It has been said that one thorn of experience is worth a whole wilderness of warning. A year ago, the Ohio State defense found itself in the thicket to end the season.
It was their first year in new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ defense, and until the final two games of the year against Michigan and Georgia, it had actually gone pretty well. It wasn’t as dominating as Knowles had hoped, but no defense of his was ever at its best in year one.
This spring, the Buckeyes have begun year two in Knowles defense, which has been an enlightening experience for the majority of them.
Now knowing the defense, the players are more comfortable in what they are being asked to do, and when they are asked to do it. Knowles has already seen evidence of those thorns of experience paying off.
“Yes, particularly in the back end,” Knowles said. “We’re getting our hands on more balls. We’re competing. This is a great offense. We did not do our job in those matchup games that we needed to, and in order to get better we have to win against our offense. We have to compete. We have to fight. I mean, we can’t just say, ‘Well, [Marvin Harrison] is a great player. He’s the best player, so he beat us.’ No, because that’s who we’re going to face when we get into the matchup game. So we have to win in practice. So what I’m pushing, and what I’m seeing, is our guys are fighting more at the point of emphasis where you have to make the play. And we’re getting our hands on a lot more balls. And that’s noticeable.”
A Nickel For Your Thoughts
One of the more interesting position battles on the Ohio State defense is at the starting nickel spot vacated by the graduated Tanner McCalister. McCalister came to Ohio State through the transfer portal, essentially following defensive coordinator Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State.
In Knowles’ defense, the nickel is part of the base defense with four defensive linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. The position needs to be able to defend a slot receiver or tight end in man coverage, and also help out against the run when needed. With only two linebackers on the field, that nickel can’t shy away from the physicality of the job.
This spring, fourth-year junior Cameron Martinez and Syracuse transfer Ja’Had Carter are battling for the starting job. Martinez was McCalister’s backup last year and he’s been with the ones the majority of spring ball this year. Carter left Saturday’s practice with an injury, so his status is still up in the air.
Regardless, the job wasn’t necessarily expected to be won in the spring. Fall camp will also come into play. How will Knowles know who is most deserving of the job?
“It just really comes over the course of time, right?” he said. “I mean, when you get those matchups in the slot, and you see that you are consistently winning, and you’re watching their feet and everything, because sometimes balls aren’t [accurate]. So you’re watching everything. It’s just repetition after repetition after repetition, and then they develop confidence and we develop confidence.”
On Time, But Faster
Harrison earned a starting job for the Buckeyes last year as a true sophomore. He caught 77 passes for 1,263 yards. He was one of two true sophomores to post 1,000 yards receiving last season for the Buckeyes, joining Emeka Egbuka and his 1,151 yards.
Those two guys get the bulk of the attention when it comes to OSU’s 2021 receiver class, and they should. Jayden Ballard, meanwhile, has just nine receptions in his career, but is making plays this spring.
Does that mean his time is now?
“I wouldn’t say it’s his time. It’s always his time,” offensive coordinator and receivers coach Brian Hartline said. “Labeling people on when their time is, I don’t understand that concept.”
Hartline has seen it first hand at Ohio State. Everybody’s path is different. Ballard’s path is different than his classmates. It’s also different than past Buckeyes like Michael Thomas, who had three catches after his first two years at Ohio State, or guys like Terry McClaurin and Parris Campbell, who didn’t see their first college receptions until year three.
“I mean, as far as I’m concerned he could be here for six years if he wants to, so he’s halfway through his time,” Hartline said of Ballard. “And, yeah, he’s doing a great job. I think he’s in a position where he’s playing faster, he’s playing more consistent. I think that I’m excited for what’s to come for Jayden.”
Deep Star Six (Or Seven)
The Buckeyes have been without starting receivers Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming this spring, which has allowed OSU’s young receivers to get more work than they may have normally gotten. The Buckeyes have seven receivers in spring camp with freshman eligibility, so getting work for those guys is something that could pay off later on this season.
With a top three of Marvin Harrison, Egbuka, and Fleming, the Buckeyes have arguably the best starting trio in America. But it’s more than just those three. As Jayden Ballard continues to progress, and the way Xavier Johnson capped his 2022 season, it sure seems that the Ohio State receiver room will go at least five deep this season.
And that’s before taking into account any of the four redshirt freshmen or four true freshmen that will eventually be marching up and down the sideline itching to get into a game. Reports on true freshman Carnell Tate have been outstanding, for instance.
“I would say that we are a good, six, seven deep right now,” Brian Hartline said. “And that’s really good. I would say that, in my opinion, the guys, they’re showing trajectory. The four, five, six is much better than it was this time last year. So everyone’s being pushed, everyone’s growing. And having these extra reps with a couple guys out have been awesome. And they know that those are eventually gonna go away. So as long as we’re maximizing those, we’ll be in a much better position come fall camp.”