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LGHL Asks: Will OSU’s defense level up this season?

Does the Buckeye defense have what it takes to bounce back from a rough 2020 season?

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Throughout the month of August, LGHL writers will be attempting to answer some of the most important questions about Ohio State’s 2021 football season. To catch up on all editions of LGHL Asks, click HERE.

To say Ohio State’s defense was disappointing by program standards in 2020 is putting it lightly.

After finishing the 2019 season ranked 1st in the nation, they plummeted to 59th last year (9th in the Big Ten). No Ohio State team has given up more points per game or yards per play than 2020’s, at 25.8 and 5.9 respectively.

And after capping the season with their 52-24 National Championship loss to Alabama in January, in which the Buckeyes allowed more points than the program ever has in a bowl game, defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs has his work cut out for him this year.

Look, none of this is to say Coombs’ job is in immediate jeopardy. I don’t think minor missteps will cost Coombs his job, especially considering how abnormal last season was on so many fronts. The Buckeyes don’t need to have the No. 1 defense in the country for Coombs to be back next year. They just need to make a good run for it.

This is, in many ways, a rebuilding year for the Buckeyes (I know “rebuilding” isn’t a term OSU fans are comfortable with, but if this team, which is still stacked, is Ohio State’s version of rebuilding, we’re in good shape). Coombs has openly embraced the need for improvement this season, and the players are, by all accounts, hungry to put last season behind them and show what they can do.

With Pete Werner and Tuf Borland, the team’s top tacklers, leaving for the NFL, Ohio State will need to break in some new linebackers this season. Look to returning veterans like seniors Teradja Mitchell and Dallas Gant to step up as playmakers.

If the defense is going to really shine this year, they will need to step up the pass rush from the edge and do a better job of generating sacks. But the Buckeyes have also filled some gaps in places where the 2020 team faced real challenges, and the defensive line this year has more depth overall.

With Jack Sawyer, one of the top edge-rushers in his recruiting class, joining Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith, the defensive ends have the potential to wreak havoc on opposing teams. Freshman J.T. Tuimoloau, who lost his black stripe after only 10 practices, is another elite recruit who should factor in this season. This is the makings of a terrifying defensive line.

Some questions remain around whether OSU’s secondary, which had a rough 2020, will rise to the challenge of improving OSU’s pass defense. But Cameron Brown should be ready to go after his Achilles injury, and this is another position where OSU could rotate in some new faces, between Jakailin Johnson and Jordan Hancock, who were both top-five corner recruits in the 2021 class. The team also has experience at safety.

OSU’s secondary might not be elite this season, but they do have what it takes to get the job done. Consistency and focus will be the key to success, especially against teams like Indiana, who will run amuck if the Buckeyes allow someone like quarterback Michael Penix to really unload.

Certainly, it remains to be seen whether some of the gaps from 2020 will be filled, and with the Oregon matchup early in the season, OSU needs to find its defensive groove fairly quickly.

But the pieces are there for the OSU to make a defensive comeback. If the team can capitalize on the combination of experienced veterans and a strong freshman class, the Buckeye defense should level up this season and return to some of its former glory.