The Buckeyes will have to replace 12 starters from the 2017 football team, and today begins a series on how Ohio State will go about replacing each of those valuable pieces. Up first is defensive end Sam Hubbard, who opted to forgo his final year of eligibility in order to enter the 2018 NFL Draft.
Hubbard finished seventh on the team in tackles (42) this past season, and second in sacks (7.0) and tackles for loss (13.5). He has been in the defensive end rotation since the 2015 season opener when he started as a redshirt freshman in place of a suspended Joey Bosa. Hubbard finished with 6.5 sacks that season, while Bosa managed just 5.0.
Hubbard finished his career with 17 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss while sharing reps every single year of his career. His 17 sacks are good for 15th-most in OSU history, ahead of players like Cameron Heyward, Mike Kudla, Darrion Scott, and A.J. Hawk.
Not just a pass rusher, however, Hubbard was an athletic edge defender who could stretch plays out wide and was tremendous at recognition. In replacing him, the Buckeyes will need a player who is both smart and athletic, and tenacious in using both of those attributes.
Sam Hubbard played safety in high school, which gives you an idea of the athleticism that he brought to defensive end at Ohio State. Rising junior Jonathon Cooper spent time as a wide receiver in high school, and he wasn’t too shabby. In limited reps over his first two seasons as a Buckeye, Cooper has three sacks and four tackles for loss. He has always been known as a speed rusher, and he has the athleticism to cover screen plays like Hubbard did. Cooper will be part of the rotation at defensive end this coming season, but can he be as complete a defender as Hubbard was?
You don’t have to watch Chase Young long to know that he is going to be special. As a true freshman this past season, he finished with 6.0 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in limited play. He spent his freshman season learning everything he could from Hubbard, who is the perfect example of what coaches want their players to be. Young may not be a former safety like Hubbard, or maybe he didn’t play receiver like Cooper, but when it comes to being an edge defender, he has every tool a player needs in order to succeed.
This is just speculation without any proof, but given the fact that there will only be three defensive ends on the roster this spring — barring a position move from Dre’Mont Jones — there is the possibility of a linebacker moving over, and Dante Booker might be a pretty good candidate. Booker, entering his fifth year, has exactly the athleticism required to rush the passer or drop into coverage or stretch a play out to the sideline. But will it happen?
Because of an abundance of linebackers, perhaps Malik Harrison could also be a possibility. I expect him to be a starting linebacker in 2018, however, but he certainly has the athleticism to play a number of different positions.
The Buckeyes won’t be adding any freshman defensive ends in the spring, which means that it will just be Chase Young and Jonathon Cooper playing alongside Nick Bosa. The number of linebackers vying for starting spots is one of the reasons why Dante Booker continues to seem like a possibility here. To this point, however, it is just empty speculation.
The best bet here is that Jonathon Cooper and Chase Young will step in and step up as expected. Together, they both have similarities to Hubbard in skill set and athleticism. Playing behind him for as long as they have was a great example and will make it easier for them to continue forward without him.
I expect Chase Young and Jonathon Cooper to be just fine as two parts of a three- or four-man rotation at defensive end in 2018. These are two very hungry players who are finally going to be involved in games while the decision is still in doubt. They will be called upon to win games. They should be ready for it, especially since they’ve seen how it is supposed to be done by watching Sam Hubbard do it for so long.