In recent seasons, the Ohio State defense has been heavily comprised of Scarlet and Gray veterans — for better or for worse. And I know which way I lean. This is not meant to imply that experienced Buckeye defenders failed to make an impact because many did. However, I think it’s fair to say that the (apparent) anti-youth movement resulted in a unit on the field that lacked an exceptionally high ceiling. Or at least high-ceiling players.
No offense to guys like Taron Vincent, Javontae Jean-Baptiste, and/or Cam Brown, but I think we all sort of knew what to expect from them in 2022. The same goes for Tyreke Smith and/or Teradja Mitchell in 2021. And I’m not here to tell you that those players were not the best option(s) at their respective positions. OSU coaches clearly felt that they were. But those same coaches have appeared hell-bent at times on not rotating in young players, despite substandard production from those higher on the depth chart.
Now admittedly, inexperience, poor discipline, and things of that nature also create significant issues for any defense, so I am not suggesting every five-star freshman jump to the front of the line for Jim Knowles and his defensive staff. But it would be nice to see some (more) fresh faces once in a while. I mean, if Sonny Styles is going to play meaningful snaps in a CFP semifinal, would it kill the coaches to give us 30 looks at C.J. Hicks, Gabe Powers, and/or Kye Stokes against Rutgers?
Here’s hoping 2023 is different because I believe this Ohio State defense is bursting at the seams with young talent. Talent foaming at the mouth to make an impact. And you can try to rain on my parade by reminding me what the on-field product looked like late last season. You can tell me that OSU has earned a certain reputation — for getting pushed around on defense, prioritizing offensive recruits, etc... But it will not change my opinion that there are some young monsters on the defensive side of the ball. And this could be the season during which we see one or two break out, a la Denzel Burke in 2021 or J.T. Tuimoloau in ‘22.
But perhaps I am just drinking the spring scrimmage Kool-Aid. Because Ohio State has held two thus far, and many young Buckeyes are being given ample opportunity to shine. Which may not be the case in late summer/early fall. These intrasquad competitions held six months before kickoff tend to be a false representation of what the finished product will eventually look like. However, that will not stop me from talking myself into these young guys, based on what we’ve seen and heard during the offseason. More specifically, the spring scrimmages that have taken place each of the last two weekends.
These are the young guns that seem to be thriving, and may even develop into next-gen Silver Bullets.
Kenyatta Jackson, Defensive line
Jackson committed to OSU as a top-5 true edge rusher but did not enroll until June of last year. This put him slightly behind the 8-ball, similar to what we saw with Tuimoloau prior to his freshman season. Also working against Jackson was his own body. He weighed 235 pounds coming out of high school, and on his legit 6-foot-5 frame, there was literally not enough meat on the bone. He needed to bulk up, which is what he spent a year doing. The end result is a 6’5”, 250+ pound DE who absolutely looks the part of a fearsome pass rusher.
Without putting too much on the guy, Jackson now resembles Chase Young: tall, broad shoulders, big ol’ biceps on his long arms — you get the picture. And he has played a bit like Young during the Buckeyes’ two scrimmages. Jackson was credited with two sacks on back-to-back plays during 11-on-11 work and drew a holding penalty on March 25. This past weekend, he was credited with a strip sack and made frequent visits to the backfield.
The new offensive line, controlled practice setting, three out of probably 100 plays... I don’t want to overreact here, but I am going to anyway. I would be shocked if we do not see Jackson on the field consistently this season. Especially for a team that lacked edge pressure(s) in 2022.
Gabe Powers, Linebacker
Despite a top-10 positional ranking, I think people unfairly viewed Powers as the “other” LB in Ohio State’s 2022 recruiting class. But this guy showed tremendous versatility in high school and came into the program already built like a college linebacker. He also came in with C.J. Hicks and after Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers — two entrenched starters with multiple years of eligibility remaining.
Complicating matters for Powers and really all Buckeye LB is/was the transition to a primarily two-LB scheme, which means one less spot on the field. However, with Powers’ past experience and size (6’4”, 230), there is reason to believe he could also fill the Jack role in Knowles’ defense.
During the team’s first scrimmage, Powers shined in the red zone and short-yardage situations. He broke up passes thrown by Kyle McCord and Devin Brown and was involved in a goal-line stop of running back Chip Trayanum. Flashing that sort of versatility is a good way to earn playing time sooner rather than later.
Sonny Styles, Safety?
The question mark above is not an editing or proofreading mistake. Styles is listed as a safety. But I’m not sure that means a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, because Styles is a freak, freak athlete who showed potential to play linebacker or possibly even Jack if called upon. He is one of the most unique athletes to come through Columbus in quite a while, and I think Ohio State fans will see him making plays all over the place for the next few years.
Styles has been running mainly with the second unit, backing up Lathan Ransom or Josh Proctor. But it will be impossible to keep this guy off the field in 2023. Mark my words. OSU coaches were willing to throw him out there as a 17-year-old kid, and now he looks (even more) like a 27-year-old man.
Styles broke up a number of passes during the first spring scrimmage and could generally be found everywhere. Which could mean that he has some assignment-related things to clean up. He is, after all, one of the youngest players on the team... as a second-year Buckeye. That being said, he is a physical presence with extreme versatility, and we are going to see him on the field somewhere come fall.
C.J. Hicks, Linebacker
I have not seen or heard a ton RE: Hicks, which means very little. He is running with the 2’s and involved early and often, according to those in attendance. The fact of the matter is he finds himself behind two very good LB in a two-LB system. Not to mention the presence of Cody Simon. But like Styles, I just don’t see how Hicks can be kept off the field in 2023.
Kye Stokes, Safety
Stokes looked like a superstar during Ohio State’s 2022 spring game, so he gets a short, special mention here. Get him on the field and let him cook.