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Column: How nervous should you be about Ohio State’s defensive position groups?

I broke down the offensive position groups yesterday, it’s the defense’s turn today.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

As I said in yesterday’s column, I know that it sounds weird, but the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes are now halfway through their 2020 regular season. While they are guaranteed (or at least as guaranteed as a team can be in 2020) at least two postseason games, coming off of the unexpected bye week felt like a good time to see where each position group has performed thus far and how worried we should be about them. I started with the offensive side of the ball yesterday, so today is defense and special teams; gird your loins.

As a whole, the defense hasn’t played awfully. Yes, they’ve given up more points than I think that they should have relative to the competition, but I think a lot of that can be explained away by having lost a ton of talent from last year’s team, and not having the normal offseason opportunities to fully set new schemes and get players comfortable playing next to each other. They also have a new defensive coordinator running the show this year with Kerry Coombs calling the shots along with Greg Mattison this year, so that will take some time for folks to adjust as well.

I do think that the defense as a whole will continue to improve as they get more playing (and practicing) time together, especially on the essentially completely rebuilt defensive line and in the secondary where Shaun Wade is the only returning starter, but he’s not even returning to start at the same position. The linebackers on the other hand, that’s a whole other story...

Ok, as I explained yesterday, I will be grading each position group based on the amount of worry that you should have about them and how it corresponds to another Big Ten East team (see the chart below).

And, just to be clear, I am personally less worried about the long-term future of Penn State than I am for Michigan. I think that 2020 is just an unusual accumulation of shittiness for James Franklin’s team, while this season is a complete culmination of years of backsliding for Jim Harbaugh’s. But, PSU is 0-4, so they are at the bottom of my scientifically constructed scale.

Penn State (0-4) = Peak worry
Michigan (1-3) = Extremely worried; we’re teetering on the edge of an abyss
Rutgers (1-3) = Kind of worried, there was optimism, but it’s fading
Michigan State (1-3) = Vaguely worried; we knew this was coming, but hopefully it won’t last long
Maryland (2-1) = Not really worried, things could creep up, but overall it’s great so far
Indiana (4-0) = Not worried at all


Defensive Line

Level of Worry: Somewhere between Maryland and Michigan State

Coming into the season, I assumed that because of injuries and the departure of a number of talented veterans, that the interior defensive line would be the weak spot of the OSU defense. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Through three games, I think that it’s safe to say that the front line has been the most pleasantly surprising part of the Buckeye defense — although, that’s not saying much.

Now, part of my initial assumption was due to Ohio State not sharing information about injuries, so there was no way that we could have known that Haskell Garrett would not only play this season, but would prove to be the best lineman on the team in the early goings.

Also inside, the physical freak Tommy Togiai has become another solid lineman for Larry Johnsons’ unit, and players like Jerron Cage and Taron Vincent (also back from injury) have proven steady while they’ve gotten adjusted to more playing time. The interior of the line has been a bit weak in run defense though, something that they will need to address before they finally play elite offenses in the postseason.

Similarly on the outside, the defensive ends have just not turned up the pressure all that much through three games. DE Jonathon Cooper leads the team with 11 QB pressures and Tyreke Smith has eight, but those 19 pressures account for 65.5% of the team’s total created by ends so far.

With the way that Johnson rotates players, you would like to see more guys disrupting things in the backfield. Obviously there’s no Bosa brother or Chase Young on this team, so they are going to have to do it by committee, and through three games there have been some veteran bright spots, but the youth and inexperience has proven to be an anchor on the defensive line’s potential in the early season.

As I said before, they’ve been good, but not great. If the defensive line can find a way to create more of a rush — from the inside and/or the outside — that could elevate them to an impressively well-rounded unit by season’s end.


Linebackers

Level of Worry: Rutgers

I’m not gonna lie, I didn’t have super high expectations for the linebackers this season, mainly for two reasons; Tuf Borland and Pete Werner. While I know that the defensive coaching staff loves what these guys bring to the table, I just can’t understand what exactly that is.

Sure, Werner provided some flexibility and consistency in the Sam LB position last year, but he got moved to Will for 2020, and I don’t think that the change has helped him. Thus far in the season, Borland and Werner have graded out as two of the worst three backers on the team according to Pro Football Focus, and what has been especially lacking is their coverage skills; which I can only imagine will be exploited by the more dynamic offenses that the Buckeyes are likely to face in the playoff.

I did have hope though coming into the season that the elevation of Baron Browning to the starting Sam would mean that the defensive coaching staff has finally realized that athleticism is more important at the LB position in the modern college game than old-school form-tackling and assignment football. And while Browning has been above average in his new role, Borland is even more firmly entrenched at the Mike position.

Dallas Gant has flashed in fairly limited opportunities in the middle, but he has also struggled in coverage and in tackling. I said at the beginning of the season that I would like to see Teradja Mitchell be Borland’s co-starter at Mike, but he has mostly been Werner’s backup at Will, although grading out significantly higher than the starter.

So, if you asked me what I would do with the linebackers to prepare for the more athletically skilled offenses waiting for the Buckeyes when they finish Big Ten play, I would say start Mitchell at weak-side, Gant in the middle, and Browning at strong-side. Will you have to deal with some some blown plays and missed tackles? Probably, but you’re still getting that with the less athletic veterans now, so you might as well accept that as the trade off for guys who should be able to keep up with more explosive opponents in the future.


Secondary

Level of Worry: Michigan State

Here’s the thing, Shaun Wade came into the season with a lot of expectations. He was projected a first-round pick as a slot corner, but having moved to the outside, he has not lived up to what everyone envisioned he would be. He’s allowing completions on 65% of passes that target the man that he is covering, resulting in 167 yards and three of the four passing touchdowns that the OSU defense has given up on the season. Not great, Bob.

But, I still have faith in Wade. Leading into what was supposed to be the Maryland game, the DB talked about knowing where he was lacking, and working diligently to address those issues in both practice and games. I believe that he can and will make those adjustments.

Then you look at Sevyn Banks at the other corner, while he has probably underachieved a little based on preseason expectations, he is a new starter who had to soldier through an unusual offseason, so it’s not unexpected that he would need time to get fully comfortable in his new role. Like Wade, I feel good about his ability to get there.

The safeties have been another unusual situation this year, because coming into the season, the assumption was that Josh Proctor would be the one to play single-high, but Marcus Hooker has been the starter there this season with Proctor playing in the nickel and/or as the bullet. While Hooker has struggled, especially in tackling, Proctor has been one of the bright spots on the entire defense, grading out as the best DB on the team.

It’s important to keep in mind that the secondary is still in a bit of flux this season. With Jeff Hafley departing for Boston College and Kerry Coombs returning to Columbus, the DBs are still adjusting to a new system, without the benefit of a spring practice, summer workouts, a tradition fall camp, or even non-conference games. It is going to take time for the newly reconfigured secondary to gel, but I have faith that they eventually will. I just hope it’s in time to take on the ferocious passing attacks of Clemson and/or Alabama.


Special Teams

Level of Worry: Michigan State

This one is weird, because of all of the different components of special teams, but let’s start with the best; Drue Chrisman has been solid in 2020, despite his rather infrequent opportunities to contribute. The OSU punter does not qualify to be ranked in the official punting stats, because he has not averaged 3.6 punts per contest (he’s currently at 2.7), but five of his eight punts have been downed inside the 20, and only one has been returned — that crazy 58-yard touchdown return against Rutgers.

But overall, Chrisman has been as solid as ever. The same cannot be said about the placekicking. The Buckeyes are 2-for-4 on field goals so far this season, and while that obviously is largely because Blake Haubeil is injured — leading to his own miss and walk-on Dominic DiMaccio going 1-for-2 — it is still a bit concerning.

Since the Buckeyes don’t give out information on players, we don’t really have an idea as to what the timetable might be for Haubeil’s return. If he is back and 100% for the College Football Playoff, then I don’t think that there is any reason to worry.

While missing a field goal or two against overmatched opponents might be frustrating, it’s not likely to matter (and I kind of like the idea of Ryan Day going for it more than settling for FGs). But, you can’t miss scoring opportunities against the Clemsons and Alabamas of the college football world. While settling for FGs against the Tiger came back to bite them in the Fiesta Bowl last season, imagine how deflating it would have been had Haubeil missed those attempts instead of making them?

So, needless to say OSU will need to have a reliable field goal kicker for any post season run, whether that’s Haubeil or true-freshman Jake Seibert.

Now let’s turn our attention to the return game <sigh>. The Ohio State kickoff and punt return teams have been so underwhelming for a decade that it has transitioned from being frustrating to just being something that I actively don’t think about anymore. There was a time — 10 to 15 years ago — when I would factor in a return touchdown to my score predictions nearly every week. Nowadays, I don’t even assume that there will be one in an entire season.

The last OSU kick return for a touchdown was against TTUN in 2010 when Jordan Hall returned one to the house, and on Sunday, it will be six years since the team’s last punt return for a touchdown. On Nov. 22, 2014, Jalin Marshall returned a punt to the end zone against Indiana. Could the drought be broken this week against the Hoosiers? I sure hope so, but I doubt it.

The fact of the matter is, the Buckeyes’ returners rarely even try to return kicks and punts. OSU’s kick returns are currently averaging 6.6 yards per return (last in the B1G), while the punt returns are averaging 7.2 (10th in the B1G). We all know that Ohio State has more than enough talent to have far better return numbers than it has in recent memory, but it is obvious that since the start of the Urban Meyer era, returns have just not been prioritized.

The coaches know that their offenses are so good that the extra field position that could result from a return is not worth the potential for a turnover or injury. Whatever potential yardage might be abandoned by taking the safe route is believed to be worth it, because the offenses at OSU are generally so dominant that they can make up that ground; and it’s just not worth the opportunity cost of potentially turning the ball or getting someone hurt on a return.

So, tl;dr:

- Punting is solid and more than serviceable.
- Field goal kicking will continue to be suspect until Blake Haubeil returns, unless the young gun Jake Seibert proves ready.
- I’ve given up waiting for the return game to be of any consequence for the Buckeyes.


After some unexpected start and stops, I am back to posting a column every single day from preseason camp until whenever Ohio State’s football season ends. Some days they will be longer and in depth, some days they will be short and sweet. Let me know what you think of this one, and what you’d like to see me discuss in the comments or on Twitter. Go Bucks!