The Ohio State defense certainly took a dip in 2020.
In 2019, Ohio State gave up 156 passing yards per game, which was the least in FBS. In 2020, that number nearly doubled to 304 per game, which was 122nd out of 128 FBS teams. The Buckeyes stepped it up in the red zone, allowing two passing touchdowns per game. While this rank was 85th in FBS, it was still almost quadrupled from the 0.6 they had in 2019.
The 2019 Buckeye defense was eighth in rushing yards per game (104), seventh in yards per carry (3.0), and 26th in rushing touchdowns per game (1.0). The next year, Ohio State was not nearly as far off, ranking sixth in yards per game (97.9), 18th in yards per carry (3.4), and 39th in touchdowns per game (1.3). While the rankings might seem jarring, the actual figures aren’t bad.
While it may seem like the running game didn’t backslide as badly, once teams realized they could pass all they want, they didn’t need to stick to the run as much. Per game, opponents ran six times fewer on average in 2020 but attempted eleven more passes.
Overall, Ohio State dropped from having the best total defense in 2019 (260 yards allowed per game) to 60th in 2020 (401.9 yards per game).
While the Buckeyes won comfortably most of the time in 2020, a lot of that had to do with the insane offense.
Ohio State clearly needs to fix their defense. But how will they go about it this offseason?
How Will Ohio State Fix the Defense in 2021?
What Went Wrong for Ohio State’s Defense in 2020?
First of all, let’s take a look at why the Buckeyes looked so drastically different in 2020.
It would have been unrealistic to expect a repeat of 2019’s defense, given the number of players that entered the NFL draft. The Buckeyes lost two key defenders in the first three picks of the draft, leaving huge holes to fill.
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson had a huge gap without the future NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Chase Young. Jonathon Cooper and Zach Harrison took a while to round into form, but even at their best, they can’t compete with Young.
Jeffrey Okudah and Damon Arnette both went in the first round, leaving Buckeyes without any returning boundary cornerbacks. Jordan Fuller ended up being a fourth-round pick, so the Ohio State defense had to find a new safety as well. With Shaun Wade moving from slot to boundary, all of their 2020 starters in the secondary were either brand new starters or playing in a new position.
Ryan Day and Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs hoped that Wade would transition seamlessly from the slot to the boundary. But he played with an injured foot for most of the season, and his performance suffered because of it. He entered the season as a projected first-rounder by several estimations but ultimately fell to the fifth round of the NFL draft.
More Challenges for the Defense in 2021
As if the 2020 NFL Draft didn’t gut the defense enough, the 2021 Draft certainly did.
Wade declared for the draft as a junior and is now a Baltimore Raven. Gone too are the top four linebackers, which could be five if you count the 2020 draft pick, Malik Harrison.
If you look at that number one defense from 2019, all of the starters are on NFL rosters. Most of the backups are gone as well. The only players from 2019 that got any serious playing time in 2019 that are still on the roster are all on the defensive line. That means Ohio State will basically have to reconstruct the back seven.
This is the price that programs pay for being National Title contenders. If the Buckeyes can rebuild, then it will be worth it.
The Scheme Will Stay the Same
Judging from the Spring Game, there will be no major scheme changes. The Buckeyes will stick to their normal setup on defense.
The base defense for Ohio State is four down-linemen, two linebackers, three cornerbacks, a safety, and a “bullet.” The two boundary cornerbacks will play man coverage on the outside most of the time. The two linebackers will cover the middle or clean up gaps in the run game. The bullet will cover tight ends or running backs in the pass, but can also run downhill and plug gaps in the run game. They sometimes will play a traditional strong safety role, but other times that role will fall to the slot corner.
So if the scheme doesn’t change, then what does? The answer is personnel. Coombs wants to put better athletes in the same positions.
How Ohio State Will Fix the Defense
There’s no question about it that the second level will have to be made from scratch. However, this is an opportunity to recalibrate Ohio State’s identity.
First of all, not having Tuf Borland as an inside linebacker will automatically increase the athletic ability at that position. At the Buckeyes’ pro day, Borland tested like a defensive end rather than a linebacker and ended up going undrafted. Dallas Gant is the presumed starter at inside linebacker, though he didn’t play in the Spring Game because of an injury.
Another “upgrade” the Buckeyes will do is at the bullet position. Last two years, the bullet was Pete Werner and Baron Browning, respectively. Both were respectable athletes and were day two picks in the draft. In fact, both were probably pound-for-pound the two best athletes on the team last year. But since they were both natural linebackers, the bullet position resembled SAM linebacker more than the hybrid position that the Buckeyes are looking for.
This year’s answer will be either Ronnie Hickman or Craig Young. Both will add a boost of athleticism to the position and make it the true safety-linebacker hybrid that Coombs has been trying to find.
Finally, it looks like Coombs is moving players around trying to find the right fit. The only two locks to start in the secondary in 2021 are Sevyn Banks and Josh Proctor. Both were first-year starters last season, so having a year of experience will help them in 2021. Banks is even a way-too-early first-round prospect for the 2022 Draft.
Coombs moved Lathan Ransom from safety to slot cornerback for the Spring Game. Demario McCall moved from receiver to cornerback as well. Ryan Watts had some looks against Garrett Wilson, meaning he had the opportunity to play against one of the nation’s top receivers in the Spring Game. Cameron Martinez and Denzel Burke got some good reps as well.
It’s hard to say who will start on defense for Ohio State in 2021. But Coombs will try to find the right combination bring the defense back to its former glory.