there’s really no need for 250 pound middle linebacker types anymore. Jeff Hafley is a smart coach, and I think if the decisions are left entirely up to him, the Buckeyes would have a modernized defense full-time.
That’s where the question comes in, however. We still don’t know just how much of the defense will be coordinated by Hafley and how much of it falls to Greg Mattison. They’re listed as co-defensive coordinators for a reason, and I can’t imagine Mattison being satisfied serving as a glorified mentor, recruiting and showing Hafley the ropes so that he can push him into retirement in a year or so.
With Mattison still likely to have a significant input, in that case, I can’t imagine Ohio State embracing a full time 4-2-5 nickel look, even though that’s likely what they’ll need to maintain an elite defense in a shifting Big Ten. The 4-3 is great against the Wisconsin and previous Jim Harbaugh-coached Michigan teams, but those types of offenses are becoming fewer and farther between in the Big Ten.
In 2018, the Big Ten had six teams finish with S&P+ top 50 offenses (Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin and Nebraska) and two more just outside that mark, with Iowa at 54 and Indiana at 55. Of those teams, all but Purdue lived off of extremely efficient offenses without a ton of explosion, which has become the mark of a modern spread offense. Obviously there are some exceptions, like Wisconsin, who exists in its own world, but the other five are very obviously modernized offenses.
That’s only going to get more extreme the further we get into this new era of college football. Scott Frost and Jeff Brohm seem to be set for long stays at their schools (unless they leave for even more high-profile jobs). You could say the same about James Franklin, Ryan Day and Jim Harbaugh. That likely means that at least five elite offenses in the B1G every year. Now, factor in growing programs like P.J. Fleck’s at Minnesota, or the potential future of a new, fresh face at a school like Michigan State or Iowa sooner rather than later, and the future of the conference is pretty obvious. Out with the big, slow and tough, in with the fast and efficient.
The only way to answer that change in offensive philosophy is to embrace a change in defensive philosophy. We’ve seen plenty of schools do it in the past, be it TCU with the 4-2-5 in the suddenly pass-heavy Big 12; Purdue these past few years; Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia; or even teams like the Patriots in the NFL, who suddenly have to deal with the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. The 4-2-5, and eventually, a system with just one linebacker, are the future of football, whether you like it or not.
At this point, it doesn’t seem like Ohio State likes it. The Buckeyes have yet to truly shift their recruiting approach for the position away from their traditional three linebacker sets, though Cody Simon and Kourt Williams do seem like better fits for a modern defense than some of the current team personnel. Still, the marriage to the three linebacker mindset is very solid in Buckeye country. That’s been the system for years, and a radical shift away from it will take time.
Well, time, and perhaps a few more tough losses to teams like Purdue, Oklahoma, and — most horrifyingly of all with a new offensive coordinator who actually knows what he’s doing — Michigan. If the Buckeyes continue to struggle against offenses with forward-thinking coaches, we’re likely to see a change sooner than later.
Even better, however, is if the new Buckeye staff recognizes the trends before they can truly take hold, shifting OSU’s approach and modernizing the defense to combat ever-evolving offenses before it’s too late. Who knows, maybe they have; media has only seen a handful of practices so far this month. So, only time will tell if the Silver Bullets are ready for the new Golden Age of Offense.