There is a lot to like about this year’s Ohio State defense — at least to this point.
Three games isn’t a huge sample size, but based on what the Buckeyes showed last season, it doesn’t take much to know that things are considerably different than they were a year ago.
Head coach Ryan Day brought in four new defensive coaches and a new scheme has been concocted.
As with every defense, this one starts up front. This year, the defensive line is asked to get upfield more than they were last year. Less slanting was a pleasing change for every member of the front four and it has resulted in a defense that leads the Big Ten in sacks and is only allowing 57 yards rushing per game.
The linebackers, meanwhile, are no longer slowed down by confusion. They are able to get to where they need to be faster than before, and sometimes more importantly they stay exactly where they should have and the play comes to them.
The secondary has made some changes as well. They have introduced new looks, new coverages, and a renewed desire to force turnovers.
At every level of the defense there are things to like — and even better, there are things to love.
But what do the Buckeyes themselves like most about this defense?
“I think that it allows guys to mix up a lot of looks so you don’t necessarily know what we’re doing,” junior cornerback Jeff Okudah said. “It allows guys to play really fast. I would say it also allows us to play comfortably.”
Being comfortable and playing fast has been a common refrain. The term “simpler” has been used. Players say there is less thinking involved, and when you’ve got a bunch of great athletes who just want to go get the ball, finally being allowed to do that is going to be welcomed.
“I just think that everybody running to football, no big plays allowed, kind of makes me love this defense,” said junior linebacker Pete Werner. “Last year, it was kind of frustrating. We’d get to third and five, we’d get ready to get off the field and then there’s a 25-yard gain.
“Or if it’s first and 10 and they get a 25-yard gain, or then they’re running down the field for a touchdown. You’re like, ‘well, what’s going on?’ Just one little thing can lead to a big play. But now we kind of have a feel where if everybody does their job and runs to the football, then it’s not gonna mess you up too bad. And everybody has a chance to kind of stop that.”
The Buckeyes haven’t missed many tackles this season, but when there is an opposing player running free, he doesn’t run free for long. That pursuit eventually catches up. The confidence right now in this defense is evident in almost every play, which also happens to be junior Bullet Brendon White’s favorite aspect of this defense.
“I would say we have more swagger to us,” he said. “I think we have more confidence to us too. It allows us to just be out there and be athletes and just play football. Find the pigskin. And when we do that, you can see we have swagger. And you can see we’re stopping the run or making offenses pay.”
Confidence didn’t come easily last year. There were too many big plays given up and too many unanswered questions as to why it kept happening.
To a man, this defense was excited about the changes that were coming, and they gained confidence just knowing that they would be doing something different. But then came fall camp and they saw the results in action. The confidence came flooding back, and so did the swagger.
“We saw guys making a lot of plays,” White said. “We had more confidence and we were shutting out the offense here and there. And so once guys have confidence start making plays, seeing how really good we could be, guys started coming along and having that swagger back.”
The tangible nature of these changes is seen on every play, and it is significant. There are also the unseen intangibles, such as the drive to never let last season happen again. Nothing has come easy for this defense over the last few years, but they were hungry for this opportunity to shine and they bought in and worked from the first day.
That drive is what Ryan Day likes most about this defense. It goes along with the swagger and confidence that they have, but it also includes the road these players have taken to get where they are today.
“Well, I think I said early on, I think any time you’ve been through some stuff, you’ve been scarred,” Day said. “I like that. I like that kind of group. They have. They had to sit around last year and listen about how they went through some tough times. They weren’t happy about that.
“They’re a very prideful group. They were kind of just working and not talking much about it, trying to be quiet about it. At the same time they were angry. They feel like they have something to prove, they have a chip on their shoulder. I love being around guys like that.”