Ohio State’s defense has consistently been one of the best in the country during Tressel’s tenure as head coach. And thank goodness for that. Field position, solid special teams play, and a suffocating D have crushed opponents and earned Ohio State the W time after time. Even in years when the offensive fire power is… lacking, Ohio State’s defense has led the team to some very successful seasons.
What is the secret to Ohio State’s defensive success? Versatility.
In this post I look at some of Ohio State’s innovations on defense, the players that make those innovations possible, and what the added versatility allows Ohio State to do defensively.
Versatility is the key factor that we will be discussing here, and its importance has grown with time, but you can’t ignore that Ohio State has had some outstanding players on defense over the years. The players (you win with people) are obviously a large part of the consistent level of excellence. My argument is that the system that Ohio State has developed to utilize those players has evolved over time. The ability to stop a spread attack one week and a power run game the next is what takes Ohio State to the next level defensively.
It wasn’t a quick or easy process developing a defense that can handle whatever is thrown at it week after week, particularly when it came to figuring out how to stop high powered spread offenses. Ohio State’s reputation for being unable to stop elite “spread” teams is what had Michigan fans in a tizzy about the era of domination that Rich Rodriguez was sure to unleash on the Buckeyes.
Funny how that worked out for them.
By the time Rodriguez came to town Ohio State had already adapted and the window of opportunity had passed (plus, Rodriguez is an idiot that destroyed their program and wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of any weaknesses anyways, but that is another story).
Back to back national championship losses were painful lessons for Ohio State and the defensive coaching staff. The 2006 and 2007 seasons were the height of the apparent weakness that Ohio State had against elite offenses, particularly offenses of the spread variety. In both years, Ohio State cruised through the regular season with relative ease only to run into a buzz saw in the bowl game.
The Florida game in particular showed that Ohio State struggled to stop elite speed in space (LSU didn’t run a spread offense, but don’t tell the national media that). Florida took advantage of this weakness and the results were not fun.
Fortunately, Jim Heacock and Luke Fickell are not stupid. They made adjustments, recruited players to fit those adjustments, and developed a defensive scheme that allows Ohio State to counter the power rushing attack of teams like Iowa and Wisconsin one week and the spread attacks of Michigan, Northwestern, and Purdue the next (isn’t it fun grouping Michigan in with those schools?).
Specifically, the coaching staff created a new position and expanded or tweaked the role of several other positions. These adjustments added the needed versatility on defense to handle the variety of offenses that Ohio State encounters in a given year.
The new position was called the star, which was created as a DB/LB hybrid specifically to help counter spread offenses. At the same time, the weak side end position went from primarily a lineman who dropped back into coverage from time to time (think Will Smith) to what is basically a defensive end/linebacker hybrid (think Thaddeus Gibson).
The staff also began utilizing much larger ends on the strong side, a DE/DT if you will. While this may have been a case of fitting the scheme to the personnel (thank you Cam Heyward), recent recruiting trends indicate that the staff is targeting two distinct defensive ends, one large and one small (to simplify things too much).
To me, this shows that the coaching staff plans to continue using a smaller DE/LB hybrid and a larger DE/DT hybrid even after the current players graduate.
Finally, there is the strong side linebacker. Used primarily against power rushing teams and oftentimes lined up right at the line of scrimmage, the SAM linebacker is the ying to the weak side defensive end’s yang.
Let’s call the position a LB/DE hybrid.
Where does that leave us? With a lot of hybrid positions (DB/LB, DE/LB, DE/DT, LB/DE) and a lot of versatility on defense. By mixing and matching how each position is utilized (more on that in a future post), Ohio State can show anything from a 5-2 to a 3-3-5 and everything in between (4-3, 3-4).
Something important to note is that all of these looks can be achieved by only changing one player (the strong side linebacker and the star). Oftentimes no personnel changes are necessary for the defense to show and play out of completely different formations.
Here is a look at the positions that provide the Buckeyes with so much versatility, who will be playing them, and a brief look at the future of each position.
Heyward is the strong side defensive end that all others will be judged by. The goal this off season was for him to work on his conditioning so that he could be on the field more often. This is good news for Buckeye fans, not so good news for everyone else.
Heyward will spend most of his time on the edge, either in the standard 4-3 look or the 3-4 look.Typically 3-4 defensive ends are much larger, which is what makes Heyward (at 6’6″ 280+ lbs.) the perfect player to excel out of both fronts.
He could also slide down to a DT spot on passing situations to make room for a speed rusher off the edge (Solomon Thomas, for instance).
The ability of Heyward (and the strong side end in general) to clog the middle with their size and strength is what allows Ohio State to move the edge players around in so many different ways.
No matter where he is lined up at, Heyward will be bringing the pain this year as one of the best defensive players in the country.
The future of the strong side end is with players like Melvin Fellows, Daryl Baldwin, and Kenny Hayes. While it may take a long, long time to match the level of play that Heyward brings, Ohio State is clearly targeting defensive lineman that have the size and strength to play in the middle and the speed and athleticism to come off the edge.
Williams looks to step into the hybrid role vacated by Thaddeus Gibson. While Gibson was an excellent player who was the most complete package on the weak side (in terms of rushing the passer and dropping into coverage)that Ohio State has had, Williams is not far behind.
Williams played linebacker in high school and moved down to the weak side spot once he arrived at Ohio State (just like Gibson). This means that Williams has experience in space, giving Ohio State plenty of flexibility in what they can do.
While the weak side defensive end spends almost all of their time on the line of scrimmage, you could consider them a linebacker if you really wanted to. Just for comparison, Nathan Williams is listed at 6’3″ 260 lbs. while strong side linebacker Etienne Sabino is listed at 6’3″ 240 lbs.
Yin and yang on the edge.
Players like Solomon Thomas, David Durham and Steve Miller are the next in line to play the weak side end position. Ohio State is targeting smaller, more athletic ends (like Miller) or linebackers that will grow into the position (like Durham) for the future.
Recruiting smaller more athletic weak side defensive ends and creating the star position are the two most important innovations that Ohio State made defensively to stop spread teams.
Jermale Hines was the original star, but his move to free safety has opened up the competition to replace him, with Tyler Moeller being the favorite heading into fall camp.
Moeller will be a fan favorite this season for a number of reasons. First because of the adversity that he has been through; it will be great just to see him back on the field again. The other reason that fans will love him is that he is perfect for the star position.
Originally a linebacker, Moeller was moved to safety in the spring and will likely see significant playing time this season as the star back (according to Tressel, they will have the star on the field 60-65% of the time). Moeller has always been known for being a ball hawk and a hard hitter, and his tenacity as a blitzer should be a lot of fun to watch as he lines up all over the field with the added range that playing the star will give him.
The future of the star position lies in players like Scotty McVey (a linebacker in the mold of Moeller) or Chad Hagan (a safety in the mold of Hines). Either way, Ohio State is clearly targeting a specific type of player to play the star position in the future.
Having a versatile star that can play the run like a linebacker and the pass like a safety is a crucial part of Ohio State countering spread offenses.
Sabino will be replacing Austin Spitler on the strong side. Against power rushing teams last season, Spitler was crucial for getting a little extra muscle on the field. Oftentimes, he would play at the line of scrimmage, creating a 5-2 look for Ohio State.
While Spitler was great at stopping the run and played primarily on the line of scrimmage, Sabino is significantly more athletic and better at playing in space.
With Sabino’s added athleticism, who knows how Ohio State will utilize the strong side linebacker this year. There are even reports out of practice that he is getting reps at the star position. From rushing the passer off the edge, blitzing from the LB position, or dropping into coverage like a safety, it looks like Sabino will have a big impact on defense this year.
No matter how he is utilized, the versatility and athleticism that Sabino brings to the defense is exactly what Ohio State looks for, and the results should be exciting to watch.
Players like Andrew Sweat and Jonathan Newsome are in line to be the next SAM LBs.
Targetting “tweeners” is often frowned upon in college recruiting circles. The idea is that at a place like Ohio State, you don’t need to recruit players that are not ideal size to play a position.
The defense has taken the idea of “tweeners” to a whole new level with positions like the weak side defensive end and the star back. By targeting players that can fill multiple rolls, and utilizing those players’ unique skill sets, Ohio State has opened up what they can do defensively.
The versatility that Ohio State’s defense will bring to the field this season will be immensely enjoyable to watch. Finding different ways to utilize their players, confusing the offense with different fronts and different blitz packages, and ultimately winning is the name of the game.
Since no two players are exactly the same, and players are only around for a limited amount of time, Ohio State will continue to evolve their defensive schemes to maximize the skills of their best players. The current system is the framework that Ohio State will work from, but new innovations as new players come through will allow Ohio State to continue to be the best.
For right now, this years players in this years system are primed for another year of domination.