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Analysis: Taking an early position-by-position look at the 2018 Ohio State defense

From left to right: redshirt freshman linebacker Tuf Borland (32), freshman defensive end Chase Young (2) and sophomore defensive lineman Robert Landers (67) run onto the field during the second quarter at the at the OSU-Maryland game on Oct. 7. Credit: Ris Twigg | Assistant Photo Editor

Here is a position-by-position breakdown of Ohio State’s defense in 2018.

The years provided by the players indicates grade in the 2017 season.

Defensive tackle

Graduating: Michael Hill, Tracy Sprinkle

Returners: Dre’Mont Jones, Robert Landers, Jashon Cornell, DaVon Hamilton, Haskell Garrett, Malik Barrow, Jerron Cage

Additions: Taron Vincent, Antwuan Jackson Jr., Tommy Togiai

The situation: Redshirt seniors Michael Hill and Tracy Sprinkle will graduate, leaving a hole in the middle of Ohio State’s defensive line. But that crack will enlarge if redshirt sophomore Dre’Mont Jones leaves early for the NFL draft and the Buckeyes are forced to rely on less experienced linemen. Redshirt sophomores Robert Landers, Jashon Cornell and DaVon Hamilton have played substantial snaps, but none has made an impact similar to that of Jones. They will be joined by freshman Haskell Garrett, a former highly rated prospect, who could earn an increase in snaps and push for a starting position. Redshirt freshman Malik Barrow suffered a torn ACL and missed the 2017 season. Freshman Jerron Cage has not played much outside of special teams. Transfer Antwuan Jackson Jr. offers Ohio State possibly its most intriguing option, with the talented junior-college product having two years of collegiate experience. Five-star prospect Taron Vincent could push for early playing time.

Projected starters: Robert Landers, Dre’Mont Jones

The Reasoning: Landers served Ohio State well as a rotation piece in 2017 and deserves a starting role next season with the departures of Sprinkle. He offers a unique blend of quickness at a defensive line position known for size and girth. Jones would retain a starting spot if he decides to return and work on improving his pass-rush skills. Jackson will push for a starting opportunity and has the talent to earn the spot.

Ohio State defensive lineman Nick Bosa (97) celebrates after taking down USC’s quarterback in the third quarter of the 2017 Cotton Bowl against University of Southern California on Dec. 29 in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. Ohio State won 24-7. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

Defensive end

Graduating: Tyquan Lewis, Jalyn Holmes

Returners: Sam Hubbard, Nick Bosa, Chase Young, Jonathon Cooper

Additions: Alex Williams

The situation: This season, Ohio State’s depth has been its biggest strength at defensive end. That will not be the case next year because redshirt senior Tyquan Lewis and senior Jalyn Holmes will graduate and redshirt junior Sam Hubbard is likely to declare early for the 2018 NFL Draft. However, the Buckeyes will not experience any dearth of talent at the position. Sophomore Nick Bosa will return and remain as a starter, but will play many more snaps next season due to the NFL-bound defensive ends. Freshman Chase Young, a former five-star prospect who looks more like an NFL player than a freshman, has earned first-team snaps this season and has an opportunity to win a starting spot next year.

Redshirt freshman Jonathon Cooper was lost in the shuffle due to Ohio State’s loaded upper class of defensive ends and Young’s hype, but the former four-star Ohioan will be expected to rotate with the returners on the line. Earlier in the season, defensive line coach Larry Johnson said he did not like playing true freshmen in disadvantageous situations. That might not be an option in 2018, with Ohio State likely having just three nonfreshman defensive ends. Alex Williams and, potentially, another 2018 defensive end recruit will add to the minimal depth.

Projected starters: Nick Bosa, Chase Young

The Reasoning: Bosa and Young, both former five-star prospects, have lived up to their billing, but have yet to bear the workload of a full starter. Next season, they are likely to be the starters and will have an opportunity to cause havoc in opposing backfields. The potential loss of three starters will take its toll on the depth, and Cooper will be the lone defensive end available to spell Bosa and Young.

Ohio State freshman linebacker Baron Browning (5) attempts to stop a Scarlet Knight in the fourth quarter against Rutgers on Sep. 30. Ohio State won 56-0. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

Linebacker

Graduating: Chris Worley, Zach Turnure

Returners: Jerome Baker, Dante Booker, Malik Harrison, Tuf Borland, Baron Browning, Pete Werner, Justin Hilliard, Keandre Jones, Nick Conner

Additions: Teradja Mitchell, Dallas Gant, K’Vaughan Pope

The situation: Redshirt senior Chris Worley will graduate, which means Ohio State is losing a starting linebacker and leader of the unit for the second year in a row. Junior Jerome Baker also stands a good chance to exit early for the NFL draft, meaning the Buckeyes will be left with two vacancies at linebacker. Redshirt freshman Tuf Borland started for the second half of the season and has a good shot to open the season at the starter in the middle. Redshirt junior Dante Booker started the majority of the early season, but, once again, was injured and lost his spot. Sophomore Malik Harrison has played a considerable amount of snaps and the athletic linebacker could slide into a starting position.

Freshman Baron Browning, a former five-star prospect, is one of Ohio State’s most physically gifted linebackers. Freshman Pete Werner garnered praise from Meyer for his special teams plays, but the first-year player did not see many snaps on defense. Redshirt sophomore Justin Hilliard and sophomore Keandre Jones will be in the mix for increased playing time, but both mainly played special teams. Redshirt sophomore Nick Conner has dealt with a multitude of injuries and has not played this season. The Buckeyes will add a talented group of linebackers, led by Teradja Mitchell, but none are likely to earn consequential reps.

Projected starters: Baron Browning, Tuf Borland, Malik Harrison

The Reasoning: The athleticism of potential first-year starters Browning and Harrison, combined with Borland, might be too much for Ohio State to pass up. Harrison has the inside track to earn a starting position considering the important snaps he has played this year, but Browning will have to beat out a multitude of talented players. Browning earned compliments from defensive coordinator Greg Schiano and teammates for his bowl practice showings.

Ohio State sophomore cornerback Kendall Sheffield (8) takes down a Badger in the third quarter of the B1G Championship game against Wisconsin on Dec. 2 in Lucas Oil Stadium. Ohio State won 27-21. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

Cornerback

Graduating: Denzel Ward (NFL draft early entrant) 

Returners: Damon Arnette, Kendall Sheffield, Jeffrey Okudah, Shaun Wade, Amir Riep, Marcus Williamson

Additions: Sevyn Banks, Tyreke Johnson

The situation: With junior Denzel Ward becoming an early entrant into the 2018 NFL Draft, Ohio State will likely enter next season with a similar crop of cornerbacks minus this year’s best. The Buckeyes will count on major offseason improvements from redshirt sophomores Kendall Sheffield and Damon Arnette, both of whom had shaky 2017 seasons. A sizable group of current freshmen will push them for playing time. Former five-star Jeffrey Okudah played ample snaps and fellow former five-star Shaun Wade has a shot to earn more playing time after recovering from an abdominal injury. Amir Riep and Marcus Williamson have not played much outside of special teams, but each could enter the rotation next year. Incoming recruits Sevyn Banks and Tyreke Johnson are unlikely to play much.

Projected starters: Kendall Sheffield, Jeffrey Okudah, Damon Arnette

The Reasoning: Given the physique and athleticism of Sheffield and Okudah, Ohio State will be unable to keep them off the field. They could cover the outside while Arnette covers in the slot. Though Arnette has struggled with the responsibility, he will be in his third season as a key contributor and must play at a higher level in 2018.

Sophomore safety Jordan Fuller (4) awaits the snap during the second quarter at the OSU-Maryland game on Oct. 7. Credit: Ris Twigg | Assistant Photo Editor

Safety

Graduating: Erick Smith, Damon Webb (starter)

Returners: Jordan Fuller, Isaiah Pryor, Wayne Davis, Jahsen Wint, Brendon White

Additions: Josh Proctor, Marcus Hooker

The situation: Senior Damon Webb, a two-year starter, and senior Erick Smith, who began the season as a starter but missed multiple games for undisclosed reasons and relinquished his starting position, will graduate. Sophomore Jordan Fuller will remain a starter for the second year. Freshman Isaiah Pryor was Webb’s backup since the opening week of the season. Redshirt freshman Wayne Davis was listed as Fuller’s backup while Smith was suspended, but has not played much other than on special teams.

Redshirt freshman Jahsen Wint also has not seen much playing time on defense. Freshman Brendon White has played multiple positions since arriving at Ohio State in the spring, but has been with the safeties since fall camp. He is a gifted athlete and will find snaps at some point, no matter what position he ends up playing. Four-star Josh Proctor have a chance to earn early playing time, but must first make an impact on special teams. Though Marcus Hooker, younger brother of former Buckeye safety Malik Hooker, is listed as a cornerback, he will to play safety in college and might redshirt.

Projected starters: Jordan Fuller, Isaiah Pryor

The Reasoning: Fuller will retain his spot as a starter and Pryor will likely slide into Webb’s starting spot due to lesser competition at the position. Fuller impressed in his first season as a starter and could enter 2018 as one of Ohio State’s most talented defensive players. Opposite Fuller, Pryor has the upper hand, but that position battle could go through spring camp and into the fall without a starter named.

Check out the preview of Ohio State’s offense.

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