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Column: The rise of the first round Ohio State quarterback

But let’s be real, the defense is still the anchor when it comes to draft talent. 

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 11 CFP National Championship - Alabama v Ohio State Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Wow, can you believe the NFL Draft starts Thursday? After all that’s happened in the past year, the fact it’ll be a live, in-person draft in Cleveland (yay!) is even more phenomenal. There’s a lot to celebrate, both with the draft itself, and the fact we’ve officially made it through the winter’s football drought, and we can now, with more clarity, start looking ahead to next season.

Once again, as seems to be tradition, Ohio State is poised to put out new NFL talent in the form of early-round, premier picks that cast a halo on the Ohio State football program at large. As discussed on numerous previous occasions, this machine of producing NFL talent creates a virtuous cycle that brings in more highly touted recruits and, therefore, even more future NFL talent. Ohio State’s peers in the SEC, like Alabama and LSU, have boasted similar talent pools in recent drafts, and this weekend’s projected picks appear to reflect a similar trend.

With three first round selections in the 2020 draft, Ohio State now holds the NFL record for all-time first round draft picks. While the level of talent coming out of Columbus has remained markedly consistent, the on-field distribution of that talent has naturally varied with the focus of the program’s head coaches. In particular, the draft focus - or at least much of the conversation - has shifted to the quarterback position since Ryan Day joined the coaching staff in 2017. Whereas Ohio State quarterbacks might have been mid-to-late round picks under, say, Jim Tressel or Urban Meyer, Day’s quarterbacks, even in just a couple short years, have brought a new panache to the program

When it comes to the draft, especially in the last two decades, the bread and butter of Ohio State has been on defense — even with recent success at quarterback. For additional context, the Buckeyes have had 24 defensive players selected in the first round since the turn of the century compared to 10 offensive players.

Moreover, many of these defensive draft picks have immediately gone on to have success at the next level. In fact, four of the last five NFL Defensive Rookies of the Year came from Ohio State:

  • Chase Young (2020)
  • Nick Bosa (2019)
  • Marshon Lattimore (2017)
  • Joey Bosa (2016)

What we’ve seen is that Ohio State is basically turning over its defense every year (you know, except for the linebackers), and players are just going repeatedly in the opening rounds. All three of the Buckeyes’ first round selections in 2020 were defensive players (Young, Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette).

As seen from the list of DPoY above, one area that’s remained consistent in terms of draft success for the Buckeyes is the defensive line. The Buckeyes have had at least one defensive lineman taken in the draft in 13 of the last 19 drafts - consistent across Day, Meyer and Tressel’s regimes.

But back to the quarterback question. No, there isn’t a lot of data out on Day with just a couple seasons under his belt, but Day’s impact in the draft sphere was felt even before he stepped into his role as full-time head coach. Part of that was due to the innovative game plans we saw during Day’s three games as interim head coach in 2018 (Meyer’s final season), but also from the significant upgrade to the passing game we saw when Day joined the staff in 2017.

By nature of the position, there will naturally be fewer quarterbacks picked from a given school compared, say, to defensive backs or linemen. That being said, with an assumed first round selection for Justin Fields in this weekend’s draft, Day is about to go two-for-two for starting quarterbacks under his tutelage at Ohio State. It’s exciting, because it’s not a thing Ohio State is known for. Before Day joined the coaching staff, the last Ohio State quarterback to go in the first round was Art Schlichter in 1982.

The challenge, of course, will be what Fields will manage to do in his rookie season. The Buckeyes’ outgoing quarterback will have an undue weight on his shoulders to uphold Ohio State’s institutional reputation, especially after the fiasco we saw with Dwayne Haskins last season.

It’s true, the Buckeyes are not without their busts, with Haskins being among the most prominent in recent memory. When Haskins was taken with the 15th overall pick in the 2019 draft, everyone knew he was going to a rough situation in Washington, and that it might take a minute for him to become successful. And yet, even with a positive coaching change and a defense that kept the WFT in games, Haskins proved to be a distraction, and is now a backup on the Steelers.

On the note of the defense that kept the WFT in games, Chase Young made such an outsized impact through his role on the defense. Young literally won Washington’s game against Philadelphia. While Young would seem to be a once in a generation player, the Buckeyes seem to be able to develop those at an alarming rate - just take a look at Nick and Joey Bosa. The short message here is the consistency that Ohio State offers on the defensive side of the ball.

Many players for Ohio State have benefited from having a very brief (as in rookie season) time to value — or the time to spin up where the player will start to net positive returns for the team. It’s probably easier for first-round defensive players to be successful in their rookie seasons than quarterbacks, because it’s probably not a good situation if a first-round quarterback is needing to start immediately.

Of course, when quarterbacks are successful, other positions get elevated. (Just as having great players on offense elevates the quarterback). Wide receivers get bigger numbers when they have a good quarterback throwing to them. Offensive linemen give up fewer sacks. The draft stock of these players, then, also gets elevated.

What does that mean for the future? While the defensive reputation of Ohio State players has remained pristine and proven with wave after wave of players being successful at the NFL level, it also means an opportunity for more offensive players to get selected.