Ohio State football: Revamped defense playing with confidence

COLUMBUS -- Ohio State football coach Ryan Day is known as an offensive guru.

A quarterback whisperer.

A guy who came to Columbus to energize the passing game and did just that.

He’s the head coach now, though, and so his chief concerns entering the spring of 2022 sounded a lot like those of any old coach at any level of the gridiron game in the Buckeye State: Defense and offensive line.

That shouldn’t be much of a surprise, though, since neither of those areas were strengths last year and both are under new management.

“I have been impressed with the energy over there and with the teaching that’s going on,” Day said Tuesday of the defensive unit now under the leadership of Jim Knowles. “We still have a long way to go, but for the first six practices, we’re off to a very good start there.”

Knowles is not the only difference.

Day said he sees more confidence on that side of the ball, and he is impressed with the work the players did in the weight room over the winter.

“They’re stronger, they’re more powerful, so that part’s good,” Day said. “They’re playing with confidence right now.”

While the defense was an obvious weak point last season (and the season before), the offensive line issues were a little more nuanced.

Timely breakdowns were more of an issue for the front line, which had good overall numbers but struggled in short yardage much of the season. The pass protection also faltered at Michigan.

New coach Justin Frye will need to fill two holes in the starting lineup with the departure of Nicholas Petit-Frere and Thayer Munford, but he has what appears to be a strong nucleus to work with.

Luke Wypler and Dawand Jones are back at center and right tackle, respectively, while starting right guard Paris Johnson Jr. moved to left tackle. He will be replaced by Matt Jones, a senior who has played well in spot duty the last two seasons, while Donovan Jackson gets first crack at left guard.

Jackson was a five-star recruit last year who got into the mix for playing time despite not arriving until summer.

“You know that you have five guys, and then you want to find six, you want to find seven, you want to find eight, and then it’s just really a couple things you’re looking at,” Day said.

Those would be knocking back the defensive line in the running game and creating a firm pocket for quarterback C.J. Stroud in the passing game.

“We’re going against very good guys on the other side of the ball every day, so you get challenged, which is great. I think our defensive line has been challenged by the offense and vice versa, so you just kind of want to see how you stack up against each other every day in practice, how you compete.”

Both the defense and the offensive line will have to develop chemistry to succeed this fall, but Day is not worried about that yet.

“We have pretty good talented guys up there, but it’s the discipline and skill that you have to create over time. And we’ll look up in a couple of weeks and kind of see where we’re at. We are right in the middle of it right now.”

The focus in the first half of spring practice has been on the individual as players figure out what they do well and what they need to improve.

“What are the things you need to work on, and by the end of each week, have you addressed those things? And then you kind of come up for air and figure out what the next challenge is as an individual. Then as we get closer to preseason, we start to come together a little bit more as a group, but right now the focus is on getting better individually.”

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