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Column: Realistic expectations for Ohio State’s D-line after dominant scrimmage

Ohio State’s defense improved immensely in 2022, but the only way that improvement continues is if the defensive line takes another step forward this season.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Ohio State football hosted their annual Student Appreciation Day, and with that a full scrimmage for the student supporters who make the program go. The offense battled it out with the defense, and on this day the defense was the group that excelled.

The large group of students were treated to some touchdown passes, a few big runs by the running backs who are healthy, and the first recorded interception of camp in a scrimmage by Davison Igbinosun. One group made a huge impression on everybody in attendance with a dominant day all around from everyone at the position.

That group was the defensive line, led by a healthy Mike Hall and a group of edge rushers who have shown this year is going to be different. With the injuries on the offensive line, the defensive line overmatched their counterparts the majority of the day. For Ohio State’s defense to take another step in year two under Jim Knowles, the defensive line stacking up the dominant practices and doing the work in the offseason is the main point of emphasis.

Expectations are high, but looking at this unit’s performance last year makes even the loftiest expectations feel realistic.

Secondary-Defensive Line Correlation

There has always been a causal relationship between sacks and coverage in the secondary. Over the past few seasons, Ohio State’s defensive backs have not lived up to expectations, and the sack numbers have been on a downward trajectory. These two positions have both had inconsistencies in recruiting, which has led to inconsistencies on the field.

That has created a yearly chicken-and-egg argument about whether pressure leads to better coverage or does coverage lead to better pressure. The obvious answer is both, which is why if the defensive backs do not improve, the expectations for the defensive line have to be held in a different light. If the coverage is better, then the pressure is on the defensive line to improve on their recent production.

Hearing that the defensive backs this offseason have been improving and consistently making plays is pleasant talk. Until there is real action and opponents lineup across from the Buckeyes, the secondary will definitely need to prove it. With the new faces in the unit, the second year in the scheme, and newfound health up to this point, Ohio State’s secondary should be in for an improved season.

If that’s the case, then the pass rush should be more dangerous, and the defensive line and secondary will find success, which would take the defense to another level.

Improving on the sack total

Looking at the last two years and the Covid year adjusted to match a full season, the Buckeyes sack total has taken a step back each season. This is not the be-all-end-all to a successful defense, but outside of turnovers, sacks are the most impactful play on the football field.

If the scrimmage was any case for believing that this year might be a big year in the sack department, look no further than the three sacks by J.T. Tuimoloau and Mike Hall’s back-to-back sacks as evidence.

Ohio State team sack totals the 10 seasons

Year Team Sack Total Sack Leader
Year Team Sack Total Sack Leader
2022 34 4.5
2021 37 5.5
2020 21 3.5 (Covid Year)
2019 53 16.5
2018 41 10.5
2017 45 8.5
2016 28 8
2015 38 8
2014 45 13.5
2013 40 7.5

After three-straight years of 40-plus sacks with two incredible single season performances by Chase Young, there was bound to be a step backwards at some point. The issue is there has not been a dominant sack season. Looking at the sack leaders, the individual player total has fallen short as well.

This season is make-or-break for Larry Johnson’s group. Two former top-5 recruits spearhead the edge and a host of top-100 recruits are sprinkled throughout the defensive line. Johnson made it a point to make Jack Sawyer a full-time hand in the ground defensive end, and Tuimoloau showed flashes of pure dominance last season that can be built on. If Mike Hall can stay healthy, Tyliek Williams can find every down consistency, and the young guys can take a step – the sack total should climb.

With the experience and talent level in the room at the highest level in years, the expectation should absolutely be an improved sack total.

Advanced stats

Using the line stats from Footballoutsiders gives more context to the success of the group last season. The key numbers for the Buckeyes when looking at defensive line success are sack rate, stuff rate, and power success rate. These three stats give an analytical looks to the three areas the defensive line can make the biggest differences in the game.

Ohio State ranked 30th in total sack rate. It shows that the Buckeyes were not a dominant team rushing the passer in any circumstance. It gets even more evident that Buckeyes weren’t dominant because they ranked 67th in sack rate on passing downs. This gets weirder due to the Buckeyes having the best sack rate on standard downs, meaning that the Buckeyes were more successful when the passing situation wasn’t obvious.

When you look at the other two stats, they are representative to the impact the Buckeyes defensive line has in the run game. Ohio State ranked sixth in power success rate, meaning in short yardage situations the defensive line stepped up. On a down-by-down basis they ranked 26th in stuff rate, meaning teams were getting to the second level. This shows that the consistency was not there for the Buckeyes, and that is the key to really turning into a dominant group and turning Ohio State into a defensive power again.

Ryan Day’s goal last year was to have a top-10 defense. They finished 12th in opponents yards per game and 29th in yards per play, which means they fell short. Improving in the advanced stats and in key situations will be the step forward that gets the Buckeyes through that threshold. Once again, that level of improvement should be the bare minimum expectation.

What should we expect from this group in 2023

The expectation for the Buckeye defensive line is taking a step forward in 2023, which means going from having dominant moments to being a dominant group. This starts with the veteran players such as Tuimoloau, Sawyer, Hall, Williams, and Hamilton all setting the tone on a daily basis.

Ryan Day talked about wanting consistency from this group. Every head coach knows to win a national championship you need a defensive line to dominate. That means the expectation is to be a truly dominant group, and that should show up statistically. Hearing that the line was dominant in the most recent scrimmage should not only add to the confidence that a step forward will be taken, but the defense as a whole can be even better.

This is obviously just a practice in spring, but this is where it all starts. The Buckeyes had insane performances from Tuimoloau, Hall, and Sawyer last season that all show the high ceiling the group has. For the defense to reach the expectations Day set, the defensive line will have to reach that ceiling more often. For the defensive line to do that, it starts with stacking elite practices.

Last week, the older Buckeyes showed the room what it was like to work the entire scrimmage, making plays late in the day. This week they showed they can dominate from start to finish – even if the offensive line has its injuries. This dominance was not limited to the ones, with both second year players Caden Curry and Kenyatta Jackson having big days as well. The talented depth should raise expectations.

The defense will go as far as the defensive line takes them, and that starts in practice. Being dominant every day is the only way they will be dominant come the regular season, and a truly elite unit is exactly what should be expected from Larry Johnson’s defensive line.