Buckeye Football Notebook: ‘Playing defense at Ohio State, you have to earn it’

It is going to be very interesting to watch how the defensive rotations evolve this year at Ohio State.

We all know that the defensive line will play at least eight guys up front. It has been that way for years and it’s really the only way to successfully operate anymore.

More interestingly, however, will be the situation in the back seven. The Buckeyes return both of their starting middle linebackers from last year in Cody Simon and Tommy Eichenberg, as well as both starting Will linebackers from last year in Steele Chambers and Teradja Mitchell. And those four aren’t the only linebackers clamoring for snaps.

In the secondary, the Buckeyes have safeties like Cameron Martinez, Kourt Williams, and Kye Stokes trying to break into the top three of Ronnie Hickman, Josh Proctor, and Tanner McCalister. And the corners are trying to go beyond the two-deep of Denzel Burke and Cameron Brown this year.

According to defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, the efforts won’t go unrewarded this year. But it won’t be easy.

“I’m open to playing as many guys who have earned the right to play and can help the defense,” Knowles said recently. “I’m open to that. But playing defense at Ohio State, you have to earn it. You have to be able to show it in practice and understand the defense. Where you fit and how you fit. Be able to explain it. So there’s a process, but if a lot of guys have earned that level, then I’m up for playing a lot of guys.”

It isn’t only the Ohio State defense that will be looking at playing more than just 11 guys, of course. The Buckeye offense has recruited at a high level as well and there are plenty of athletes capable of making a mark.

At running back, the Buckeyes went through spring ball with sophomore TreVeyon Henderson, redshirt sophomore Miyan Williams, and redshirt freshman Evan Pryor. Both Henderson and Williams are now veterans and the confidence is high in their respective abilities. Pryor also impressed this spring, convincing his coaches that there needs to be a role for him in 2022.

Running backs coach Tony Alford isn’t going to force it, but they will try to put the pieces where they fit best.

“We’re gonna run our offense,” Alford said. “Within the confines of our offense, some guys are better suited for this, other guys are better suited for that. This spring we haven’t discussed exactly how we’re going to disperse everything, but we are going to run what we run. So all of you gotta be adept at this, because this is what we’re doing.

“Now if all of a sudden we say, ‘Hey, we want to go do this,’ maybe we want to get the ball on the perimeter more, okay, maybe that’s more advantageous for Evan Pryor maybe than running tight zone. Not that Evan can’t run tight zone and not that Miyan can’t run around on the perimeter, but who’s more adept at it?”

Like the situation at running back, the Ohio State wide receivers are a versatile bunch. Receivers coach Brian Hartline has worked with his room to make sure they can handle whatever they come up against.

Because of that versatility, Hartline doesn’t get too worked up about labels, but he does sometimes question them.

This spring he was asked about the slot position and if there was a certain type of player required to play there. Marvin Harrison’s name was then brought up as a player who doesn’t really fit the mold of a slot receiver.

“Why,” he asked. “They all play the position. I mean, as soon as we get to 12 personnel, all those outside guys go in the slot. There’s no difference. I think there is probably still types, I agree with that, but I think that at the end of the day we just want to train these guys to be full, complete athletes. Full, complete receivers, and not pigeonhole them into only this or only that.”

Hartline’s point can be seen in any game from last year, and not just in 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends). There were many times when tight end Jeremy Ruckert would split out wide and an outside receiver like Chris Olave would then be in the slot.

As Hartline points out, it’s a role that the players more than welcome.

“I’d love to hear you ask an athlete or receiver what can’t they do,” he said. “I’m pretty sure they will tell you they can do everything.”