From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about our Unreasonable Expectations. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our Unreasonable Expectations here.
At a place like Ohio State, there aren’t too many expectations that can truly be deemed ‘unreasonable’. The Buckeyes are expected to be national title contenders year in and year out, their players in the hunt for the Heisman Trophy and slews of other national awards. It may sound cocky to say, but to even predict an undefeated season for a program of this caliber shouldn’t even really be considered unreasonable.
Along that same vein, we’ve got to think outside the box. For my unreasonable expectation, I’m looking for Ohio State’s coaching staff to break the mold and overcome one of the issues that have plagued this team for the last few seasons. I’m talking about putting the correct players on the field, and letting your best players get the bulk of the reps rather than handing out playing time based on seniority.
As such, my unreasonable expectation is that Ohio State will make the correct personnel decisions this season. If that does in fact prove to be true, then there is no reason this iteration of the Buckeyes can’t win a national title.
There are a number of areas in particular I’m looking at heading into the season, but at the top of my list is the defensive secondary — mainly the safety positions. We know how important the safeties are in Jim Knowles’ defense, and we saw on full display in the loss to Michigan how quickly things can go south when those guys aren’t up to par. With that in mind, the defensive alignment we saw throughout spring practice has me mildly concerned.
It’s nothing against these guys personally, but from a purely football standpoint there is no reason Josh Proctor and Cam Martinez should be in starting roles this season given the other guys around them. Proctor is going into year six with the program with one big hit coming at the end of the 2019 B1G title game — a game that was already over — as his lone highlight. Martinez has gotten ample opportunity as well over his first three years with the program, and his performance against Michigan last season was... less than stellar.
Ohio State has a five-star prospect waiting in the wings in Sonny Styles, who has looked good in very limited action to begin his collegiate career. The room also features Kye Stokes, who showed out in last year’s spring game, and Ja’Had Carter, a former freshman All-American and Syracuse’s leader in interceptions last season. Are these guys definitely the answer at the other safety spots alongside Lathan Ransom? No, but I’d much prefer to see the higher ceiling these guys provide as opposed to those who have gotten a chance and come up short.
The next part of the equation I’m looking at is the defensive line rotation. I’m not going to argue with Larry Johnson’s coaching style, as by all accounts he’s put together a fantastic career as a defensive line coach and I understand the importance of keeping fresh bodies up front. That being said, I would like to see a bit less rotation along the D-line if there is a significant drop-off in talent behind your top guys — which, in all fairness, probably won’t be the case this year, as I like many of the young guys on the depth chart.
Far too often last season we saw backups on the field at defensive end and defensive tackle in critical moments of games. Not to pick on one guy in particular, especially since he is no longer with the program, but there was really no good reason to have Javontae Jean-Baptiste on the field on an important third down or goal line play when both Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau or even Caden Curry were available. It doesn’t make sense to hamstring yourself by not having your premier talent on the field as much as possible.
This season, the defensive line depth should be far better than what it was last year, so this likely won’t be as much of an issue. Tuimoloau and Sawyer are your clear-cut starters, but players like the aforementioned Curry as well as Kenyatta Jackson and Omari Abor will almost certainly get reps in some form of a rotation, and I don’t think we will see as apparent a drop-off as in previous seasons. The same can be said at defensive tackle, where the addition of Tywone Malone will help create extra depth being Tyleik Williams, Mike Hall Jr. and Ty Hamilton.
My last two points aren’t as essential as the above, but I’d also like to see more of C.J. Hicks and Xavier Johnson than the coaching staff probably intends to incorporate.
As far as Hicks is concerned, I understand that Knowles’ system only primarily uses two linebackers and that Ohio State is returning two very talented starters in Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers. However, it can’t possibly hurt to get the former five-star prospect in there more often, especially on obvious passing downs with some of the coverage talent Hicks showed off throughout spring practice. I’d love to see Hicks get on the field in more three-linebacker packages, and it would seem a waste to have him sit largely unused for another season.
Johnson’s path to the field is much harder, as Ohio State’s wide receiver core of Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming/Jayden Ballard/a rotating cast of five-star freshman will undoubtedly be one of the best units in the country. Still, Johnson made some huge plays in the Buckeyes’ biggest games, including what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown against Notre Dame and another long score against Georgia. He is a versatile weapon for this team, and I would love to see Brian Hartline and Ryan Day find more creative ways to use him.
None of the above sounds all that unreasonable, but this Ohio State coaching staff has been unwilling to make the obvious moves to put the best players on the field for whatever reason. This Buckeye roster is loaded with talent from top to bottom, and it would be a real shame to not put out the best possible version of the team. You can only put 11 guys on the field at one time, but you have to put yourself in the best position to win football games — even if that means hurting some feelings and benching players that underperform.
Last year’s team with last year’s guys wasn’t good enough to beat Michigan or to win a national title. Still, they were a field goal away from playing in the championship game, so it’s not like they were too far off. A few changes to the depth chart here and there could make a big difference, and so I’m expecting (perhaps unreasonably?) the staff to make the right personnel decisions at the end of the day. It could ultimately prove the difference in achieving the ultimate goal or once again falling short.