Next season, the Buckeyes will return every linebacker from the 2018 season, save for Dante Booker, which means they will enter 2019 as a veteran group.
That doesn’t mean they are necessarily a proven group, however, as struggles were apparent at times in each of the past two seasons.
New Ohio State head coach Ryan Day is trying to bring some consistency to that group with the hiring of new defensive coordinators and a new linebackers coach in Al Washington.
While opposing coaches could appreciate the intricacies of Greg Schiano’s defense, it was often difficult for the players themselves to execute all of the necessary keys. That is why things would have to get simplified later in the season, and also why production would increase.
It’s a long way from the 2016 Ohio State defense that was deemed “basic” by Oklahoma’s backup quarterback.
In fact, one source has it that upon saying goodbye to his players, former linebackers coach Bill Davis told his players they would never play in a defense more complex than Schiano’s.
As such, things should expect to get back to simpler times under coordinators Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison. When Chris Ash took over the defense in 2014, he went very simple and made sure the defense was good at the basics before getting any more complicated. That was a gradual process, and this one likely will be too.
Helping matters out will be a veteran defense, led by seniors like linebacker Malik Harrison, safety Jordan Fuller, and defensive linemen Robert Landers, Davon Hamilton, and Jonathon Cooper.
Both Harrison and Fuller had decisions to make regarding the NFL, and both decided to return.
Harrison finished the season better than he began it, and it goes back to everything that he was being asked to do. Paralysis by analysis isn’t his excuse, but you can see how it could be.
“I feel like earlier was just me just being uptight and wanting to get everything right,” Harrison said. “As the games went on it was just me being more loose and more relaxed and having fun out there.”
Harrison and Fuller tied for the team lead with 81 tackles each. Over the final three games, Harrison finished with 24 tackles, including 10 in the Big Ten Championship Game. Two of his 8.5 tackles for loss came against Michigan, as did one of his 2.5 sacks. Two of his three quarterback hurries came against Northwestern.
What was the difference?
“Just getting more confidence,” he said. “As the year progressed, I got better every week and I think these last couple of games I just took off. Just me being confident and just having fun out there.”
Those last few games are what had Harrison thinking about the NFL. After weighing the pros and cons, however, returning to Ohio State for his senior season won out.
There is still plenty more to accomplish and plenty to get better at. Harrison also wants to become a more well-rounded leader on defense.
“Tuf [Borland] is already one of the leaders here right now, so I feel like if I come back next year, just take another step, Tuf is still going to be a leader, I’m going to become a leader,” he said prior to the Rose Bowl. “Me now, I feel like these last couple games I became more of a leader just by my actions, not really talking, but just my actions. Next year I feel like I can elevate it, do the talking and my actions.”
There is no doubting Harrison’s ability to run from sideline to sideline. He is one of the best athletes on the Ohio State defense. The plan now is for this new defense to showcase those abilities better than the last one did.
With consistency comes production, and with production comes leadership. Harrison expects to be a larger part of the 2019 defense in every aspect.
“I feel like it would benefit me a lot,” he said of returning for his senior season. “Me just growing up more and taking my game to another level.”