With the days dwindling before Ohio State’s Sept. 2 seasonopener at Minnesota, the Buckeyes defense remains something of a mystery.
Head coach Ryan Day likes what he has seen overall, but he said Wednesday he was looking to see some personnel decisions start to come into focus.
“Eventually someone’s got to get out there and make it happen,” Day said after a practice in which several new faces were seen in the lineup. “So I think there’s a couple things going on. I think one, there’s depth being built, but also by the end of the week we got to find out who those guys are when we kick off against Minnesota on that first play. Who’s going to be out there, and who are we counting on? So I’m excited because I think we do have a lot of options there and I think guys have practiced well.”
In all three cases, that makes a fair amount of sense — for better or for worse.
Prior to an injury to senior Tyler Friday, Johnson could have filled his whole two-deep with players who are experienced or upperclassmen — or experienced upperclassmen.
The likely starters at end — junior Zach Harrison and senior Tyreke Smith — were both regulars in the rotation last season while the likely next man up is fourth-year junior Javontae Jean-Baptist.
Inside, Haskell Garrett started the last seven games last season while fellow senior Antwuan Jackson notched one start. Taron Vincent, a fourth-year junior, and Jerron Cage, a fifth-year senior, are likely to join them in the tackle rotation, giving Johnson options that are experienced, veteran or both.
Linebackers coach Al Washington and secondary coach Matt Barnes both have much more uncertainty even with several upperclassmen in the mix.
Washington lost his three starters and their top backup, but he has three seniors (K’Vaughn Pope, Dallas Gant and Teradja Mitchell) looking to move up the depth chart with a junior — USC transfer Palaie Gaoteote possibly joining if he receives NCAA clearance.
Barnes has the only two returning players who started every game on defense last season — senior cornerback Sevyn Banks and senior safety Marcus Williamson — plus Josh Proctor and Marcus Hooker, who split the starts at deep safety.
The return of Cam Brown, an upperclassmen who was lost to injury in Week 2, gives Barnes another old hat to turn to, but that does not tell the whole story.
With the defense suffering through a second down year in the last three, there is plenty of room for change in the depth chart and evolution in the scheme.
Neither Washington nor Barnes will have to rely on young players, but they might anyway.
Windows of practice open to the media revealed sophomore Cody Simon frequently running with the first team defense while a variety of young players cycled through the secondary.
When a full practice was open Wednesday, reporters in attendance saw true freshmen defensive backs Denzel Burke and Jakailin Johnson make play after play against a talented receiving corps headlined by All-Big Ten performers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson.
“I gotta give them a lot of credit,” Day said after that practice. “They’ve been challenging a lot of routes. It’s been one of the more competitive preseasons we’ve had. And if you can cover Chris and Garrett and those guys, then you can have a lot of confidence and cover a lot of guys in the country so I just like the competitive spirit of a lot of those guys back there.”
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Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said at the start of preseason camp they would play as many cornerbacks as prove worthy, and the same approach can be expected at the other positions.
The starting 11 could be more like 15 or even 20 both as a result of development and desire to match up with a variety of opponents.
Day said he has been pleasantly surprised by the spark the defense has shown throughout most of the preseason against an offense with veterans everywhere — except quarterback.
“I am for sure,” Day said. “Just the competitive nature. It’s every ball is contested. I think that the D-line has done a really good job of getting pressure on the quarterbacks. I think just across the board the one-on-one matchups have been competitive this preseason. And so you know that’s gonna lead you to believe that it’s gonna lead to a promising season.
The stakes figure to be high when it comes to the development of the defense.
Aside from looking to restore the tradition of the “Silver Bullets” in the 25th year since that term was introduced to describe the OSU defense, the Buckeyes figure to face some stiff challenges throughout the schedule.
They open with a Minnesota team projected to have the No. 14 offense in the country by ESPN’s SP+, an advanced stat that combines play-by-play success with explosiveness to create a gauge that is similar to OPS in baseball.
Then comes a visit from Oregon, the No. 19 offense in the same projection, before three straight opponents that figure to be 90th or worse (Tulsa, Akron and Rutgers).
Ohio State closes the first half of the season against a Maryland team that will feature quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and standout receiver Rakim Jarrett before facing potentially five top 50 offenses in the second half of the season. That includes No. 33 Indiana, No. 22 Penn State and No. 28 Michigan.
“You know, we’ll see,” Day said. “Guys still have to play and step up, but there’s been a lot of really good practices, a lot of physicality, I think that’s the other part of this preseason that I’ve been impressed with is how hard we practice.”