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Way-too-early prediction of Ohio State’s 2020 depth chart: Defense

The college football season just ended, so let’s look ahead!

Wisconsin v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Ohio’s very own Joe Burrow capped off what was likely the single most impressive individual performance in a college football season ever with a National Championship victory over the Clemson Tigers on Monday night, officially bringing the year to a close. While many Ohio State fans are still left wondering “what if,” it is time to close the book on the 2019 season and begin to look forward to another run at a national title in 2020.

Yesterday, we took a look at how the Buckeyes’ offense will shape up next season. While we have a pretty good indication of what we’re going to get on that side of the ball, there are much more question marks on the defensive end. OSU finished the season with the top-ranked defense in all of FBS, but will be losing a ton of its best players to the NFL Draft. However, as we saw with this year’s National Champions, a great offense (LSU ranked No. 1 in total offense) can help carry a good but not great defense (LSU ranked No. 31 in total defense), and Ohio State certainly has the pieces to put together a very good squad.

So which players are going to step up next season and fill the void left by some big-name departures? Who is going to earn themselves the No. 1 spot at their position on the depth chart? Spring practices won’t even begin for another few months, but here at Land-Grant Holy Land we’ll take an early crack at how things will shape out in 2020, continuing with the defense.


The Defense

(Key Departures: DE Chase Young, DT Robert Landers, DT DaVon Hamilton, DT Jashon Cornell, LB Malik Harrison, CB Jeff Okudah, CB Damon Arnette, S Jordan Fuller)

Defensive Line

DE1 - Jonathon Cooper
DT1 - Taron Vincent
DT2 - Tommy Togiai
DE2 - Zach Harrison

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 16 Ohio State at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Obviously the biggest loss this team will really feel next season is Chase Young, who is about to be the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft coming off a historic season as one of Ohio State’s greatest pass-rushers of all-time. The defensive line will need to be almost completely rebuilt, also missing a bunch of key guys up the middle in Cornell, Hamilton and Landers. However, they will still have a big commodity returning, as Cooper’s year-long injury woes led to him redshirt the 2019 season and return for a fifth year in 2020.

Cooper will enter the season with nearly 30 games under his belt, amassing 53 total tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Aside from his on-field talents, he will also be able to provide some senior leadership to a bunch of young guys in the unit, including three first-year starters but especially Harrison. The Buckeyes are expecting big things from the former five-star prospect in his second year, and he could very well turn out to be the next great defensive end to come through the program. He showed a ton of positives his freshman year, recording 24 total tackles with 5.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks in his backup role, and with another full offseason under Larry Johnson could be primed for a massive year.

The defensive tackle position is very fluid, and OSU will likely rotate a few guys in there like they did this past season. However, the nod for the starting spots will likely end up with Vincent and Togiai. Vincent was the No. 1 DT in the 2018 class, but missed the entire 2019 season with an injury. If he is back to full strength by the time spring camp rolls around, he could very well be the best interior lineman in the unit. Togiai was the third man in the rotation last season, but still played in every game and seemed to come up big more times than not in limited snaps.

As is usually the case, the Ohio State defensive line has no shortage of depth. Tyler Friday and Tyreke Smith both looked good when they saw the field off the edge this season, and the duo will likely play a key role in spelling Cooper and Harrison — potentially with three or all four of those guys all in at once in a rushmen package. Haskell Garrett is another option at defensive tackle that played significant snaps in 2019, and could be in for an expanded role in 2020. We could also see Javontae Jean-Baptiste rotate in at defensive end, having played over 200 snaps this season as a freshman.


Linebackers

WILL: Baron Browning
MIKE: Tuf Borland OR Teradja Mitchell
SAM: Pete Werner

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State will be losing its best player in the linebacker unit in Malik Harrison, but it does have the fortune of returning one full-time starter and two co-starters. Pete Werner served as the team’s main strong-side linebacker, and even dropped back into coverage for the Buckeyes’ rare usage of the so-called “bullet” position. After a shaky 2018 season on a defensive scheme that left him out of position all too often, Werner was fantastic in 2019, finishing second on the team in tackles only to Harrison with 64.

Borland and Browning split time at middle linebacker this season, with Borland usually starting the game and Browning finishing with more snaps by the final whistle. Browning is an incredibly talented and versatile LB, and I think he would be more than capable of filling in for Harrison on the weak-side. Harrison and Browning are almost identical in size, and there should be no problem with Brownings’ skillset as a former five-star recruit translating to the outside.

Borland will obviously still be manning the middle as a three-year captain. He was not an all-world talent this season, but after an abysmal 2018 campaign the junior did look better playing on two healthy ankles. I do think Ohio State still looks to rotate at the position, and that is where Mitchell makes his impact. Mitchell was recruited as a four-star outside LB, but I don't think he is quite ready for a full-time starting role after missing so much time with injuries. He very well could assert himself as the weak-side linebacker and force Browning back into a rotation with Borland, but for now it would make more sense for the hard-hitting LB to split time as the Mike.

Once again, where OSU is lacking in maybe big-name star power it makes up for in depth. Justin Hilliard will be returning for a sixth season because of his injury history, but had one of his better years to date in 2019 and should see the field plenty again in four-linebacker packages. K’Vaughan Pope showed flashes in very limited playing time this season, picking off two passes, while Dallas Gant has impressed coaches in camp but has gotten stuck behind the veterans for playing time.


Cornerbacks

CB1: Shaun Wade
CB2: Cameron Brown
Slot: Amir Riep

Ohio State v Rutgers Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The losses of Okudah and Arnette will be tough to overcome, but the return of Wade is a massive boost for Ohio State’s secondary. Wade functioned exclusively in the slot in 2019, but he will almost definitely be moved to the outside to show his versatility and improve his NFL Draft stock. The Buckeyes new secondary coach — which should hopefully soon be Kerry Coombs — will have his hands full figuring out who to start opposite Wade and who to fill his role as the slot corner.

Brown was actually initially recruited as a wide receiver, but has made great strides at the cornerback position in his first two years in Columbus. While Okudah, Arnette and Wade sucked up almost all of the playing time in the secondary, Brown actually played the most snaps of any other corner, and with a full offseason to practice with the ones, he should be in line to earn a starting job. However, it would not be at all surprising if fellow junior Sevyn Banks were to beat him out for the starting job in camp, with the potential for either one to slide over and start in the slot if they're the two best guys for the open positions.

Riep is listed as the starting slot corner, and has a lot going in his favor. The senior DB has bounced around between safety and corner, but has seemingly found a home in the slot. Riep did a good job filling in for Wade against Michigan when he went down with an injury, and outside of a PI call did a respectable job thrust into a tough spot against Clemson. He has shown he play a physical game in the slot much like Wade, and should have an inside track on the starting role.

A dark horse candidate at cornerback would be Tyreke Johnson, a former five-star and consensus top-50 recruit. Johnson has missed some time with injury, and did not get as much playing time as a result, especially with the level of talent of the guys playing in front of him. However, if he can stay healthy and make the jump expected of a five-star player heading into year three, he could jump right to the top of the depth chart. It is also worth mentioning that Ohio State has a pair of four-star DBs in the 2020 class in Lejond Cavazos and Ryan Watts that will try and throw their hat in the ring.


Safety

S1 - Josh Proctor

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Ohio State vs Clemson Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The easiest defensive starter to predict heading into 2020 is Josh Proctor at safety. Barring injury or a surprise candidate making a huge leap, Proctor is almost guaranteed the starting job as the successor to Jordan Fuller. Ohio State was very successful utilizing a one-high safety scheme all year long, and there is no doubt they will look to do the same next season. Proctor is a hard-hitting DB, as Wisconsin’s Jack Coan learned in the Big Ten title game. He struggled a bit against Clemson when the Buckeyes tried to go with two safeties against a pass-heavy offense, but with so much clear athleticism a full offseason practicing at the starting role should do him good.

Ohio State is a bit thin at the safety position with the transfers of Brendon White and Isaiah Pryor, so in all likelihood it will be freshman Lathan Ransom backing up Proctor. The highest-rated defensive player among this year’s OSU commits, Ransom should see the field a good amount in his first year with the team. Marcus Hooker and Jahsen Wint will also be fighting for the backup job.