clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Column: Ohio State’s spring game will give us a first glimpse at the new-look back seven on defense

The Buckeyes’ annual spring game will take place on April 16.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Rose Bowl Game - Ohio State v Utah
Denzel Burke returns to lead Buckeye secondary.
Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Football-starved Buckeye fans will get a chance for a feast on Saturday, April 16 at noon when Ohio State holds its annual spring game. The Big Ten Network is planning to televise the game, as it did last season.

Spring games are odd in lots of ways. With no tackling permitted, the game resembles rough, full-blocking flag football intramural games that we played in college. Importantly, the game is not simply a showcase for fans. Coaches use the event to evaluate new players – freshmen and transfers – and to check the progress of players returning from injury. They’re also usually reluctant to reveal a whole lot about the offense and defense, and so there are a lot of basic looks in play. Of course, not all of the new freshmen are currently enrolled, so participation will be limited to the 11 early enrollees on campus.

If I’m not watching a football game in person, it’s hard for me to focus on and evaluate line play. You can catch glimpses, but usually the cameras follow the ball even on replays. If you want to watch the offensive line you’ve really got to focus because, generally, you get replays only of holding or false start infractions. No tackles, no sacks, no broken tackles or yards after contact. So, what is there to watch?

Lots – especially the passing game, on both sides of the ball. Last year, we really saw C.J. Stroud demonstrate his full talents for the first time. Same for Kyle McCord. Their performances in the spring game whetted our appetites for more, and we got it as the season progressed. We also saw Marvin Harrison, Jr. and Emeka Egbuka. We saw the awesome pass rush of Jack Sawyer and the speed of TreVeyon Henderson.

In these next few pieces, I’ll talk about quarterbacks (looking forward to getting a look at Devin Brown!), running backs, and receivers. Today, I’ll concentrate on the back seven of Ohio State’s defense


Linebackers

Let’s face it: the Buckeyes struggled last season at nearly every defensive position. That’s why coaching changes were made during the season and after the season. Linebacker was clearly a trouble area. The Bucks lost their top four linebackers from the 2020 season and had a hard time figuring out who should replace them. Moving Steele Chambers from running back to linebacker helped considerably, but it still took him a few games to get the swing of things.

For 2022, OSU will probably feature a lot of defenses with only two linebackers, “Mike” and “Will,” and five defensive backs (defined as much by role as by terminology). One of those five is the hybrid safety/linebacker, or “Bullet.”

In various depth chart projections that I’ve seen, Ronnie Hickman is a lock for the starting Bullet. He played there last year, did well, and led the team in tackles by a large margin. I’m not sure to what extent his role will change with new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. That’s one of the things to watch in the spring game. Behind Hickman is likely Kourt Williams, a sophomore with good size (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) and a good deal of promise. Counting his special teams work, Williams played on almost 300 snaps last season, including 47 defensive snaps against Utah in the Rose Bowl.

Five-star recruit Sonny Styles is also likely to be slated for the Bullet. But, since Styles reclassified from 2023 to 2022, he’s still in high school and won’t play in the spring game.

The two traditional linebackers are likely to be Chambers and Cody Simon. Both played well last year, and it will be interesting to trace their development as they play in the April game. Tommy Eichenberg frequently earned the wrath of the Buckeye fan base and came (along with Bryson Shaw) somehow to personify all that was wrong with the Buckeye D – especially the run defense. But Eichenberg had his moments and did a good job in the Rose Bowl. I look for even more improvement from him than from the other returners.

Also back is Teradja Mitchell. He was a starter at the beginning of last season, but I thought that his performance was disappointing all year. So did the coaching staff, apparently, as several players moved ahead of him on the depth chart. The spring game is important for Mitchell. If he wants snaps come September, he needs to show something. All of these inside backers weigh in the mid-230s. Decent size, but not the kind of bruiser we might be accustomed to seeing in the middle, a guy who can destroy the opponents’ running game. But they’ve all got speed and should be able to cover backs and tight ends on passing routes and rush the passer on occasion.

By far, the most anticipated player to watch at linebacker in the spring game is true freshman C.J. Hicks, the jewel in the crown of the 2022 recruiting class and, significantly, class leader. Hicks is kind of small (so far) at 215, but I can’t wait to see him in action wearing the scarlet and gray. As an early enrollee, he’ll be playing in the spring game. I’m interested to see how good he is, and how quickly he’ll move up the depth chart at linebacker.

There’s also newcomer DeaMonte “Chip” Trayanum, a transfer from Arizona State and another player to watch. Last year, Southern Cal transfer LB Palaie Gaotete didn’t see all that many plays and didn’t really impress when he was in there. He’s back on the roster, so maybe this will be his year. Also at linebacker is redshirt freshman Reid Carrico; he brought a good reputation with him from high school but hasn’t had much of a chance to show his stuff. Maybe in the spring game.


Cornerbacks

During the Buckeyes’ 11-2 season last year, there were quite a few pleasant surprises for me. First was, of course, the play of Stroud, followed closely on offense by Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Henderson. Wow! On defense, the player who stood out was freshmen cornerback Denzel Burke. Burke developed fast and became almost immediately the kind of lock-down corner that we’ve come to expect in the Buckeye secondary. On the other side, we’ll see Cameron Brown, who also emerged last season as a top defender. It will be great watching them cover the Buck receivers in the spring game. If they can do that, they can cover anybody.

The depth at corner, though, looks thin to me, particularly with this week’s announcement by Lejond Cavazos that he was entering the transfer portal. Behind the starters, I expect to find on the depth chart at CB redshirt freshmen Jordan Hancock and Jakailin Johnson. Both played only sparingly in 2021, as Hancock played 31 defensive snaps and 37 more on special teams, and Johnson had only 12 snaps for the year. Not much experience there. Freshman recruit Jyaire Brown might be able to help immediately, but he is not currently enrolled at OSU and won’t be playing in the spring game. We should, however, get a look at four-star recruit Ryan Turner at CB. He’s reputed to be a speedster, so we’ll see.


Safeties

With Josh Proctor returning from an injury that really hurt the OSU defense last year, and Tanner McCalister’s transferring in from Oklahoma State, where he starred on Knowles’ defense, Bryson Shaw saw the writing on the wall and announced this week his intention to transfer. I see McCalister starting at cover safety, with Cameron Martinez behind him. With Shaw’s departure, Lathan Ransom is likely No. 2 behind Proctor at free safety. There’s a lot more experience here than at cornerback, and I expect the defensive leadership to come the starting safeties too. Remember Jordan Fuller? That’s what the Buckeyes need this year — a Jordan Fuller.


My top choices for what to watch in the back seven:

1) Burke, Brown, and McCalister covering JSN, Harrison, Egbuka, Julian Fleming, and Jayden Ballard.
2) The depth at CB – who’s going to step up behind Burke and Brown?
3) Linebacker play: can they cover backs, tight ends, and slot receivers over the middle? Can they get to the quarterback when the blitz is called?
4) The new guys: freshmen Hicks and transfers McCalister and Trayanum.
5) Josh Proctor’s health status, if he plays at all.

That’s a good deal to keep our attention and make tuning in well worthwhile.