The 2021 Tulsa defense is not going to be confused with the ’86 Chicago Bears any time soon. They did however hold UC Davis to 19 points, and Mike Gundy’s typically high-powered Oklahoma State to 28 in consecutive losses to begin the season. They should not be a pushover for some — or most — of their opponents this season, but Ohio State is no common opponent. The Buckeyes are currently tied for eighth in the country in total offense, averaging 553.5 yards per game. Tulsa sits middle-of-the-pack(ish) in most defensive metrics, so they are likely to give up some big plays and plenty of points this weekend.
The Golden Hurricane were actually very good — if not great — on defense last year, so there is recent evidence that Phillip Montgomery and his defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie can coach up a solid group. Gillespie was even named Football Scoop’s Linebackers Coach of the Year and was a finalist for their Defensive Coordinator of the Year honor in 2020. Tulsa was a top-20 team in the NCAA in total yards allowed per game and finished 27th in points per game. In nine games, they totaled 23 sacks, 10 fumble recoveries, and six interceptions. The problem is, they lost an elite talent, and his former teammates have thus far struggled without him.
Linebacker Zaven Collins was a consensus All-American, and swept the Bednarik, Nagurski, and Lombardi Awards in 2020. He was a do-it-all force for Tulsa, before the Arizona Cardinals picked him up in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Without Collins on the field, the Golden Hurricane defense has looked pedestrian (T-71 in total defense).
It is also fair to point out that multiple defensive starters were suspended for their opener against UC Davis, so sample size has to be taken into consideration. That being said, Collins is arguably the best defensive player to come out of Tulsa — or at least the most accomplished at the NCAA level — so there is an enormous hole in the middle of this year’s unit.
The Golden Hurricane are not without talent. However, junior linebacker Justin Wright was second on the team in total tackles and first in TFL last season (over Collins), then added a pick-six in his first 2021 appearance. He was one of the starters suspended for the opener, resulting from a brawl that broke out after the 2020 Armed Forces Bowl. For the record, a brawl after the Armed Forces Bowl just sounds right.
Kendarin Ray is a big safety… literally. At 6’3” nearly 210 pounds, he can pack some punch from the secondary, and he led last year’s team in total tackles and pass breakups. However, I am not rolling with a linebacker or safety from an undermanned defense against Ohio State as the player to watch. I just don’t think that they will be around the line of scrimmage enough — and once the OSU skill players are in space, forget about it. So, my choice for this week’s Defensive Player to Watch, is defensive lineman Jaxon Player.
.@jaxon_player called it a 'money game.'— Cayden McFarland (@caydenmc) September 16, 2021
Despite facing a ton of double teams, Player was disrupting everything against Oklahoma State Saturday.
Incredible to watch. Can't wait to watch him as @TulsaFootball visits Ohio State. pic.twitter.com/aAtUKWB78L
Player is in his fourth season with the Golden Hurricane, but only truly broke out in 2020. He was voted First Team All-AAC and performed very well during Tulsa’s “postseason.” In the AAC Championship Game, Player posted four tackles (0.5 for loss), recovered a fumble, and blocked a field goal attempt. He then added five of his 37 tackles for the season against Mississippi State in that infamous Armed Forces Bowl. Both games ultimately ended in defeat for Tulsa, but they were competitive and played in the program’s first bowl since 2016. All in all, Player’s breakout was at least part of what made the defense a top-20 unit. For his performance, he was named to 2021’s preseason watch list for the Bronco Nagurski Trophy.
Although undersized, Player is able to create pressure at the line of scrimmage and penetrate the backfield with regularity. He has 17 TFL in 17 career starts. Furthermore, he has blocked four kicks during his time at Tulsa — despite being only 6-feet tall on a humid day. He is very physical, with a great first step, and cites Aaron Donald as his favorite NFL player. Donald obviously shares similar size and certain characteristics with the Tulsa defensive lineman, so it is easy to see why Player would model his game after the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Player will have his hands full against Ohio State Saturday, but it is nothing new for the undersized lineman. With the exception of Dawand Jones, nobody along the OSU front will tower over Player. He is used to being the smaller player in a position battle, and it’s not as if offensive lineman in the AAC average 6’3”, 265 pounds. He has taken on big ol’ “hog mollies” before, and proven himself to be a heck of a football player — despite his smaller stature.
Player spends most of his time at the nose tackle or DT position. Tulsa prefers a 3-3-5 defensive alignment, and Player is the anchor up front. As a bit of a “compact” individual, it really makes the most sense to have him use his strength and physicality in order to plug up the middle.
As impressive as it is to see him be productive on the interior at 6-foot, 295 pounds, it would be unheard of for him to be a successful pass rusher at that size; he has only three sacks in his career. He is the wrecking ball going through the middle of the wall, it’s as simple as that. Luke Wypler, Thayer Munford, and Paris Johnson Jr. will be relied upon if Ohio State is going to get its interior running game going.
The fact of the matter is, I expect the Buckeyes to put up a lot of points. They totaled 600 yards against Oregon, and were only able to come away with 28 points in a loss. They should play angry and with aggression in the first game following that painful defeat. Ohio State is seventh in the country in total offense after going up against two solid units, and doing so with an inexperienced signal caller. Tulsa is average right now; their defense is the stronger of the two primary units, but I just think they are outclassed in this one.
That being said, good players can still have good games. Justin Wright, Kendarin Ray, and especially Jaxon Player, are all solid football players. I just don’t see Wright or Ray coming up with one-on-one stops against Ohio State athletes, but maybe they force a turnover. I think Player can have a greater impact by creating pressure up front. The OSU run game has not been otherworldly thus far, so the Tulsa NT can help make it tough sledding up front. If Player can push the pocket, maybe C.J. Stroud struggles to make his reads and find open players. Although we expect a big Buckeye victory, keep an eye on the aspiring Aaron Donald (Jaxon Player) in the middle of the hurricane… (Ed. note: yes, that was a walk-off pun.)