There was a telling moment during an interview session with Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson last week. He was asked about the oft-discussed simplification of the OSU offense and he remarked that “you can never be simplified enough.”
This thought flies in the face of what the Buckeyes did the last two years on defense, with what appeared to be an overly complicated defense that made just about everyone a split second too slow to be where they needed to be.
The move now to simplify things is being done to eliminate extra steps in the thought process, which should then allow the Buckeyes to play faster.
The belief is that Ohio State has enough talent to be simple, provided they execute at a high level.
This new defensive approach is music to the Buckeyes’ ears.
“I love it,” said sophomore middle linebacker Teradja Mitchell. “It’s a lot more simple. It allows us to play ball faster. I’m all for it. I felt like for me personally, there was a lot more thinking coming in from a high school playbook to a college playbook, a lot more thinking. This year, it’s a lot more simple. It allows us to play football.”
“A lot less reads allows you to read the line, read the back, at the end play football,” he said. “Play football from that point on.”
For the first half of last year, the linebackers seemed to exist in order to help the defensive line fill gaps. This made life difficult for the linebackers and it turns out that it didn’t really do all that much for the defensive linemen. Last year, those linemen were asked to play more east-west and try to out-scheme the opposing offense.
This year, Ohio State’s idea of out-scheming is simply being talented, determined, and having fewer variables in what they are tasked with doing.
“The defense we’re running now, it’s really giving us the ability to just go play and just go use our talent and just go play,” said junior defensive end Chase Young. “No going left/right on the line, stuff like that, just go play.”
This allows the front four to be more aggressive off the snap.
“No question about it,” Larry Johnson said. “No question about it. If I know my gap, I can play faster. If that’s my gap I can move fast to it. So it’s a good change and we can play fast. Playing vertical upfield, you’re not running sideways, so everything is in a gap. Play your gap. Get off the ball and go play. And that’s good football.”
The running theme of “getting back to playing football” provides further insights into how the defense feels about the changes.
Football is complicated enough without adding to it.
And offenses are faster than ever, which only makes the need for a faster defense more imperative.
“This year we’re going to play more straight forward and just go downhill and play fast and make sure that it’s simple and we’re getting stuff done,” said sophomore linebacker Dallas Gant. “Last year, [there were] a lot of changes with motions and stuff like that, which wasn’t difficult, but sometimes it would be ‘I’m sure,’ at times it would be unsure. And sometimes we played that way, which made us play slower.”
Everybody who played on last year’s defense had to face the questions of why things were going wrong, as did the coaches. And every time, the answers would come back that the issues were fixable and that they were close. Sure, that was true. The issues are fixable, but maybe college athletes don’t have the time to get it done. And yes, they were close, that’s why all of those missed tackles for 90-yard runs were so frustrating.
Now, however, as senior defensive end Jonathon Cooper succinctly summarized, they can just “get back to playing football.”
“I feel like with more east/west it’s a lot of scheming,” he said. “And I feel like instead of a whole bunch of scheming, we’re getting back into just playing football. Going out there, rolling the ball out, knowing our jobs, doing it extremely well, and playing football. That’s what I like about it.
“Everybody has their different opinions, and everybody obviously has their different say in how the defense should be or how the defense should play, but I just feel like me personally and the way my unit has been playing, we feel more comfortable in this system.”