Ohio State won’t have to do much to be better than it was defensively last year, but will the Buckeyes actually be good at stopping teams?
Count Ryan Day among the believers.
“I think we have good players, a good staff, a good scheme,” the new Ohio State coach said at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. “When I go to bed at night, I think we should be pretty good.”
In terms of raw numbers, there is a big gap between the 2018 Ohio State defense and “pretty good.”
Last year the Buckeyes tied for 51st in the country in points allowed per game (25.5) and 72nd in total yards yielded (403.4), though both figures are the highest in program history.
Advanced stats from Football Outsiders make the unit look better, but the No. 26 ranking still represents a significant drop following three consecutive seasons in the top 10.
So what is the source of Day’s optimism?
“I don’t know if there are better players out there in the country,” he said. “I’d like to see them.”
Recruiting analysts would agree with this point.
Ohio State returns nine starters on defense, and four of them were four-star recruits (Jordan Fuller, Brendan White, Tuf Borland, Pete Werner), while both ends (Chase Young and Jonathon Cooper) were five-star prospects.
Two of the other returners — cornerback Damon Arnette and linebacker Malik Harrison — have had some ups and downs but still received honorable mention All-Big Ten recognition, while fellow three-star prospect Robert Landers has proven to be a disruptive force at tackle when healthy.
Talented veterans usually provide a good place to start building a defense, and that group will be supplemented by another five-star player (Jeffrey Okudah) stepping into the starting lineup at cornerback. Four-star Jashon Cornell finished the spring in the lead to start alongside Landers on the line.
If Cornell doesn’t hold onto that job, he is likely to be replaced by a four-star prospect (Haskell Garrett, Tommy Togiai) if not a five-star (Taron Vincent), and all of the backup cornerbacks were either four- or five-star recruits.
Linebacker could see some upheaval. New coach Al Washington has not only last year’s starters but also a trio of four-star sophomores — Terajda Mitchell, K’Vaughn Pope and Dallas Gant — looking to bust their way into the lineup after generating much buzz in spring.
Five-star Barron Browning still hoping to unlock his potential in year three, too. Another former five-star, Justin Hilliard, could be part of the mix eventually, too, but he is rehabbing an Achilles injury.
And then there is Shaun Wade.
Whether the third-year sophomore from Florida is technically a starter or not, he and White are expected to be Swiss Army Knives for a new-look coaching staff that figures to utilize multiple defensive packages this fall to take advantage of various skill-sets on the roster.
Wade was recruited as a cornerback but can play nickel, safety or a hybrid of the those positions, giving the coaches the ability to mask coverage and schemes.
They can also use last season as motivation.
“I would say what we try to do is go out every weekend and do the best we can,” Fuller said. “The scheme will be different, but we also remember last year, so we still have that chip on our shoulder, so we take that into this year. So I guess it could affect this year, but I would say the only effect it would have is a positive one from the players’ side.”
The 2018 captain also indicated an attitude adjustment could help the Buckeyes get back to being the Silver Bullets.
“Just playing with a swag, talking trash, just playing football and just everything that comes with it when you’re playing well,” Fuller said. “It just felt like we didn’t have that last year. The chip is big. People are counting us out. And that’s fine.”
Those people do not include the head coach, though.
“I go to bed thinking we have to be pretty good on defense, and I think we will be,” Day said. “Is it going to be perfect? No, but we have to solve the problems as they come, and they’re going to come. How quickly we’re going to solve those problems is going to indicate what kind of defense we’re going to have.”