Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer said Tuesday that the strength of the team is the defensive line.
It’s not hard to see why.
Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year redshirt senior Tyquan Lewis, redshirt junior Sam Hubbard, senior Jalyn Holmes and sophomore Nick Bosa all return to the Buckeyes as the defensive ends that made up the dominant third-down Rushmen package that became a staple of the defense.
Personnel wise there’s not much changing to the unit, but there could be a change coming with Hubbard practicing at times standing up at linebacker rather than on the defensive line.
“Stand up, dropping a little bit, (I’m) getting back to playing in space like I did in high school,” Hubbard said. “Also coming off the edge and coming from depth on guards and stuff, it’s really fun. It’s a whole new aspect of my game I get to show.”
Meyer said that he and defensive coordinator and associate head coach Greg Schiano have been experimenting with having the five “premier” defensive lineman on the field at the same time. A healthy rotation of seven to eight players was expected on the defensive line, given every player was returning, but having five guys on the field is new territory for the defense.
Last season, Lewis, Hubbard, Holmes and Bosa combined for 18.5 sacks and 34 tackles for loss in 13 games. The four were a substantial factor in OSU’s 11th-best opponent’s third-down conversion percentage of 32 percent. Hubbard said that the Rushmen package is utilized to get the best players on the field at the same time. To Meyer, that list can now be extended to redshirt sophomore Dre’Mont Jones, which is perhaps why Hubbard has been practicing at linebacker.
“We have five premier — in my mind, five, four defensive ends and Dre’Mont Jones,” Meyer said. “You know, I would like to see all five on the field at one time.”
After Jones led the defensive line with 52 tackles last season — including four tackles for loss — it seems the staff believes Jones can’t be left off the field in critical situations either. Bosa said that the five haven’t been put on the field at the same time together yet, but believes that package will be implemented some time in the future.
“We have so many good players that it’s criminal not to have them on the field,” he said. “Dre’Mont, he’s got to be one of the best three-(technique) rushers.”
Hubbard playing linebacker is most interesting given his background at OSU. He was recruited as a safety from Cincinnati Archbishop Moeller High School, then when he arrived in Columbus, he began a transition to convert to a defensive end. Now at 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, Hubbard has the awareness in coverage that most college defensive lineman have to learn through their careers.
“Telling me to drop, they didn’t have to coach me up much. I already know what I’m doing,” Hubbard said. “Telling me to rush from like a linebackers stance, it’s like a d-lineman coming from depth, so it’s really a good blend and I think they’re really having me show my skill set to benefit the team.”
If OSU moves to five defensive lineman on the field at one time, a linebacker would likely have to come off the field. That would leave just two backers plus Hubbard or another defensive end like Holmes — who defensive line coach Larry Johnson said can also drop back from the line — in the second line of defense.
“We’ve got some versatility,” he said. “Sam and Jalyn give us some versatility to do some little things, so you bring another guy in and you take Sam and Jalyn and drop them. So there’s a lot of things we’re going to do with it because there is guys athletic enough to do it.”
Johnson added that he and Schiano haven’t thrown out a package of five defensive lineman yet, but if they do, it will only be put into action if it fits into the defensive scheme.
“I think coach Johnson and coach Schiano want to get the best guys out on the field and if that means me standing up a little bit to get another Dre’Mont or four (defensive) ends on the field, or me out in space, it’s just what they decide,” Hubbard said. “So we’re just playing around with a bunch of different combinations right now.”