This past weekend the Ohio State football team participated in their annual spring game. After a disappointing 2021 season and tumultuous offseason with major staff turnover, this was the first look we had at this new Buckeyes team. Jim Knowles led the Gray team, which represented the defense with his staff consisting of new additions Perry Eliano and Tim Walton as well as the longest tenured coach on the staff in Larry Johnson. Despite all the excitement, the game plan was, in their own words, very vanilla, but we still have quite a bit to look at.
On the offensive side it was more business as usual with the Scarlet team, but we did see a few tweaks in some spots. There were a couple of fresh faces at the receiver position and on the offensive line, but outside of that we only saw minimal changes. The offense was successful on Saturday because they didn’t do anything to raise any concerns, but the additions we saw could be a lot of fun. Ohio State’s wrinkles were nowhere to be seen last season, so any additional creativity by Ryan Day should be welcomed.
In spite of both sides playing coy with what they wanted to show, there was still a lot to learn, which is what we’re going to take a look at today.
Jim Knowles came into this game with a lot of eyes on his side. The expectation from fans is a quick return to the elite Silver Bullet defenses off the past. With many people believing a slightly above average defense can aid the offense to a potential national championship, the pressure will be on Knowles.
In the spring game we got to see the most basic version of Ohio State’s new defense. Knowles did not blitz, stunt, or change anything in the front-7 pre-snap, which we will see more of come August. What we saw though was an aggressive defense both in coverage and in pursuit of the football.
New Defensive Alignment
The Buckeyes did not show all that much in the spring game defensively, but one thing we can take a look at to get an initial grasp of what Knowles wants to do is by looking at the alignment. Ohio State’s defense is still aligning in a 4-2-5, meaning four down linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. This is shown in the picture below with one of the main differences being the safeties.
The safety alignment shown below is not something we’ve seen the last few years, if ever for the Buckeyes, We can also see the linebackers aligned outside of the defensive ends, another new development. Lastly, we see Jack Sawyer on the right side of the defensive line getting into the “Jack” linebacker position as a stand up EDGE defender. Without knowing the methods to Knowles’ madness, the linebacker alignment here tends to be a disrupter in the quick passing/RPO game. They also take the responsibility of the outside run defenders, leaving the two safeties as inside run fillers.
Even with a vanilla output, we can see significant changes in the alignment alone.
Multiple Coverage Looks
At the spring game in person this play was one that got me incredibly excited and made me jump out of my seat. Ohio State dropped back Sawyer into coverage, and we got to see the new “Jack” position in its fullest form, which I did not think we would see this early on.
The play-action fake draws the linebackers in on this play, but this is an eight man coverage with Sawyer dropping to the flats. Having three deep with five under can be effective, especially if they have all three levels covered (which they do not on this play). Sawyer is a little too shallow in his drop, and the linebacker does not get out to the flats quick enough, leading to the over route being open coming across the formation. They will need to improve in execution, but seeing the inventiveness on display should get Buckeye fans excited.
Run Fills/Group Tackling
One of the issues with Ohio State’s defense last year was the team having incorrect run fits and trouble getting hats to the football. In the full contact periods in the spring game, this seemed to be a major point of emphasis for Jim Knowles and the staff.
In the play below, we do not see anything crazy, any spectacular effort, but we do see fundamental football. Miyan Williams (now donning No. 3) is a physical running back and the defense is in a short yardage situation. The offense hands the ball off on an inside run, and these short yardage situations gave the Buckeyes fits last season. At the snap the defensive line eats up blockers, allowing Steele Chambers and the other linebackers to flow freely to the football. A group of defenders meets Williams in the hole and stops him for little to no gain on the play.
The defense was not without issues in the run game, but these small positives are the difference between a bad defense and a serviceable one.
Ryan Day’s offense last season was statistically one of the best in the country, but still left a lot to be desired. Against teams with good fronts, Ohio State struggled to run the ball in short yardage situations, got stagnant in the passing game, and relied too much on their inside/outside zone running game.
In 2022, Day should be able to put a lot more on Stroud’s shoulders, which should make for a more prolific offense. There is a ton of returning talent, including two starters in the backfield, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and four linemen who have starting experience. In the spring game there were some signs of Day getting into his bag of tricks, despite him saying they didn’t show much.
Running Backs in Passing Game
Last season the only time Ohio State utilized the running backs in the passing game was through check downs and screens. With the talent in the backfield this year – specifically Evan Pryor with his skillset and physical transformation – this should become a more regular fixture in the offensive game plan. If the Buckeyes add another dimension effectively, this can make the offense that much more dangerous.
In the next play that stood out, Devin Brown is at the helm playing quarterback with Evan Pryor in the backfield. Ohio State runs Kyion Grayes (No. 17) and the tight end on inside breaking routes. Grayes is used as a pick player to create some space for the running back. Pryor comes out of the backfield and has no defender on him due to the play design and Brown delivers a nice throw. This play turns into a big gain, and we saw them run this a couple of times last season. Having more plays like this will only make the offense better, and we saw how much damage it could do on Saturday.
Quarterback Under Center
In the first series Ohio State did a lot of different things with Stroud, but the most noticeable was the amount of work from under center. The Buckeyes’ offense ran four straight plays from under center, including a direct hand off, a straight drop back pass, a boot-action, and a play action drop back. This was an interesting development considering how much of last year’s passing game was executed from the gun.
The sequence on the first drive has two plays that were used to build off of each other. This is the chess game offensive coaches want to play with defense. In the first play, Ohio State runs a midline zone with TreVeyon Henderson. This has been utilized in the offense previously, but seeing more under center runs would be a nice addition an already dangerous offense. By creating play-calling diversity in different formations, teams won’t be able to find the patterns that they were keying in on at the end of last season.
In 2021, Ohio State’s offense was easy to scheme against because of formational tells. The Buckeyes showed on this drive that this might not be the case this year. Ohio State went under center four times consecutively with four different play types. The final play is a play-action pass built off the run game set up.
The play-action mirrors the run game that picked up the first down in the previous clip, and C.J. Stroud sells the fake well. The defenders collapse initially because in the same situation earlier in the drive Ohio State ran the ball. This allows Jaxon Smith-Njigba to get behind the defense, creates an easy window for Stroud to throw to, and ends up leading to a touchdown.
Young Quarterbacks Flash
Ohio State has a loaded barn of arm-talent in Columbus with Stroud, McCord, and the freshman Devin Brown. We got plenty of business as usual throws from Stroud, but that was to be expected with this being his third year in the program. We got to see what the young guys might bring to the table in the coming years though with their talents on full display.
In the first of two plays, this might have been the throw of the day when it came to completed passes. We did not see a high success rate on downfield passes, which makes this play that much better. McCord is the quarterback on this play and takes a straight drop back. The Buckeyes are running a verticals concept. Joe Royer (No. 84) runs the vertical inside, and after he clears the safety McCord has already released the ball. The pass is well placed and a laser of a throw leading to a touchdown. This was McCord putting his arm talent and accuracy on full display.
In the second play, we can not forget about Devin Brown. The Buckeyes are in the red zone in the next scenario. Ohio State runs a smash concept and the slot receiver Joop Mitchell (No. 83) comes out of his break and has the corner of the end zone. Brown hits him in stride with a throw that shows off his arm talent and touch. This was a throw we’ve come to expect from Ohio State quarterbacks, but the true freshman looked ahead of schedule on Saturday.
Ohio State didn’t give away any of their industry secrets on Saturday that weren’t already known by their opponents, but we did get to take our first look at the 2022 Ohio State team. The offense was clicking for the most part and was able to move the ball well. On the other side the defense was able to make some plays and come up with some big stops. Overall, this is exactly how you want a spring game to go.
We have a long way to go until week one of the college football season, but the spring game is a major checkpoint on the way there. We got to see Jim Knowles get a little creative, Ryan Day get in his play-calling rhythm at times, and we got to get excited about some players. Despite the vanilla nature of both Day and Knowles, we were still able to learn a lot about the state of this team.
The defense looked energized, the offense looked confident, and now it’s time for the Buckeyes to build on this come fall camp.