With just over a week until Ohio State’s season opener against Indiana on Aug. 31, the Buckeyes have shifted their focus to their Week 1 opponent. Monday afternoon, Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson and a group of Buckeye defensive linemen addressed the media. Here is what we learned.
Defensive line to “pin its ears back” on first and second down
Last season, Ohio State’s talented foursome of defensive ends — redshirt senior Tyquan Lewis, redshirt junior Sam Hubbard, senior Jalyn Holmes and sophomore Nick Bosa — combined for 18.5 sacks, a total less than might be expected given the group’s elite talent. Some of that might be due to opposing offenses’ increased focus on stopping their pass rush. However, there might be another factor to the less-than-anticipated sack totals.
“Last year, we were more a squeeze front, built a wall, and now this year, we’re playing a tad wider which allows us to get up the ball and allows us to play a little faster,” Johnson said. “This system fits what we have talent wise.”
The change was spearheaded by defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, who, Johnson said, has a different philosophy than former co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell.
“Coach Fickell, obviously a linebacker coach, we kind of set up all the plays for the linebackers to make and now it’s us pinning our ears back and going instead of waiting,” Bosa said.
Bosa said last year he felt frustrated as the ends focused on defending the run on first and second down. This year, that is unlikely to be the case. Though offenses will once again be focused on deterring a ravaging defensive front from reaching the quarterback, a more aggressive, attacking defensive line on first and second downs might result in more sacks by Lewis, Hubbard, Bosa and Holmes.
How will Ohio State defensive tackles rotate without Michael Hill?
Last Monday, coach Urban Meyer announced redshirt senior defensive tackle Michael Hill would be suspended indefinitely, at least for the first couple of games, for undisclosed reasons. On most teams, a suspension of a returning starter in his fifth year with the program would be a devastating blow. But given Ohio State’s depth, the Buckeyes feel they can overcome the temporary loss of a starter.
“Mike brings some veteran stuff, he played a lot of football for us last year. But one guy out, next guy up,” Johnson said. “So right now, the guys know that and so we’ve got to find a guy to step up and get it done.”
A conglomerate of interior linemen, including redshirt senior Tracy Sprinkle, redshirt sophomores Robert Landers, redshirt sophomore Jashon Cornell and redshirt sophomore Davon Hamilton and freshman Haskell Garrett, will help serve as Hill’s replacement until he returns.
Sprinkle ruptured his patellar tendon in the first week of last season. Despite the seriousness of his injury, Johnson said he expects the redshirt senior to be ready to play in the opening week. Landers is a short, stocky lineman listed at 6-foot-1, 283 pounds. The defensive tackle relies on his quickness and will be pushed into a larger role than he had last season.
Hamilton, who missed much of spring practice with a broken foot, might be thrust into a larger role early in the season, along with Cornell and Garrett, due to Hill’s suspension.
Hill, the starting nose tackle, racked up 21 tackles, including four for a loss, last season.
Being a Bosa
Last season, Bosa burst onto the scene last season with seven tackles for loss and five sacks, the second most, behind his brother Joey (7.5 sacks), of any Buckeye true freshman since Meyer was hired as Ohio State head coach. That being said, expectations are high for him to increase that total and disrupt even more quarterbacks in 2017.
“I remember last year, he didn’t really practice much at the tempo that he needed to do to get him ready because of the ACL injury he suffered in high school,” Meyer said. “He’s ridiculous right now.”
Though Nick said the knee injury didn’t affect his play last year, he admitted it was tough being thrown into the rotation as a freshman. And since Ohio State possessed so much depth at defensive end, he wasn’t able to stay in games long enough to gain a rhythm.
This offseason, Nick said he has been sending practice film to Joey, who plays for the Los Angeles Chargers, to work on day-to-day improvement.
“The thing they both have is the ability to work hard,” Johnson said. “Nick’s a great worker, Joey was a great worker. So they play really hard. They have a burning desire to be the best.”
According to the sophomore defensive end, his brother’s help has worked. Though he didn’t want to set specific goals, Nick said he feels like he is reading and reacting quicker to plays.
“(We) need some more Bosas,” Meyer joked.
Dre’Mont Jones taking the next step
When redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones enrolled at Ohio State, he wasn’t even playing the position at which he is now a highly regarded NFL draft prospect. The Cleveland native was the 11th best strongside defensive end in the country in 2015, according to 247Sports composite rankings.
Given the former defensive end’s experience rushing the passer from the outside, Johnson sees a potentially disruptive player that can get pressure from the interior of the line.
“Play inside on top of the guard, he adds a dimension. It’s like having a defensive end playing three-technique,” Johnson said. “He is a really fast guy playing three-technique who can get one-on-one battles with the guard, and that’s what we want with this team.”
Johnson said Jones played well last year, but didn’t disrupt the passer as much as the team expects from its defensive tackles. In his redshirt freshman season, Jones didn’t get a single sack, but picked up four tackles for loss and 52 total tackles.
Entering his third year in the program, Jones said he understands he needs to maximize the remaining time, as it is limited.
“It’s night and day,” Johnson said. “He’s taken so many leaps and bounds, he really has. He’s gotten stronger in the weight room, he’s much more physical. He’s always been a really bright player.”
Since Ohio State will be without Hill for at least a few weeks, Jones will be counted on to make big plays immediately.