The Ohio State defense is in something of a time warp as the Buckeyes prepare to play Illinois on Saturday.
While comparisons to the disastrous 2018 unit might not be valid, the players and coaches are struggling to recreate the success of last season when they had one of the best stop units in the country.
Coaches are used to having a better idea of what they have to work with by late November, whether it be players or schemes, but new OSU defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs is still in the experimental stage with both at this point of the season as he tries to rebuild a secondary that consists of a handful of mostly unproven upperclassmen and a big group of freshmen.
He said he believes the schemes Ohio State has deployed are the right ones, but various circumstances of the season have conspired against him being able to test that theory or work other players into the lineup.
The elimination of nonconference games against inferior opponents and the inability to put away Penn State, Rutgers and Indiana after building big leads has prevented the coaches from being able to make up for some fo the lost time in the offseason by getting young players valuable game reps — despite this being a year reserves could use game reps more than most because of the possibility a positive COVID-19 test could sideline a starter for three weeks.
“We’ve got to experience these things,” Coombs said. “We’ve got to make these plays. We’ve got to feel ‘em. We’ve got to feel them in practice and change some things up in practice, the way we’re doing some of those things, to give them maybe a little bit more of that kind of exposure on Tuesday and Wednesday rather than Saturday, if that makes sense.”
As for the scheme, Ohio State has maintained much of the plan put in place last year by Jeff Hafley, who was only in Columbus for one season before becoming head coach at Boston College.
The Buckeyes like to play with one deep safety in the middle of the field, another in the box, two cornerbacks outside and three linebackers on the field behind four defensive linemen.
That can put a lot of pressure on one outside linebacker to play man coverage, something teams have learned to try to exploit by creating matchup problems with athletic tight ends, speedy running backs and quick inside receivers.
Coombs conceded they had remained in their base personnel most of the time against Indiana but typically went to a nickel or “penny” look on passing downs.
What happens next remains to be seen.
Ohio State has four senior linebackers — starters Pete Werner, Tuf Borland and Baron Browning plus super sub Justin Hilliard — Coombs said are playing well, but the group of older defensive backs has displayed some inconsistencies.
Young pups in the DB room could be ready to bite, but the coaches need to see them outperform the veterans in practice.
Typically Coombs would like to see young players take that with them to the game field in live-but-not-crucial situations, but with those opportunities limited, he is in a quandary.
“I think it’s a great challenge because it’s easy to sub an interior defensive lineman and let them get experience,” Coombs said. “It’s much harder on the islands of the secondary to do that.
“We’re practicing a lot of depth; we’re not playing a lot of depth, and some of that is a function of the way the second half (of the last three games) has gone. And so that’s something that we would like to be able to do, but that leap of faith is a big one. So we’ll see what happens this weekend.”
Regardless of who is in the game, there is general agreement the Ohio State defense must improve for the Buckeyes to achieve their ultimate goal of not just getting back to the College Football Playoff but winning it.
“There’s not really an answer to this other than the way that we have been playing, we’ve got to step it up, and we will,” said Werner, a three-year starter and now a veteran of three different defensive coordinators. “That’s the best the best thing I can tell you.”
He expressed confidence some of the specific schematic things Indiana picked on will be fixed this week on the practice field.
“I definitely think we’ll see those again, but the way that we practiced this week, the way that we need to follow up on our issues that we’re given, I hope they give it to us again,” Werner said. “I hope they do because we’re gonna have it locked up.”
Ohio State at Illinois, Noon, FS1, 1410