Ohio State football: Line depth strength of defense early on

COLUMBUS -- Jim Knowles met with reporters early this week and provided his view of the Ohio State defense from front to back at this early point in the preseason.

“I feel like our defensive line, the ‘rushmen’ have a lot of depth — a lot of guys coming off the ball,” said Knowles, who is in his first season as Ohio State defensive coordinator after crafting one of the best stop units in the country last season at Oklahoma State. “It really doesn’t matter who’s in there because we’re aggressive and attacking.”

That Knowles would see depth up front did not come as a surprise.

Defensive line coach Larry Johnson can go at least three deep at all four spots on the line without using a walk-on (or scarcely a three-star recruit), and head coach Ryan Day said last week he admires the depth of the front, too.

Day also expressed a desire to see some difference-makers emerge from the group, but Knowles noted the offense gets a much different look in seven-on-seven portions of practice than it does when the lines are on the field and part of the action, too.

“Because our our D-line when we unleash them — and we’re going to find ways to unleash them — they get after the quarterback,” Knowles said. “And they get after it in the run game.”

Beyond that, Knowles gave a surprisingly detailed look at the linebackers, including a three-deep and a spare.

Juniors Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers are at the top of the depth chart at this point in his 4-2-5 with junior Cody Simon and fifth-year senior Teradja Mitchell pushing for playing time behind them. Newcomers Chip Trayanum, a transfer from Arizona State, and C.J. Hicks, a freshman from Alter High School, are running third string with senior Palaie Gaoteote also in the mix.

“I think Tommy and Steele have been really solidifying things at linebacker,” Knowles said. “I like Cody and Teradja mixing in and Chip and C.J., and ‘EA’ (Gaoteote) has been kind of a float-around guy for us. I feel like we have potential there for depth, but it’s still developing.”

In the secondary, Knowles had good news and bad.

He’s glad to have Lathan Ransom join the mix after the junior safety missed spring practice while recovering from a broken leg, but he expressed some concern about the cornerbacks.

The latter position was already thin entering the preseason, and Knowles described it as “banged up” right now without going into much further detail.

“(Ransom) is great at pulling his trigger,” Knowles said. “He can see things and really react.”

Josh Proctor, Ronnie Hickman and Tanner McCalister formed the first group at safety at the end of spring. That remains true, but adding Ransom could give the coaching staff more flexibility to try different lineups and develop multiple personnel packages.

Kourt Willams, a third-year player built more like a small linebacker than a true safety, also remains in the mix for some kind of role, and his presence along with Ransom has allowed the coaching staff to take a look at third-year sophomore Cam Martinez and redshirt freshman Jantzen Dunn at cornerback.

Martinez and Dunn both were rated as “athletes” in high school, and while their ultimate college position remains uncertain, Knowles knows whoever is in the lineup in the secondary will be tested daily.

“Particularly with our corners and safeties, we’re going against the most elite receiving corps and passing attack in the country, so that competition is always ongoing,” Knowles said. “It’s always going to be something where we’re striving to reach that level, but we’d rather be in those matchups now because I feel like whatever we get during the season, our guys are going to be prepared for it because in the passing game they’re getting matched up all the time against the best in the country.”

Overall, Knowles sees promise in his new unit, but it is a long way from where it needs to be when Notre Dame comes to town Sept. 3.

“It’s my job at this time to really keep the pressure on, keep the pedal to the metal, and I don’t want to feel good,” Knowles said. “Players should feel good. I point things out to them that we’re doing well. We talk about getting better every day, so I point things out that we got to get get better at, and it’s constant growth.

“So now with the pads on, we’re starting to add in the toughness factor, and that’s critical because no matter what we do scheme-wise, we’re going to have to line up and win one on one.”

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