Ohio State entered last spring with many starters on its veteran-laden defense set. Not to mention, multiple players, including defensive ends Tyquan Lewis, Nick Bosa and Sam Hubbard and linebacker Jerome Baker, had already established themselves as playmakers.
But this season, beyond defensive end Nick Bosa and defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones, not many potential game-changers are known. A lot of talent exists on the defense, but most remain unproven.
A number of highly regarded freshmen — including four five-star prospects — were added to Ohio State’s defense last season, but the vast majority either played in reserve roles or did not play at all. The Spring Game will offer the first chance to watch many of them play extended minutes.
Here are some players on the Buckeyes’ defense to watch in Saturday’s Spring Game.
The moment former five-star prospect and sophomore defensive end Chase Young stepped on campus, his chiseled 6-foot-5, 265-pound frame stuck out. The enormous 18-year-old almost became a punch line with many people comparing him physically to an NFL player, despite having recently graduated from high school.
Now, with a year of experience, Young’s time has arrived.
With Hubbard, Lewis and Jalyn Holmes off to the NFL, defensive end went from a position of enormous depth to a top-heavy unit manned by one stud, a duo of highly regarded, yet inexperienced players and a former defensive tackle. Therefore, it is pertinent for Young to make the leap from five-star prospect to impact player.
Having spent a season backing up that trio and Bosa, the sophomore defensive end should now be ready to slide into a starting role opposite Bosa. Young picked up 3.5 sacks last season and should be in line to more than double that tally in 2018.
Though quarterbacks sometimes wear a different color of jersey in the Spring Game that dictates they aren’t allowed to be hit, that likely will not be the case Saturday with no guaranteed starter. With signal-callers able to be hit, the Spring Game referees should be ready to blow their whistles quickly because Young is coming for the quarterback trio.
Another former five-star prospect, sophomore linebacker Baron Browning earned special teams reps and mop-up duty on defense early in the season, but gained more playing time toward the end of the year.
With Baker and Chris Worley gone and redshirt sophomore Tuf Borland sidelined with an Achilles injury, Browning has a chance to earn a starting position in his second collegiate season. However, he has to beat out a number of worthy, experienced linebackers in Malik Harrison, Keandre Jones, Dante Booker, Pete Werner and Justin Hilliard to make an impact.
Browning stands out when he walks onto the field due to his uncommon combination of size and speed. His physical gifts have even impressed head coach Urban Meyer, who called him “as talented a linebacker as has ever walked through these doors.”
“He’s got it all now. He’s got A to Z,” Meyer said. “An intelligent guy, a good person, and God has blessed him with an incredible skillset.”
That skillset allows him to play all three linebacker positions. Though with Borland likely set as the starting middle linebacker, he will likely have his best shot at playing time on the outside.
Every opportunity counts when a large group of players is interlocked in a position battle. And everyone will have their final shot to make an impression during spring practice on Saturday. The most physically gifted player at his position, Browning should stand out.
One of Ohio State’s two five-star cornerbacks in the 2018 recruiting class, Shaun Wade did not get nearly the opportunity offered to fellow five-star cornerback Jeffrey Okudah. Wade’s body would not allow it. He underwent abdominal surgery during the season and never saw the field.
Now a redshirt freshman, Wade has the opportunity to make the impact many thought he would last season. Redshirt junior cornerbacks Kendall Sheffield and Damon Arnette, along with Okudah, stand in the way of Wade earning starter-level snaps to start the year.
But considering his rank as the second-best cornerback in the 2017 class, the now-healthy Wade should push for snaps. And with Okudah sitting out spring practice and the Spring Game due to having surgery on a torn labrum that has bothered him since high school, Wade has a chance to shine.
In the past, the Buckeyes relied on a three-cornerback rotation. With Kerry Coombs gone, new cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson said he intends to maintain the rotation, provided he has three starter-quality cornerbacks. With Okudah out for the spring, Wade has a chance to prove he can break into the trio of rotating starters.
And with all eyes on the quarterback battle during the Spring Game, the opportunity exists for Wade to make a statement in front of a crowd.