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Column: Is Ohio State truly playing its best 11 on defense?

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The Buckeyes won big against Purdue, but it could have been an even bigger blowout if not for some shaky defense.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Let me start this out by saying that I am not in full panic mode about Ohio State’s defense because of anything I saw in the Purdue game. To be honest, I was never fully in on this being a particularly strong unit overall, but I don’t think it really has to be anything more than average to win games — at least in the regular season — with how good the offense should be week in and week out. But can the Buckeyes win a national title with the way their defense is currently constructed? Well, probably not. That is why I'm here to help.

I think a lot of what ails Ohio State on defense comes pretty simply down to personnel decisions. While I don’t think swapping out one player here and there would suddenly turn this unit into one that can rival what Georgia is doing right now, I do think that small changes could put the Silver Bullets in the best position to succeed. Sure, the Buckeyes still need some of their top guys to play even better and the scheme could certainly include some more blitzes and whatnot, but I think everything truly starts with having the best 11 players on the field — something this coaching staff has preached but not exactly practiced.

Let’s go position by position and see what exactly can be fixed from a personnel standpoint.

Defensive Line

The defensive line this season has been fine with flashes of excellence, but has lacked consistency from game to game. There have been times this season where they have dominated and racked up five-plus sacks in a game, and then there have been times — like against Purdue — where they register no sacks and have seemingly no impact on the game whatsoever. Unfortunately, I think this is the one unit on the defense that can’t really be helped all that much by changing up the personnel, and instead just needs its top guys to play better and perhaps its young guys to come on quicker than they may have expected.

I think Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith are fine as the starters at defensive end, and I think we should continue to see freshmen Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau continue to rotate in heavily with even a little Javontae Jean-Baptiste thrown in the mix. Smith has probably been the best of the bunch overall, looking purely unblockable in a few games this year, but like the rest of the line has been inconsistent. As a whole, all five of these guys have made their fair share of plays, and nobody has really stood out all that much to earn a real lions share of the snaps. Any two of these guys stepping their game up would be great for this team.

The sentiment is similar at defensive tackle. Haskell Garrett is the top gun up the middle, but pretty much everyone in that room has played well when their number has been called. From the veteran guys like Jerron Cage, Antwaun Jackson and Taron Vincent to the young guns like Tyliek Williams — who should definitely be seeing more snaps — it seems like any combination of those guys can work. Williams has really flashed in a limited role, and it feels like we haven’t seen much if at all of him these past few games. I wouldn’t hate seeing him out there more, but the defensive tackles have all been really good and have been a big reason Ohio State has done better against the run.

Linebackers

This is where the personnel decisions get a lot clearer, but unlike the secondary — which we will get to, don’t you worry — this unit comes down to style of play moreso than talent, although talent also plays a factor. Ohio State’s linebacker play has been suspect for a few years now, and I think there are conversations to be had this offseason about whether it is time to look for a new coach to lead that group. However, for the time being, the Buckeyes are stuck with both the coach and the current players at their disposal. Luckily, in a 4-2-5 scheme, they have two clear guys that should be seeing almost all of the snaps.

That duo is very obviously Steele Chambers and Cody Simon. Chambers, a converted running back, has come on and shocked the world as Ohio State’s best linebacker. I don’t think that is a hot take, nor is it a particularly close competition. Chambers plays fast and seems to have a nose for the ball, and it would appear he has benefitted from having less time receiving instruction from a bad defensive coaching staff. Simon has struggled at times this season, but he is the best of the rest from a very inexperienced unit. Still just a sophomore, I think he has a very high ceiling in Columbus.

Especially later in the game against Purdue, unsurprisingly around the time the Boilermakers were really getting their offense cooking, we saw a lot more of Tommy Eichenberg and Teradja Mitchell at linebacker. I was really hard on Eichenberg earlier in the season, and I do think he has made solid improvements as a run-stopper. However, that is all that these two guys are — run-stoppers. Neither of them have shown the ability to do anything at all in the passing game, and to have them out there against a pass-heavy team like Purdue makes zero sense. I think there is a time and a place for those guys to be out there, but to defend any sort of pass is not it.

Secondary

Here is where I'm going to start to hurt some feelings. I want to preface this by saying I don’t love picking on individual college players, but when you play in the national spotlight at a place like Ohio State, you have to expect the criticisms to come when you are not playing well. I also think that certain guys are being put in a position to fail by the coaching staff, so I don’t want to put all the blame on the players themselves. There are some guys on this team that very clearly do not have what it takes to play at this high a level, and for the coaches to expect them to just figure it out is not fair.

That being said, Bryson Shaw simply cannot continue to get snaps for the Buckeyes. Josh Proctor going down with a season-ending injury was perhaps the worst thing that could possibly happen to the Buckeyes’ defense with no clear answer behind him, but I can promise you that Shaw is not the guy. On a roster filled to the brim with former four and five-star talents in the secondary like Kourt Williams, Cam Martinez, Lathan Ransom, and Craig Young — just to name a few — I simply cannot understand why these coaches insist on putting the low three-star on the field to get burned time and time again.

Not quite to the same extent but certainly approaching it, Sevyn Banks has not played well at all this season. Projected at one point to be a future first-rounder at cornerback, Banks has really never showed that in his time at Ohio State. We have heard the coaches praise how well he has done in practice, but in his second year as a starting corner in Columbus, Banks just doesn’t look like he deserves starter reps. Like at safety, the cornerback position is filled with young, highly-touted talents — Ryan Watts, Jordan Hancock, JK Johnson, etc. — and Ohio State would likely benefit from giving one of those guys a shot.

Denzel Burke is your clear No. 1 option at cornerback, even as a freshman — again, another defensive player the bad coaching staff hasn’t yet had a chance to ruin — and I think you can continue to run Cam Brown out there as your slot corner. For my money, I'm starting Watts or one of the other high four-star freshmen instead of Banks, and then rounding out the secondary with Ronnie Hickman at the Bullet and Kourt Williams (or Martinez) as your safety. When Ohio State goes to a two-safety look, I think Lathan Ransom (or, again, Martinez) at the free safety spot works fine.

I dont really see the downside of giving some fresh faces a shot in place of the guys who have shown the inability to get the job done after countless chances. What’s the worst that can happen, they don’t play well? The guys currently playing are already doing that! I have a ton of trouble seeing what exactly Banks and especially Shaw are bringing to the team at this point, and so benching them for players that actually have a chance to play well seems like a no-brainer to me. However, I know I'm talking about the same coaching staff that played Tuf Borland for 12 years, so my expectations of them doing something even remotely smart are incredibly low.