Ryan Day and the Ohio State Buckeyes coaching staff have their work cut out for them as spring practice enters into its second week. Significant decisions, at key starting positions, need to be reached as the program prepares for another season of sky-high expectations, of which a return to the College Football Playoff is an absolute bare minimum.
The positions in question make spring football in 2021 a tantalizing one for Buckeyes fans. Last week, I looked at the position battles among the offensive talent. Now, it’s time to look at the questions that need answering on the defensive side of the ball. Admittedly not as intriguing and sexy as the competition to win the starting QB role, who will be named starters at the vacant spots at defensive end, cornerback, linebacker and defensive tackle are nonetheless the cause for some debate.
Bosa, Bosa, Young….Harrison?
Is this the year of another great defensive end coming out of Ohio State? Deciding who will start opposite Tyreke Smith in 2021 will be defensive line coach Larry Johnson’s priority this spring. The heavy favorite will be Zach Harrison. The former five-star prospect, who was the number two strong-side end in the 2019 recruiting class, will look to rebound after a disappointing 2020 campaign. As a true freshman, in 2019, he showed fantastic promise and he definitely has the best potential when considering the other candidates. For these reasons, Zach Harrison looks like the early favorite.
Johnson used a rotation of DEs last season and looks likely to heavily utilize Tyler Friday and Javontae Jean-Baptiste – both will be in their fourth year with the Buckeyes, in 2021, too. Also joining the mix will be true freshman, Jack Sawyer, the number four overall recruit in 2020.
But last season may have been the kick up the backside Harrison needed to get serious and live up to his pre-college potential while trying to become the latest in a long, recent line of first-round edge talent to enter the NFL out of Columbus. Look for him to take snaps back from the others as he gives his coaches reason not to sub him out.
Early Outlook: The promise shown in 2019 and his higher ceiling, will earn Zach Harrison the nod to line up opposite Smith against the Golden Gophers on September 2nd.
One-tech Defensive Tackle
Tommy Togiai had a great year in 2020 and decided to bet on himself and declare for the NFL draft a season earlier than most predicted. Fortunately, Haskell Garrett returns at the three-tech spot, but the loss of Togiai is not insignificant. As with the edge players, Coach Larry Johnson will deal out a decent amount of snaps to multiple guys at the tackle positions.
Jerron Cage has been anointed as the leading candidate given his experience – he’s a fifth-year senior with the program – and the fact he’s the definitive true one-tech guy. The role of a one-tech is to gum up space and create opportunities for others to make big-time plays. Cage has shown he can competently perform that role. Tyleik Williams and Mike Hall are the freshman bodies joining other more experienced candidates – Taron Vincent, Antwaun Jackson and Jaden McKenzie. There’s versatility among the candidates behind Cage as Hall and Jackson can play at the one or three-tech position. But don’t expect natural position concerns to stop Coach Johnson from plugging in, say, Taron Vincent at the one-tech if he believes he is his best DT after Garrett.
Early Outlook: This could be another spot where we see some heavy rotating by Larry Johnson, but look for him to ride with the experience, and natural fit, of Jerron Cage as the starter.
The Buckeyes are down four linebackers from the 2020 squad, so there will be a bulk of inexperience at the position in 2021. The most open battle among the three linebacker positions will be on the strong-side; Teradja Mitchell – the number two overall ILB prospect in the 2018 class – and Dallas Gant are the clearest frontrunners at MIKE & WILL, respectively.
As for SAM linebacker, the battle will be fierce between the three-star Craig Young out of Fort Wayne, IN, and K’Vaughan Pope, the number four overall recruit out of the state of Virginia in the 2018 cycle. Like Gant and Mitchell, who should both assume the starting role at the other two linebacker positions, Pope is a senior, and a former four-star, who should rise to the top as the guy who gets the nod at SAM. He also has more experience on the field than Young.
Sophomores Mitchell Melton and Cody Simon, along with incoming freshman Reid Carrico, have yet to play a snap for the Buckeyes, so they aren’t really ripe for consideration for any of the three starting jobs.
Early Outlook: Pope, Mitchell and Gant will likely emerge as the starting trio behind the defensive front
The DBU of college football is uncharacteristically thin on corners. Will this necessitate a switch from the three corner, one safety formation to a two by two, if the best four DBs turn out to be evenly split between the two defensive backfield positions? Much lies in the linebacker position; there is a lot of inexperience in the DBs room. Time will tell how the Buckeyes play this out.
For now, let’s assume Kerry Coombs wants to stick with the three and one sets. The simplest solution is to move Cameron Brown up the depth chart to replace Shaun Wade. Brown is easily the most experienced corner who didn’t have a starting role last season. Alternatively, they can put Brown in the slot and have Marcus Williamson line up opposite Sevyn Banks on the outside.
It’s hard to see any of the other corners make a loud enough noise in the preseason to be considered over Brown or Williamson if Coombs does not change his formation.
Early Outlook: Coach Coombs sticks with three corners and has Cameron Brown start on the boundary opposite Banks with Williamson at the slot corner.