Ohio State football: 5 questions for the defense this spring

COLUMBUS — Per usual, the Ohio State defense has many questions to answer this spring.

Unlike some recent years, most of Jim Knowles’ potential problems are good ones to have: Too many veterans, too much talent, too many options?

Here is a closer look as the Buckeyes start spring practice this week:

1. How deep will the defensive line be?

Four of the top five from last season — Jack Sawyer, J.T. Tuimoloau, Ty Hamilton and Tyleik Williams — are back, but filling out the two-deep figures to be a major priority for coach Larry Jonson.

He leaned heavily on his starters last season, going against his long-time practice of rolling 8-10 players in a game, and the unit appeared to wear down late in losses to Michigan and Missouri at the end of the season.

Mitchell Melton, Caden Curry, Kenyatta Jackson, Tywone Malone and Hero Kanu all appear to be among candidates to carve out roles this spring while a bevy of youngsters jockey for playing time as well.

2. How do they use the safeties?

Lathan Ransom returns for one more ride as a senior in the back end of the defense, and Jordan Hancock is back after showing a versatile skill set at nickel.

Alabama transfer Caleb Downs figures to step into the open “Adjuster” spot in the deep middle after being arguably the top true freshman in the country last fall.

But where does that leave Sonny Styles?

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior played nickel and deep safety last season, but he was practicing with the linebackers in the first week of spring.

Knowles indicated that will be his primary role, but not the only one he plays.

“As far as base and nickel packaging it’s permanent, but there may be other things where he’ll still have multiplicity,” Knowles said. “There’s gonna be packages.”

3. How will the front look?

A three-man front with a floating hybrid player known as the Jack or Leo was a big part of Knowles’ defense at previous stops, something that allowed him to mess with blocking schemes and give a potential playmaker the chance to, well, make plays.

The Buckeyes dabbled with the look in 2022 with little success, and the so-called “Jack package” was pretty much shelved last season.

“It’s always there,” Knowles said. “I’d like to get it in in the spring. We dabbled in it in year one, didn’t use it last year. That’s always in our package so at some point you’d like to get to it just to keep it fresh.”

Bringing back the Jack could have the dual benefit of letting Johnson spell his top four more and provide an opportunity for OSU to utilize athletic edge players such as Melton and Alter grad C.J. Hicks, whose primary position is linebacker.

4. Where do Sonny Styles and C.J. Hicks play?

The top two players in Ohio State’s class of 2022 still have more potential than production, particularly Hicks, the former five-star prospect from Alter.

With Cody Simon stepping into the vacant Mike linebacker role, Hicks and Styles appear to be competing for one spot in Knowles’ 4-2-5 base defense, but the coach said they could share the field at times, too.

“Part of the time we’ll have three (linebackers) on the field,” he said. “There’s balance there that they’re competing and also they can be in the same package. But C.J.’s got a great attitude. I’ve always felt C.J.’s got a lot of pressure on him being from Ohio, but he’s coachable, and he understands growth and our plan for him and he’s got a great attitude.”

5. How many packages are too many?

Coaches frequently talk about keeping players from having too much to think about when they are on the field, but looking at the personnel and envisioning Ohio State in a 4-2-5, a 4-3 or a 3-3-5 is tantalizing.

“We’re still 4-2-5 but with multiple deployments,” Knowles said. “At times we can be 4-3, but we’ve still got Sonny. You’ve got Sonny as a Sam ‘backer who has experience playing safety, so that creates multiplicity.”

He also threw out the possibility of a look that sounded like something from the days of Woody Hayes: The 5-2 Eagle defense.

“At some point want to train (the defensive ends) as outside linebackers,” Knowles said. “So if you’ve got Hero, Tyleik and Ty (at tackle), you can get to more of five D-linemen in the game with training guys like Jack and J.T. and Kenyatta. That’s just kind of been in my thoughts. If we’ve got those guys inside, then those guys can become more multiple, and I think it’s techniques they can use when they get to the NFL.”

Threading the needle of doing enough to involve 14 or 15 different players figures to go a long way toward determining just how good this defense can be.

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