We touched on it briefly in yesterday’s Buckeye Bits, but on Tuesday Bill Connelly dropped a great piece on ESPN about college football’s national title contenders. Specifically, he looked at the teams with the best title odds according to Caesars Sportsbook, and for each program he looked at just how many “ifs” it would take for that school to win it all.
Ohio State was included in the elite group of upper-tier teams that required only two “ifs” in order to contend for a title — the only other programs in that group being Clemson and Alabama. One of the Buckeyes’ ifs required their clearly talented wide receiver core to actually play up to its incredibly high potential, but the other was a bit more of a question mark: If OSU wants to contend for a title, they must keep up the pass rush without Chase Young.
I hate to break it to you, but I don't think Ohio State has another generational talent on the roster quite like the 6-foot-5, 265-pound No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t some really good guys along this year’s defensive line, but Young was absolutely out of this world. The junior led the nation with 16.5 (!!) sacks despite being forced to miss two games, and according to Connelly he generated pressure on 19% of his pass rushes — the most by far of any player with at least 200 attempts.
It’s not just Young that the Buckeyes are tasked with replacing either. Of the nation-leading 54 sacks Ohio State registered in 2019, only 20.5 were by players who will be returning in 2020. Guys like DaVon Hamilton (six sacks), Jashon Cornell (4) and Malik Harrison (3.5) all must have their production replaced this upcoming season as well. Luckily, what the team may lack in pure star power like that of Young, they make up for in depth.
While there is certainly going to be heavy rotation along the defensive line this season, the strength of the unit will really rely on both Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith.
Harrison, now a sophomore, was a five-star prospect out of high school, and the No. 2 DE in the country in his class. Both Young and fellow defensive end Jonathan Cooper had high praise for the talented edge rusher last season, with Young having called him a “force to be reckoned with,” and Cooper lauding his athleticism and work ethic. Having played in more of a limited role the past season, Harrison will now be expected to take the next step and prove that potential on the field.
Oddly enough, as a freshman Harrison finished with 3.5 sacks and 22 total tackles with five for a loss. Chase Young’s first season in Columbus? 3.5 sacks, 18 total tackles, five for a loss. It’s asking a lot for Harrison to mirror what Young did in 2019, and nobody is actually expecting that of him, but the potential for a breakout season for the second-year man is certainly on the table.
Smith, while not as well-known nationally as Harrison, was also a highly rated prospect out of high school. As the No. 4 WDE in the nation in the 2018 class, the Cleveland native now enters year three looking to make that junior jump we’ve seen from Ohio State players all too often. Injuries have slowed down his progress in his first two seasons in Columbus, but Smith was able to put together a solid year in 2019, finishing with three sacks and five tackles for loss. He and Harrison are expected to be the first-teamers on this year’s defense.
Those guys will have a ton of help, however, as the Buckeyes’ defensive line has some impeccable depth. The aforementioned Cooper is returning for a fifth year after an ankle injury forced him to redshirt last season, and there's reason to believe he’ll be entering the year with something to prove after becoming an afterthought in 2019.
There are also players like Tyler Friday and Javontae Jean-Baptiste. Both four-star recruits out of high school, the pair of third-year defensive ends could become key members of this rotating cast this upcoming season. With two sacks by Friday and 1.5 by Jean-Baptiste last year in reserve duty, there's no reason to think an increase in production is out of the question with another offseason of tutelage under Larry Johnson.
Ohio State should also have some pass-rushing talent up the middle. Last season, Hamilton was second on the team with six sacks from his defensive tackle spot. This year, the team is hoping to see the return of Taron Vincent, who missed all of the previous campaign with a shoulder injury. The top DT recruit in the country in 2018, Vincent, alongside Haskell Garrett and Tommy Togiai, should be able to cause some disruption to help out the rest of their fellow linemen.
I can almost promise you this: nobody on Ohio State’s current roster will match Chase Young’s 16.5 sacks — I will GLADLY be Old Takes Exposed to death if that actually happens. In fact, there may not be one Buckeye that reaches double-digit sacks this upcoming season, but that’s okay. This unit does not have the big flashy names it has in years prior, but it is a deep group with lots of talent and some untapped potential that should not have a problem getting to the quarterback in 2020.