Ohio State’s best bet for being better on defense this fall could come from strength in numbers.
With the way Urban Meyer recruited as head coach of the Buckeyes from 2012-18, there is no shortage of talent on the Ohio State roster Ryan Day inherited when he took over the program from Meyer on Jan. 2.
The million question then for Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley, the new co-coordinators of the defense, and fellow assistants Larry Johnson, Al Washington and Matt Barnes is how to use those players to the best of their abilities.
“That’s a very important part about coordinating a defense,” Mattison said. “You’d love to get very, very skilled players a chance to play, but at the same time you have to be very, very simple in that you don’t want a young man to not play as well as he can because of confusion.”
Mental ability is not generally an issue in that regard, but time can be.
While coaches can stay at the office until all hours of the night devising new ways to stop the run or sack the quarterback, actual practice time to install (and, more importantly, repeat) what they come up with is limited.
“Coaches have all this time to sit and look at things and you say, ‘Oh that’s a great defense. We should do that,’” Mattison said. "Then you look at it and all of a sudden they’re building up and there are a bunch more things.”
While everyone has their own spin on things, there are only so many defensive schemes out there to run in today’s college football.
Tailoring an attack to the strengths of the available personnel is key to success for a coach.
"You’ve got to be really, really conscious of what’s going to allow Chase Young to play the best he can play?” Mattison said, referring to the junior defensive end projected to contend for All-America honors this fall. “What is that call?”
Of course, Young can’t play every snap in a game that might have 80 or 90, so the staff has to consider what his backups can do, too.
“If you have three other guys like him up front or a two-deep of guys like that, what’s going to allow them to play the best they can play?” Mattison said. “If it’s five defenses instead of 10, then you play five.”
But on the flip side, that depth can give coaches an excuse to install a few more things.
While they might not want to have each player have to internalize 10 different sets of plays, finding a scheme or two that can utilize a reserve can enhance the defense as a whole.
That’s especially appealing at Ohio State, where all four starters return on the defensive line but the group behind them is set to include eight four-star prospects and a pair of five-star talents.
Not only are four-star second-year ends Tyreke Smith, Tyler Friday and Javontea Jean-Baptiste itching to get into the game when Young and senior Jonathon Cooper need a break, there’s also a desire to get five-star freshman Zach Harrison a taste of the action as well if his practice work warrants it.
“You’d like to get that young freshman or young sophomore that’s really starting to prove himself,” Mattison said. “Without having to do everything, plug him into one or two defenses where you have a better athlete running the stuff.”
The story is similar in the back seven, though the linebackers and defensive backs are in a somewhat different situation.
While the defensive line has been and continues to be a strength for the Buckeyes under coach Johnson, the linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties are coming off a disappointing overall season and under the direction of new coaches.
Washington, Hafley and Barnes are tasked both with learning their new personnel and trying to figure out which veterans should be back in starting roles this fall and which young players deserve a shot to show what they can do.
For example, all three starting linebackers are back, but sophomores Teradja Mitchell and Dallas Gant generated a lot of buzz in the spring.
In the secondary, Brendon White and Jordan Fuller looked solid at safety to end last season, but Jahsen Wint and Amir Riep stood out in the spring game. Beyond that, White seems likely to end up playing a hybrid linebacker/defensive back role in one or more schemes, opening a role along the last line of defense.
“I was around some systems when there were like 10 packages in a game,” said Hafley, who spent the last seven seasons in the NFL. “I think that’s too many.
“What I think is important that we do is that players that deserve to play and have proven they deserve to play – they’re doing all the right things in the weight room, in school, off the field and on the field – I think you can create simple packages and just plug in a guy to have a role. I think the more guys have a role on the team the more ownership they’ll have and the more they’ll feel a part of it. I think that’s really good for a football team and really good for a defense.”
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