Ohio State has made no secret about it, the main goal of the offseason was to improve the defense. This was, in most people’s minds, the reason the Buckeyes didn’t win a fifth straight Big Ten title or make a third consecutive College Football Playoff appearance.
This offseason, head coach Ryan Day made changes, replacing nearly all of his defensive staff, led by new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles who brings his successful scheme from Oklahoma State. At Big Ten media days last week, Day said he expects a top-10 defense and elaborated on that following the first day of fall camp on Thursday.
“’Why would you say it has to be a top 10 defense?’” Day asked rhetorically. “I’m not saying it has to be. I’m just saying that’s the expectation… We want to be the best in the country at what we do and we should be held accountable to that. That’s the goal. That’s what we’re working to make sure happens.”
Buckeye Nation would love to see the Scarlet and Gray make a major jump and be a top-10 defense in 2022. But Ohio State fans would accept steps in the right direction and clear signs this defense is making progress, as the old “defense wins championships” saying isn’t always true in today’s football.
But what does that mean? The Buckeyes’ goals are to win the Big Ten and return to the playoff, with a focus on winning a national championship. Bucknuts has already looked at how much the Scarlet and Gray defense likely needs to improve this year, given what we expect from the offense, to accomplish those goals. But what constitutes an improved defense for Ohio State?
“You got to stop the run,” Day said at Big Ten media days. “And certainly, there were a couple games last year that we didn’t get done and we’ve got to do that.”
This may come as a surprise to some. As most Buckeye fans know after hearing about it all offseason, the Scarlet and Gray ranked No. 59 in the country in total defense last year, conceding 372.6 yards per game, but were no. 28 nationally against the run, allowing 126.77 yards per game, so not terrible.
However, this does constitute a drop off from the previous two seasons where Ohio State was one of the 10 best teams in college football at stopping the run. The 2021 Buckeye defense allowed an average of 283 rushing yards and nine total touchdowns in their two losses to Oregon and Michigan. Cutting those numbers back closer to the Scarlet and Gray’s average – Ohio State allowed 11 rushing touchdowns the rest of the year – likely means an undefeated season for Ohio State.
“A lot of that has to do with technique, a lot has to do a scheme, a lot of it has to do with toughness,” Day said.
“A bunch of guys running to the ball and blowing up a play in the backfield with about 10 guys jumping up and down all over each other with great energy, great passion, great confidence. That’s what you want. Guys are playing tough, with great pad level and knocking the heck out of people, that’s what defensive football should look like. We saw some of that this spring.”
While stopping the run is fundamental to any defense, the Buckeyes certainly need to take a major step forward in defending the pass. The Scarlet and Gray ranked No. 122 in the country in 2020, allowing 304 passing yards per game, and no. 96 nationally in 2021, allowing 245.8 yards per game.
Ohio State’s secondary was rather inexperienced last season, with true freshman Denzel Burke and first-year starters Cameron Brown (coming off an Achilles tear) leading the way in terms of snaps at cornerback. security Ronny Hickman also played thee first major snaps of his career in his third year and third-year sophomore Bryson Shaw had to step into a starting role after the leg injury to Josh Proctor in week 2
This season, the Buckeyes’ starting safeties are expected to include the returning Hickman as the Adjuster (free safety), a healthy Proctor at Bandit (boundary safety) and Oklahoma State transfer Tanner McCalsiter, who started under Knowles the last two years, playing the nickel.
“Also having another year of experience with some of these guys who maybe didn’t play as much the year before, they now are all coming back,” Day said. “Whether it’s second-year guys, third-year guys or fourth-year guys, going into last year, when you look at that (opening) Minnesota game, they didn’t have a lot of game experience. Now going into this (first) game, it’s a whole new field.”
Day is confident that Knowles will make the right changes to the defense, both against the pass and against the run, in order to get the group closer to where it needs to be. During his time in Stillwater, Knowles took the Cowboys’ defense from No. 112 overall to No. 4 in the country. Last season, Oklahoma State was the No. 5 defense in the nation against the run and no. 37 against the pass.
The Scarlet and Gray don’t need to look back too far in the record books to find a defense that made a similar jump to what they hope for in 2022.
In 2018, Ohio State ranked No. 71 in the country in total defense. Day made changes to the staff, particularly hiring Jeff Hafley, to reshape things and finished 2019 as the best statistical defense in the nation. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, Hafley’s success gave him the opportunity to become the head coach at Boston College and he left the Scarlet and Gray program after only one season.
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“You had a team that had some really good, young talent that got experience a year before, kind of a new style and system of defense coming in that year,” Day said of 2019. “You’re kind of seeing those two things come together.”
Expecting the same kind of improvements this offseason that the Scarlet and Gray made prior to 2019 would be great but is asking a lot. That Ohio State defense had three first-round NFL draft picks, two in the top-three selections, and was more of an anomaly than a barometer for how defenses can improve from one year to the next. But improvement has to be made.
The Buckeyes know what needed to be fixed and Day acted to do just that.
“Now we’ve gotta go put it on the field,” the head coach said.