Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.
In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.
This week’s topic: Just how worried are we about Ohio State’s defensive recruiting?
Ohio State football made huge (positive) waves throughout the beginning of summer by gaining verbal commitments from a number of high-profile offensive recruits, as well as a handful of talented defensive backs. The class eventually rose to No. 1 in the 2023 rankings, but July has been more of a low tide season, with the Buckeyes missing out on many defensive prospects.
In the last few weeks, Tackett Curtis, Caleb Downs, and John Walker (all once considered to be OSU leans or strong possibilities) have pledged their allegiance to USC, Alabama, and UCF, respectively, leaving OSU with the same class ranking — but lacking serious defensive depth. Naturally, this has led to some fans and media types calling for the dismissal of defensive coaches and the dissolution of the program.
While the recent “losses” of Curtis, Downs, and Walker have certainly stung, I am not going to hit the panic button... yet. Ohio State does, after all, have the current No. 2 class! Is it heavy on offense, which has not been an issue for the Buckeyes? Sure. But last time I checked, the game of football requires points to win. And why would we not want Ryan Day, Brian Hartline, and Tony Alford to continue to cook? Let those men bring in all the weapons in the world and score 70 per game. OSU has appeared in two of the last three CFB playoffs with below-average defenses, so it’s not as if the team has been unable to overcome certain deficiencies.
If I had to give my current level of concern a numerical value, I would give it a 4 out of 10. If the former defensive coaching were still in place, I would likely double that to 8 or 9 — due to the fact that they recruited at a high level, yet could not put the best product out on the field. However, this new staff deserves the benefit of the doubt. I need to see what they can do with the players on the current roster before making any snap judgements.
Because remember: Jim Knowles, Perry Eliano, and Tim Walton were brought in to improve the defense — not increase the number of recruiting stars on the roster. Stars were on the roster, and the Buckeyes still surrendered 52 to Alabama. These new coaches have never recruited at an elite level, but they have coached elite players and elite units. Knowles at Oklahoma State, Eliano with the DB’s at Cincinnati, Walton in the NFL... They are known for coaching and development, so let’s sit back and see if they can put players in a better position to succeed.
Winning in 2022 should be the primary concern, and that will be heavy influenced by changes made on the defensive side of the ball — involving the current players, not future names. But looking toward the future, this Ohio State defense is already loaded with young talent. Not that you ever want to experience a “down” year in recruiting, but if you are going to swing and miss on a few guys, 2023 looks like it could potentially be the year to do so.
The Buckeyes landed an impressive trio of linebackers (including Sonny Styles here, because I think he could make the move) in their 2022 class, to go with Omari Abor, Kenyatta Jackson, Hero Kanu, and Caden Curry up front. Where is the team struggling to land recruits right now? Linebacker and defensive line. Future depth could eventually become an issue, but I am not going to lose sleep over what is currently not lacking.
And finally, let’s just acknowledge that this recruiting cycle is still in its infancy. Nothing is over until pen is put to paper during the early signing period or even NSD. I mean, was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor!? Ohio State has months – and an entire football season – to bounce back from a few disappointing weeks. Curtis or Downs could flip. Matayo Uiagalelei and/or Damon Wilson could commit to OSU. And they are in good standing with Arvell Reese and Derion Gullette. There is so much that could potentially happen, and most recruits haven’t even visited during a game week. We can’t lose our collective minds just yet.
The Buckeyes need to significantly improve on defense and win ball games. If both things happen, then I believe the recruiting will pick up. If we see more of the same... Well, maybe one side will continue to struggle. But let us also remember that Knowles and Eliano specifically have probably never coached a five-star recruit (not sure about Walton). They teach, they mentor, and they develop. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and the same goes for winning football games.
As Josh outlined above, these last few weeks have not been great for Ohio State’s recruiting class, specifically on the defensive side of the ball. The Buckeyes still hold the No. 1 class in the nation at this point, but the misses have really started to add up. Losing Caleb Downs to Alabama is one thing, as you can’t really blame any kid coming out of high school for wanting to go play for the best to ever do it in Nick Saban, but the losses of Tackett Curtis and John Walker are much harder to swallow.
Curtis was far and away the biggest name on Ohio State’s board at linebacker, especially so for new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who specializes in the position. Knowles spent a ton of time working to court Curtis from Louisiana to Columbus, and for the longest time it seemed a forgone conclusion that the No. 5 linebacker in the 2023 class would end up a Buckeye. Instead, he chose USC, which despite now being under the command of head coach Lincoln Riley, isn’t exactly a school known for its defense. Ohio State may not have been as active in the recruitment of Walker, but he was another guy that seemed very likely to end up in Scarlet and Gray. Instead, the family angle won him over and he wound up at UCF — a school certainly not at the pedigree of Ohio State.
Losing recruits to equal or lesser schools is a rough look, and it is for that reason that my concern would be at a 5 out of 10. However, that being said, literally as I'm writing this the Buckeyes have just seen the de-commitment of their former top corner commit, Dijon Johnson, so my concern raises to a 6.5 out of 10.
The Buckeyes are not completely barren on the defensive side of the ball in 2023 right now, with two players in the fold currently ranked in the top 10 at their position in defensive lineman Jason Moore and safety Malik Hartford. They also have three other corners in the fold without Johnson. As Josh laid out as well, last year’s defensive class was really strong with a pair of five-star talents in Sonny Styles and C.J. Hicks, in addition to a plethora of really talented defensive linemen. There will be no shortage of talent on defense for Ohio State either this year or next year, and as a result I think the Buckeyes aren’t in disaster territory yet by any means.
They are, however, going to have to hope that defensive prospects are truly in a “wait and see” more with this team, meaning that the new-look defensive staff in Knowles, Perry Eliano and Tim Walton will have to put together a strong enough unit in 2022 to convince defensive players across the country that Ohio State is still the place to be. Until then, it will likely be a hard sell to land many of the nations top talents across the board on defense without an on-field product thats conducive to their development and success.
If Ohio State’s defense is good this year and the 2024 class still can’t land any big names on defense, then I will have some significant concerns. But for now, as Josh said, there is still a ton of time to go in this year’s cycle, there are still a handful of big names out there that could be huge defensive additions for the Buckeyes, and you never know if a potential flip is in the cards for any of the guys they have seemingly already lost. Recruiting is a fickle game, and I’m not quite smashing the panic button just yet, but it certainly hasn’t been pretty thus far.