Last year’s Ohio State defense didn’t live up to their own expectations, but they probably lived down to the fears of some in the Buckeye fanbase.
Four times last year the OSU defense allowed over 200 yards rushing to an opponent. It was the first time they’ve allowed that to happen since 2011, which also happened to be the year the Buckeyes were led by Luke Fickell for an interim season.
The 2021 season was a tumultuous few months for the Buckeye defense, especially at linebacker. Position coach Al Washington shuffled through his linebackers like a street preacher handing out pamphlets.
Tommy Eichenberg started the first three games at middle linebacker, then Cody Simon started for the rest of the regular season. Teradja Mitchell started the first two games at Will, then Simon stepped in for a game, then it went back to Mitchell for six more games before Steele Chambers finally took over the starting duties.
And starting or not, there was a heavy rotation of players last year, especially for a defense that started just two linebackers during the regular season. Five times last year, four linebackers played 20 or more snaps in a game. Ten times, three linebackers played at least 20 snaps in a game.
You never knew which linebackers would be on the field from series to series, and that was possibly true for the linebackers themselves. Perhaps as a result, the Buckeyes finished sixth in the Big Ten against the run and ninth in scoring defense.
Unfortunately, when nobody has ownership of a defense, everybody takes ownership of the results.
That has changed this year, however. (At least the ownership part.)
Fourth-year juniors Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers have emerged as the leaders of the linebacker room, and for good reason.
“Tommy is the quiet leader of the defense. He studies and he shows up,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles explained. “He knows what he wants to do. He rarely makes mistakes. He’s human, every now and then he will. And Steele, I think just has a confidence. A little bit more than the other guys’ confidence because he’s played. You can see that he’s played. He’s kind of battle tested.”
Eichenberg started four games last year but finished second on the team in tackles with 64 stops. He was named one of seven Iron Buckeyes this summer for his offseason work and not coincidentally was also named one of six captains for this season.
Even before he earned his captaincy, he saw himself as a leader of this defense.
“I would like to think so,” he said. “Just do it by my actions and talk when I need to talk.”
And when does he need to talk?
“A lot of times I have to talk,” he said. “Encourage guys, get things right, get people set up. Do a lot of things. So whenever I need to, I will.
Chambers, on the other hand, was a bit surprised to hear that Knowles touted his confidence. He was likely less surprised, however, to hear about the battle tested part.
“That’s a shocker to me,” Chambers admitted. “I feel confident, but just hearing that out of him is just kind of weird. He’s usually just bashing me, busting my balls. But, I mean, I’ll take it. I’ll take the compliment if I can get it, but yeah, I do feel confident.”
Part of that confidence comes from playing last year. It was Chambers’ first full year at linebacker, of course, having moved from running back. But he’s also more confident in his actions in a brand new defense. How did he make that happen?
“I guess relying on [Knowles’] teachings,” he said. “He’ll make fun of me in walkthroughs or in film, and I mean, I’ve got to take it on the chin. But realize that he created defense, he knows what he’s talking about. So just going off what he says, really taking what he says and learning it, I feel like that’s made me a more confident person.”
Coming into this season, there was expected to be an ongoing linebacker battle due to the number of former starters returning. But as of now, it looks like Chambers and Eichenberg have wrapped up the battle and have no intentions of loosening things now.
Did head coach Ryan Day expect this to happen?
“You don’t know until you get out there, but you can see in their eyes, it’s just a different approach. A different look in their eyes,” he said. “When you’ve never played that position, like Steele, if you haven’t started a game, like Tommy hadn’t going into that game — and they weren’t the only ones, there’s just a different look. There’s doubt. It’s just the way it is. You’re just not sure. Certainly the guys feel confident, but they just didn’t have that feeling naturally.”
The doubt and fear of failure are now gone. They have been replaced by confidence, experience, and an ever-increasing desire to make plays.
That also gives Day more confidence.
“They’ve done it now,” he said. “They’ve made mistakes, they’ve had success. They’ve done those types of things. And the first time you do something, the first time you ride a bike and fail, you fall off, then you get back on, you fall again, but then eventually you learn how to ride a bike. And I think that the more experience that we got last year, the better going into the season. So seeing the different look in their eyes. They both had a really good offseason. That room’s had a good offseason. I think their relationship with Jim in that meeting room has been excellent, too. So we’ll see.”