With the preseason more than half over, the rebuilding of the Ohio State defense continues.
Reporters spoke with Greg Mattison for more than 20 minutes last week while glimpses of practice and interviews with players and other assistants have provided some more clues.
Here is what we know so far:
1. Effort is Mattison’s No. 1 concern.
Ohio State’s new defensive coordinator, who coincidentally spent the last eight seasons at Michigan, said he would never criticize the previous regime.
He might be the only one.
Greg Schiano, despite helping mold a pair of top 10 defenses in his first two years at Ohio State, was a favorite whipping boy (among many) last season as the Buckeyes took a big step back on that side of the ball.
Specific scheme information has been hard to squeeze out of Mattison, but he wants everyone to know running to the football is paramount to playing better defense.
“I would never judge what they did last year on defense. The coordinator was a great coordinator. They had a great staff,” he said before downplaying the fact the Buckeyes allowed school records in points and yard allowed last season. “The one thing we believe and in I have always 100 percent believed in is to run to the football.”
2. The emphasis on hustle is probably more than coach-speak.
Defensive coaches typically want to see as many defensive players around the ball as possible when a play ends.
If not close enough to touch the ball-carrier then “at least close enough to spit on him” is one old saying.
This mantra has at least two positives — playing hard is generally good, but having more people around the ball also provides insurance if someone breaks a tackle.
Should the ball-carrier evade the first person to get him in his sights and someone else is around to clean up, a 5-yard gain becomes eight instead of 80.
“I'll tell you people this, if you're watching and if you see our defense not run to the football, then you ask me. You come up and talk to me about it,” Mattison said. “Because the one thing our guys have bought into: We will run to the football. In practice we have 320-pound guys and we have Chase Young — who is one of the top players in the country right now — running to the football on every play.
“We have linebackers that will blitz and get to the quarterback, turning and putting their foot on the ground and running the other way. That is what helps your defense overcome any deficiencies.”
3. The defense will still be a 4-3, but how much?
This is a matter of some conjecture.
Mattison and defensive line coach Larry Johnson are both four-man line guys. Even if they weren’t, the personnel on hand fits such a scheme far better than it would a 30 front.
The “base” defense still has three linebackers and four defensive backs, but that could be a matter of semantics.
The third linebacker will be a traditional linebacker at times, but it is likely to more often be a hybrid player (likely safety Brendon White) who also possesses the cover skills of a defensive back, so it might be more accurate to call the unit a 4-2-5.
“If you came out and you said, ‘OK, we're going to play our base defense, you would say it probably is (with the third linebacker), but with the type of offenses that people give you now, you feel very, very comfortable now having that big fast athlete also,” Mattison said.
4. The defensive backs may be broken into cover guys and deep safeties.
At a recent practice, one group of defensive backs practiced press coverage techniques while another worked more on playing in the open field.
The former group included Damon Arnette, Jeffrey Okudah, Shaun Wade, Amir Riep while Jordan Fuller, Josh Proctor, Marcus Hooker and Bryson Shaw were among the latter group.
Playing one deep safety most of the time would put another potential run stopper closer to the line of scrimmage while limiting pass patterns available to the offense.
5. The Buckeyes intend to be simpler and more aggressive up front.
However the front seven lines up, there is more emphasis on controlling a gap than shooting it. Johnson confirmed that represents a big change from last season.
“This year is a gap control defense to allow our guys to use their ability to get up field,” Johnson said. "We're still going to move and do those kinds of things, but right now we’re a gap control defense. Coach Mattison, Greg, really believes in controlling the run game so now we’ve got a good chance to gap everything up much faster at the line of scrimmage. So it’s a good scheme, it’s a good defense. Now the kids have just gotta go play it.”
6. That should make life easier for the linebackers.
The trio of Malik Harrison, Tuf Borland and Pete Werner had their ups and downs last season, making some plays along the way but also struggling to get off blocks and get players on the ground.
They were also frequently sacrificed as blocking fodder in attempts to free the line to cause havoc, something that probably won’t happy as much this year.
“As far as scheme and all that kind of thing, all I can tell you is that we will work very, very hard and have worked very, very hard,” Mattison said. “If this is a correction (of something that was wrong last year), then it's a correction. I'm not going to go there.
“Anywhere I've ever coached, defense is always: Keep the ball inside the front, be aggressive, play up to your talent. We are very, very talented. Sometimes when you have a very, very talented team, you, as a coach, say, ‘Go.’ You don't try to invent things. You don't try to make it too complicated. What you try to do is let your guys go play. I happen to think this defense has that.”
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