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Unpopular Opinion: Don’t expect an elite defense from the Buckeyes this year

The “D” will be improved, but might still lead to a loss (or two)

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Rose Bowl Game - Ohio State v Utah Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Most of the preseason predictions that I’ve seen put the Ohio State Buckeyes in the playoffs at the end of the 2022 season. Their odds of making the CFP – and the championship game – are right up there with Alabama’s at the top of the heap. But I think that’s the OSU offense talking. The offense was best in the nation last year in most categories and probably will be again this season.

The Buckeye defense, on the other hand, gave up 42 and 45 points the last two times that we saw them. Most of the same players will be back in their positions for 2022. Sure, they all have another year of experience over last year, but I can’t see new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles working miracles with his new system and turning them all into studs this year. Can we reasonably expect the Ohio State defense to be where Knowles’ Oklahoma State defense finished the 2021 season, third best overall?

Sorry, folks. Not going to happen so fast.

How bad was the 2021 Ohio State defense?

Very bad.

First, I’ll give you some numbers. Then I’ll put the stats into some context. The Bucks yielded 366.6 yards per game (119.7 via the run and 246.9 passing yards). The top three defensive teams in the country – Wisconsin, Georgia, and Oklahoma State – all gave up over 100 yards fewer per game. The Bucks ranked 52nd. With 2.8 sacks per game, Ohio State ranked a respectable 25th. Oklahoma State’s 3.8/game was just behind Alabama and Pitt, who had 3.9 sacks a game.

As we get into more detailed statistics, the Buckeyes get worse. Ranked 39th, they got 1.5 takeaways a game. They allowed opponents to convert their third down attempts at a 42.16% rate, ranking them 92nd in that category. Some folks will argue that time of possession means very little in today’s college game, especially with a quick-scoring offense like the Buckeyes’. The fact remains, though, that Buckeye foes had the ball the majority of the game, 30.37 minutes. The third down conversions and the long drives tell the story. OSU couldn’t get the opponents’ offense off the field, especially if the team was a good one.

The losses (and other sorry games)

Oregon scored “only” 35 points against Ohio State last year, but they had 269 rushing yards, 505 total yards, and 27 first downs. TTUN averaged 7.2 yards per rush, gaining 297 rushing yards and 487 total yards. They picked up 24 first downs.

Even in several wins, the defense was shaky. Utah rushed for 226 yards in the Rose Bowl, gained 463 total yards and converted 25 first downs. They had the ball for over 34 minutes. Purdue gained 481 total yards, Minnesota 408. The evidence is clear. We couldn’t rely on the Buckeye defense to make key stops, to get off the field, and give the offense the ball.

Luckily, the offense was ranked No. 1 in yards per play (7.8), yards per game (561.5), and points per game (45.7). But frankly, they won some games simply by overwhelming opponents with points on big plays.

What to expect in 2022

Lots of chatter about a killer D, like the one that the Buckeyes fielded in 2019. Don’t bet on it. Let’s take a look at the depth in various defensive position groups.

Defensive line. The top edge rushers – Zach Harrison, J.T. Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer, and Javontae Jean-Baptiste – should be good, should be elite, given their credentials coming to Columbus. But they weren’t last year, even though they all had plenty of snaps. They didn’t get many sacks, didn’t really pressure opposing QBs, didn’t tackle runners for losses. I’ve already written that this is the year for Harrison to show up, but the same could be said for all of them. We’ll simply have to wait and see if they’ll thrill or disappoint.

In the interior defensive line, I have even less confidence. I liked Tyleik Williams a lot last year, and I hope that he earns the starting position. He probably won’t, though. Look for Taron Vincent and Jerron Cage (maybe Ty Hamilton) to get the starts, at least early in the season. They aren’t bad players, but do you really think that they’ll be All-Americans? All-Big Ten? Elite players?

Linebackers. The Buckeye linebackers are also a bit of a mystery. Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers are capable of explosive years, and let’s hope that they have them. Big things are expected from freshman C.J. Hicks, but I’d guess that he’s at least a year away from true stardom. Teradja Mitchell, Cody Simon, Reid Carrico? Are any of them going to be the next great Ohio State linebacker? Probably not. The best that we can hope for is solid play, that they understand their positions and their roles. They didn’t always last year.

Cornerbacks. I’ve got no complaints about either Denzel Burke or Cameron Brown, the likely starters. Both have the skill to become first-round NFL draft picks. But the Bucks aren’t deep in this position. Beyond Jordan Hancock, who is there? For the Buckeyes to succeed defensively, both Brown and Burke need to stay healthy.

Safeties. Safety might be the strongest position on the Buckeye D. Ronnie Hickman, team-leader in tackles last season, and a healthy Josh Proctor should be starters. Knowles will often play three safeties, and Oklahoma State transfer Tanner McCalister will be counted on, I think, to be the leader on defense. He came with Knowles and knows the system well. Backups include Kourt Williams, who showed some flashes last year, Cameron Martinez, and Lathan Ransom.

Additionally, there are two freshmen that might well contribute immediately: five-star recruit Sonny Styles and spring game star Kye Stokes. Really, the Bucks are pretty well set at safety.

Bottom line

So, what’s it all add up to? I have a number of questions. Will these returning players have any trouble learning the new defensive schemes and playing smart right from the get-go? They’ll need to since Notre Dame comes first. Even if the Buckeyes master the new system, I worry that they’ll still be vulnerable to good running attacks. The interior line and the linebackers need to be much better against the run.

When a safety leads your team in tackles (by a wide margin), your opponents are gaining too much yardage. Will the edge rushers be able to exert pressure? Will they be able to turn wide running plays inside? They’ll need to. I like the secondary and think that the passing defense will be much improved. But the corners will need to stay uninjured, and the pass rush needs get going.

I have no doubt that Knowles can do the job, that the Buckeye defense will soon be among the nation’s best. But not this year. Don’t expect too much. Knowles needs a couple of years of recruiting “his” players, players that fit into his system, players that he’s known since they were sophomores in high school. Then, the Bucks will again be elite.