Ohio State defensive lineman Tyleik Williams

Ten Questions For The Ohio State Defense As Camp Opens Today

The Buckeyes haven’t had a defense good enough to win a national title since 2019. Most of the coaches responsible for the defense the last two years are now gone and new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is in charge. Tim Walton and Perry Eliano also give the Buckeyes an entirely new pair of coaches in the secondary. There is a lot of marrying that has had to go on since January.

The returns were good in spring camp, but now the pace needs to pick up even more. Can the players keep up? Can the coaches?

The Buckeyes have 20 players on defense with starting experience, which should bode well for an effective installation. The defense will start small during camp and build, just as it will during the season.

Overall, the biggest question about the defense this month will simply be the defense as a whole, but that will best be resolved by how the smaller questions are answered.

Questions like the 10 listed below.

How does Tyler Friday look?
Tyler Friday was at one time essentially even with Tyreke Smith and Zach Harrison in the Ohio State defensive end rotation. Friday has played a lot — starting four games back in 2019, which was the best Buckeye defense since 2016. Like Smith, Friday has been close to making very big plays in his career, but still only has three sacks – all in 2019 and 2018. He missed the entire season last year and no doubt has precisely the kind of hunger that the coaches want from a fifth-year guy. Friday knows his clock is ticking, so what does he do during camp? Where is he? What kind of impact is he making? He has sophomores coming after him. He has classmates trying to stay on the field as well. This is his last opportunity to be the absolute best version of himself. It’s time to go. What does he show Larry Johnson? What does he show Jim Knowles and how much of a playmaker can he be during camp against some talented offensive tackles?

How much closer to the Leo can they get?
Jim Knowles said back in the spring that his hybrid defensive end/linebacker position is going to be known as the Jack for the moment. It has formerly been known as the Leo at Oklahoma State, but as Knowles said back in the spring, the Leo is the king of the jungle, and right now until one of these defensive ends shows that they can be the king of the jungle and manage everything that the Leo position requires, the position will be known as the Jack. And that’s not just nomenclature, it is also a schematical thing in that they will not be asked to do quite as much as the Leo until they show that they can handle it. So the question for this camp then becomes how much can the guys who are playing this position show? Guys like Jack Sawyer, and potentially guys like Javontae Jean-Baptiste or Caden Curry, or others. Whoever is playing this position will be given an opportunity to wreak all kinds of havoc. They need to show how much they can do so that Knowles knows how much to ask.

What does Jim Knowles’ defense do for Zach Harrison?
Everybody has been waiting for Zach Harrison to be Chase Young, to be Nick Bosa, to be Joey Bosa, but if you wait for most humans to become these people, you are going to be waiting forever. Harrison came to Ohio State with lofty expectations and lofty goals, and to this point he has been a starting defensive end and a reliable defender. What he has not yet been, however, is the double-digit sack guy that people have become accustomed to seeing at Ohio State. So can Zach Harrison become that? Can Jim Knowles’ defense make that happen? Harrison is likely a strong-side defensive end and in Knowles’ defenses, that position hasn’t really been a big number producer. But Knowles has also never had somebody like Harrison playing that position. Knowles is certainly excited about the potential, and this camp will show him exactly what he can expect from Harrison and the best way to utilize him.

How does the interior shake out?
Everybody is very excited to see what Tyleik Williams can do with more snaps than he got last year. Even with limited reps a year ago, Williams was one of the team leaders in sacks and tackles for loss. He did this while playing hundreds of fewer snaps than the actual team leaders like Haskell Garrett and Zach Harrison. The work that Williams put into this offseason to get into better shape was noted in the spring. He feels better. He looks better. Expectations are high, but he is also just one person on the interior. How many teammates can work themselves into the interior rotation this month? Redshirt freshman Mike Hall played a bit last year, but now he could be an integral part of this defensive line. Right now he’s probably the third nose tackle behind Jerron Cage and Ty Hamilton (assuming he stays at nose tackle). Can he move up? And that still leaves us with Taron Vincent at the three tech. He and Williams will likely be splitting those reps during camp, assuming they are still both at the three tech. Vincent is a vet and a leader. This is his final camp. He needs to be a difference maker. There are a handful of guys here with potential, but they were also part of a run defense last year that had issues.

What does Steele Chambers look like in year two?
A year ago this time, Steele Chambers had been a linebacker for maybe a month. Before too long he became one of the top linebackers on the defense. He eventually took over as the starting Will linebacker, playing well enough to have clear indications that his future was on defense. Jim Knowles’ defensive system puts linebackers in position to make plays both at the line of scrimmage and behind it. That has not yet really been Chambers’ game. So how does he adapt to that during camp? After all, what he does in camp will dictate how much Knowles will ask of him early in the season. And frankly, is Steele Chambers in a position where he can hold everybody off at his position? This defense will start two linebackers, so what happens if the two best linebackers are Tommy Eichenberg and Cody Simon? What does that mean for Chambers? How much rotation does Knowles think is needed in this defense? If he has three linebackers or four linebackers that he thinks should play, will he play them? And how often? An athlete like Steele Chambers might be just what this position calls for, but it’s not going to be easy.

Can a healthy Cody Simon win a starting job?
Cody Simon started for the Buckeyes at middle linebacker eight times last season before his shoulder gave way and he then had to give way to Tommy Eichenberg. He also started a game at Will linebacker last year. He he was dinged up with a bad shoulder for much of the 2021 season but he is healthy now and should be good to go. Last year he won a job in camp. This year he comes into the linebacker competition having seen Eichenberg and Steele Chambers lead the defense for the last four games, but some of those games didn’t go all that well defensively. For some people, Simon may be an afterthought at this point, but he shouldn’t be. Jim Knowles hasn’t gotten a chance to see a fully healthy Cody Simon in the spring, which means this will really be his first opportunity to see a 100%, full-go Simon. Knowles has spoken highly of Eichenberg at middle linebacker, and he has obviously spoken highly of Chambers at the will. Simon has experience at both spots, so it’s going to be interesting to see what the reviews are over the next few weeks. Can he take a job from somebody? He’s likely coming into this month thinking like a returning starter and the only reason he lost his job was due to an injury. Now that he’s healthy, it’s time to step back into a very important role.

Will the linebackers ultimately just rotate?
If you’ve got Tommy Eichenberg, Steele Chambers, and Cody Simon, who are all good enough to start, do you get them ready for a rotation of sorts during camp? They are accustomed to sharing snaps because they did it last year, so this wouldn’t be anything new. Where does Teradja Mitchell fit in? What happens if he has the kind of camp that wins him a starting job just like last year? Maybe Jim Knowles’ defense is exactly what Mitchell has been waiting for. Maybe it suits him better than previous defenses. Then you’ve got young guys like CJ Hicks, Reid Carrico, Gabe Powers, and an old guy like Palaie Gaoteote. This is Gaoteote’s last camp and even though he’s likely repping at the seldom-used Sam linebacker spot, if he flashes during camp, they’ll find more work for him. Knowles wants to know what everybody can do so that he can put them in positions to make plays, but that’s more of a situational thing than a pure rotation. If he has four guys that can play well but he has two guys he likes best, does that eliminate any rotating?

Can second-year cornerbacks Jordan Hancock and/or JK Johnson push into a rotation?
Ohio State likes their cornerback situation right now with Denzel Burke, Cameron Brown, JK Johnson, and Jordan Hancock. Brown and Burke will be your starters, but can Johnson and/or Hancock force secondary coach Tim Walton into going with a rotation as we’ve seen in past years? What if he has four cornerbacks who are good enough to play? I think if most Big Ten teams went into this season with Jordan Hancock and JK Johnson as their starters, they would feel pretty good about it. Can these two second-year guys show that they need to be on the field? With how much college football teams pass the ball now, would OSU rather have fresh corners in the fourth quarter of games this year? First Walton needs to find out if either Hancock or Johnson are good enough to start, and then he’ll need to decide exactly what to do about it. The more you play the young guys now, the less they’ll look like young guys when you need them the most in November, December, and January.

Are the safeties set?
It seems like we know who Ohio State’s top three safeties are. The starting group that left spring was Josh Proctor at strong safety, Ronnie Hickman at the field safety, and Tanner McAlister at nickel safety. But who is behind them? And is anybody pushing them? This is Hickman’s first season as a free safety. Last year he played strong safety. This year he’s going to be doing something a little bit different, but not entirely different because Ohio State will be playing a split safety defense this year. So really, a free safety just has to cover a little bit more ground now, as opposed to a lot more ground in a single-high safety system. But where’s Lathan Ransom? He broke his leg last year and comes into this camp a little bit slowed but will eventually be full-go well in advance of the season. Is he at free safety backing up Hickman? Is he yet another strong safety to go along with Proctor and Kourt Williams? Does true freshman Kye Stokes continue to shine in fall camp and end up as the No. 2 free safety? And where is Sonny Styles, the six-foot-four, 220-pound freshman? Is he on the boundary or is he at the field? If he can play free safety that would be very, very impressive. And what about a guy like Jantzen Dunn, who missed last year with an injury. Now he’s almost a forgotten guy. Sometimes it’s the forgotten guys who show up for camp and surprise everyone.

Can a freshman break into the two-deep?
Overall, this defense is a mix of young and old, but even with the young guys there is solid experience returning. With all of that experience, both young and old, it’s going to be very difficult for a true freshman to move into the two-deep at this point. Kye Stokes might be the best bet behind Ronnie Hickman. Can Caden Curry get in there at defensive end? That might be doubtful considering the Buckeyes already have five defensive ends that they’re planning to play this year. What about a guy like Hero Kanu at defensive tackle? He’s a big kid but he’s still learning the game. He’s going to be playing a position that is three deep on the interior, whether it’s three tech or nose tackle. Can CJ Hicks get in there? That’s gonna be a tough one as well because there are a number of linebackers for just two spots. If you look all over this defense, there is really no glaring area where you say they need a freshman to step up. And there’s nobody in this freshman class where you look at them and say there’s no way you can keep them off the field. Not that it isn’t a talented class, but it’s just a deeper defense than maybe it has been in the past. But this is also a defense that has been beaten up, pushed around, and made to look bad at times. So who is to say that any of these players outside of maybe Denzel Burke is beyond or above being moved aside by a very talented freshman?

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