In college football (and many sports for that matter), there is a difference between talented and good, something Ohio State fans were reminded of last year whenever their defense took the field.
Despite losing another handful of players to the NFL, the 2018 Buckeye defense had no shortage of four- and five-star talent available.
Production dropped dramatically, though, and this season the “Silver Bullets” are under new management.
While the first two days of spring practice yielded only hints at what schematic changes are in store from new co-coordinators Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley, first-year head coach Ryan Day dropped a huge clue when asked what he wants to see from his defense overall.
“I think when you force a team to work the ball down the field, you force guys to sometimes check the ball down and take the underneath stuff,” Day said while praising the athletic ability and speed of his linebacking corps. “We have really good linebackers and guys that can rally to the ball and really make it hard for teams to score. I think that’s important.”
In other words, Day does not want to see his team gashed repeatedly for huge gains, as it was last season playing a do-or-die defensive style under then-coordinator Greg Schiano (likely at the behest of former head coach Urban Meyer).
In an effort to be more sound, Ohio State is likely to employ more zone defensive looks, but Day does not want to completely abandon the man-to-man coverage that was a staple of the Schiano days.
“We have some really good cover guys and always have here, so mixing those two things up I think are important,” Day said. “But then also making it simple so guys can play fast and the front four can go get the quarterback. So I think when you mix all that up, that’s kind of what we want, that’s the mentality we want and that’s the philosophy.”
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One thing that will not be changing: Ohio State will continue playing a four-man defensive front.
With 11 four-star defensive line recruits on the roster (not to mention the three five-stars), that makes plenty of sense.
“I talked to (defensive line coach and assistant head coach Larry) Johnson for a long time about that,” Day said. “We felt if we went to a three-down scheme too much we would take one guy off the field that we shouldn’t have.
“We have so much talent there and Larry has done such a good job. We decided we would be a four-down front for the most part. Then, where do we go from there?”
Likely back to a style more reminiscent of the Jim Tressel era, when bend-but-don’t-break defenses helped deliver seven Big Ten championships and a national title from 2002-10.
Those units typically relied on a hybrid defender who was at once a linebacker and a defensive back, something that could also make a comeback in Columbus under the new coaching staff.
“Right now, we don’t know,” Day said. “We could have that linebacker who could be a hybrid guy and he could also be a safety. Based on how we think that best fits our guys, that is yet to be seen.
“Today was just installing and running around. The good news is we have the ability to do that based on the flexibility we have, (depending on) injuries and what they can do, who we think the best guys are to put on the field and how a team is attacking us with their personnel groupings.
“First, we have to find out who can do it and then we have to go from there to build the packages.”
Ultimately, how the Buckeyes play might be a bigger key to improvement than how they line up.
Effort can erase a lot of mistakes, but rallying to the ball was not a particular strength of the 2018 Ohio State defense.
Rising senior defensive end Jonathon Cooper is looking for players to take ownership of what went wrong last season and resolve not to let it happen again.
“I’m not gonna say we needed new coaches or new people to come in to feel like a new start,” Cooper said. “I feel like us players need to figure out what works best for us and what we need to do.
“I feel like the intensity we bring every single game (will be the biggest difference). I feel like you’ll see a defense that runs to the ball a lot harder, that’s getting really better at tackling. just a defense getting after it.
A central Ohio native who prepped at Gahanna Lincoln, he knows what Ohio State defense is supposed to look like — regardless of scheme.
“All in all you’re going to see a defense that’s hungry to prove to the world we are the Silver Bullets,” Cooper said. “We are held to a standard of being the best defense in America, and I feel like that’s what people are going to see.”