There was a case to be made that Ohio State’s defensive end depth in 2017 was as strong as any in college football. It could even have been the best of the past several seasons.
It not only had the 2016 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year in Tyquan Lewis, but also the 2017 winner in Nick Bosa, as well as future NFL draft selections Jalyn Holmes and Sam Hubbard. Waiting behind the four starters were a pair of former top defensive end prospects in five-star freshman Chase Young and four-star redshirt freshman Jonathon Cooper, both of whom spelled the starters when needed.
That depth was envious in 2017. It will not be there in 2018.
Ohio State lost Hubbard to the draft while Holmes and Lewis both graduated, leaving Bosa, Young and Cooper as the only returning players at defensive end.
“We’ll find some guys to play with them,” defensive line coach Larry Johnson said after the Cotton Bowl. “We’ll make some changes. We’ll make sure those guys have a chance to be fresh. We’re a long ways away from that, but I think we’ll be OK.”
The concern with Ohio State’s defensive end group will not come from the talent present. Bosa and Young could be a dynamic pairing at the top, potentially the most explosive duo in college football, if the talent they have shown in the past continues in 2018. Cooper will present the Buckeyes with a strong third option in the rotation.
And even though Young and Cooper have only part of one season full of garbage time minutes under their belts, they both feel ready to step into larger roles in the 2018 season.
“I think we were prepared right now,” Young said after the Cotton Bowl. “But even this spring and this winter and the summer, it’s going to get us, and after all three of those [seasons], man, I think we going to be there. Just watch out.”
The depth from there takes a bit of a hit and will remain questionable heading into the season.
Since the bowl game in December, Ohio State has a clearer vision of who will be able to provide backup to next year’s starters. The Buckeyes brought in defensive end recruits four-star Tyreke Smith, four-star Tyler Friday and three-star Alex Williams. However, Friday will be making the change from defensive tackle to end while Williams might get a shot at playing tight end in college.
Even with the recruits coming in, it seems unlikely any of them will have extended roles. None are as highly regarded as Young coming out of high school. Young appeared in 10 games and had 3.5 sacks while Cooper played in nine games.
Still, that playing time proved valuable for the pair. It was given chances to play against collegiate competition — though almost always toward the end of blowouts. Bosa remembers that even when the game was not on the line, the playing time was important for his own development.
“My freshman year, I was able to play a decent amount,” Bosa said. “Just get that big game experience. Just get used to the speed of the game. It’s a lot different than high school and you just learn a lot when you actually get in there, you can’t really replicate it in practice.”
The recruits could be thrust into playing time due to the lack of depth, but none are expected to have Young’s impact. He demonstrated speed and elusiveness during his freshman season that has convinced the Buckeyes he will be a force when he steps into a starting role for Ohio State.
Cooper’s name often gets lost in the shuffle — overlooked in favor of Bosa and Young — when looking ahead to 2018. Cooper did not have as much impactful playing time as Young in 2017 and had just two sacks. But the players all believe he has the chance to be another top option for the Buckeyes when they need relief.
“If you name me and Nick, you’ve got to name Coop too,” Young said after the Cotton Bowl. “Coop, his motor is unreal and I don’t think guys have seen a lot of him this year, but like I said with [defensive tackle] Davon Hamilton, you going to see a lot of him next year, you going to see what he brings to the table.”
Ohio State is going to have to deal with a lack of depth, but there is still plenty of talent at defensive end. With Young, Bosa and Cooper, the Buckeyes have a formidable trio that should present challenges to opposing offensive lines, just like they did in 2017.
“I think it could be the best pass-rushing unit ever,” Bosa said on Jan. 19. “I think it could be a step up from last year just because they’ve really set the bar for us and we’re going to enhance it and just so much talent on this D-line right now, even though we’re young. Some of the best talent that I’ve ever seen, so it’s going to be really good once we get all the chemistry together.”