The 2019 Ohio State defense enjoyed a major renaissance.
Of course that means the 2020 unit will be expected to maintain the excellence the Buckeyes have been known for on that side of the ball since the dawn of the Silver Bullets in 1996.
After starting with the offense, here is a look at who will be gone and who could replace them on the Ohio State defense:
The front was stout in 2019, and it should be again in 2020.
For the second year in a row, coach Larry Johnson likely will be losing an elite player. This time it is Chase Young, who figures to follow Nick Bosa’s lead and be the No. 1 or 2 pick in the draft in April.
(Young had not made an announcement as of this writing, but his deciding to return to Ohio State would be shocking to pretty much everyone.)
And much like last season, Johnson will have lots of options for filling out his lineup.
He can start with senior Jonathon Cooper, who is returning after an ankle injury derailed what was supposed to be his final season in Scarlet and Gray. The 2019 captain took a redshirt and will provide a veteran presence for an end group that does not have any other seniors but also doesn’t lack talent.
Tyreke Smith has looked ready for a major role since last summer, and 2019 five-star recruit Zach Harrison contributed more as a true freshman than expected.
Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Tyler Friday also have been solid in backup roles already so the Buckeyes should not only be talented but deep yet again at end.
Johnson will need three new tackles for his rotation after the graduation of DaVon Hamilton, Jashon Cornell and Robert “BB” Landers.
Haskell Garrett and Tommy Togiai have already played extensively and should be ready for larger roles while Jerron Cage is another four-star talent who has not had much of an opportunity to show what he can do in three seasons in Columbus so there is no lack of options inside.
After a dismal 2018, the linebackers improved greatly under first-year coach Al Washington.
The Columbus native instructed his new charges to be more aggressive, and they were just that with Malik Harrison leading the way. He is out of eligibility, but two-year starters Tuf Borland and Pete Werner are not.
Senior-to-be Barron Browning split time with Borland at middle linebacker last season but could take Harrison’s spot on the weak side as those positions are very similar.
Sixth-year senior Justin Hilliard is likely to continue as a fourth linebacker in a sub-package while Werner proved to be an asset as the SAM linebacker because of his ability to play the run and drop into deep coverage.
K’Vaughn Pope, Teradja Mitchell and Dallas Gant have all shown flashes of ability, too, through two years on campus so this is another group that will be mature and deep.
Here is where things get questionable. Very questionable.
Three-year starter Jordan Fuller is out of eligibility, so Ohio State will need a new free safety. That is likely to be Josh Proctor, his backup this season and a part of some six defensive back looks.
The other safety was Shaun Wade this past season, and he is a candidate to enter the NFL Draft as a player three years out of high school. His versatility in coverage, against the run and rushing the passer was vital to Ohio State’s defensive resurgence, and his decision could be key in determining the ceiling of the 2020 Buckeye defense.
At cornerback, Damon Arnette is a senior and All-American Jeffrey Okudah has declared for the draft with a year of eligibility remaining, as expected.
Juniors-to-be Cam Brown and Sevyn Banks were the backups there and saw some playing time this season, so the Buckeyes won’t be completely green at cornerback.
A trio of defensive backs signed in December — Lathan Ransom (Tucson, Ariz.), Ryan Watts (Little Elm, Texas) and Lejond Cavazos (Bradenton, Fla.) — and could also vie for playing time.
If Wade leaves, the first shot at replacing him likely would go to Amir Riep, a senior-to-be who backed him up this season after two years as a special teams standout.
Of course the biggest question is who will be their coach.
Assistant secondary coach Matt Barnes is back so there will be some continuity, but Jeff Hafley was credited with having a major impact both as a teacher and strategically in his one season in Columbus before becoming head coach at Boston College.
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