The final installment of the Ohio State football mailbag preview: Who’s going to be the ball hawking DB? Will Greg Schiana take another job? Joe Russo answers…
We’ve already talked about Kevin Wilson and the Ohio State offense at length, but what about the 2017 edition of the Silver Bullets? Our third and final part of the Buckeye Mailbag Preview takes a look at the Ohio State defense.
What should we expect out of the defensive backs?
In back-to-back seasons, Ohio State lost three starting defensive backs early to the NFL. Last season, three went in the first round of the NFL draft. It was difficult to predict that Malik Hooker and Marshon Lattimore would be THAT good. No one doubted the talent, but it’s not as if there was a ton of tape for either player to show that they would be first-round picks.
Ohio State finds themselves in a familiar position with a similar solution already in place. Denzel Ward, Damon Arnette, and Jordan Fuller bring a lot of untapped potential to the backfield. Both Ward and Arnette saw limited action in 2016 and held their own. Freshmen Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade are listed as immediate back ups at the corner spots as well. They were both two of the highest rated defensive recruits in the country last season.
The wild card in all of this is Kendall Sheffield. The sophomore former Alabama corner is listed as a co-starter at corner with Arnette. Sheffield was a highly sought after recruit that ended up in Tuscaloosa. His transfer to Columbus brings incredibly valuable depth and the same type of freak athlete that has thrived in the Buckeyes system, especially under Greg Schiano’s ball hawking scheme.
Expectations shouldn’t be three first round NFL draft picks, but there is a ton of talent in the defensive backfield. Fans should be excited about this group. Big Ten quarterbacks should still be afraid of this group. And with the talent along the defensive line, Kerry Coombs’s unit should produce in 2017.
Who is taking over Malik Hooker’s role as a turnover machine?
Right now, it looks like Jordan Fuller will replace Hooker at safety. He’s a capable player that was beaten out by Hooker for the position last year. But if anyone is going to take over the role as the main ball hawk for Ohio State, it’s going to be Damon Webb.
Webb is the most experienced player coming back in the group and after watching his fellow safety intercept seven passes last season, Webb is positioned well to assume that same type of role. He will be needed in case the young corners struggle early. While Conley and Lattimore played incredibly well, Hooker helped make their lives easier by picking off or breaking up nearly every mistake a quarterback made. Damon Webb can do that for the 2017 version of the group.
Who will have a break out year that no one expects?
This is tough, as there are plenty of Buckeye defenders grabbing national attention. Basically the entire defensive line is poised for a big year and every one of them could break out. There are a lot of questions marks in the backfield, so it’s difficult to see signs of a breakout there. But what about at linebacker?
Jerome Baker had a huge year last season, but it was overshadowed by the insane year from guys like Malik Hooker and the performance of the defensive line. But it was Baker who was second on the team in tackles and tackles for loss. He has as many sacks as Sam Hubbard and more interceptions than Damon Webb in 2016. If I had to bet, most Buckeye fans wouldn’t have known that.
It might seem like a cop out to select a player here who saw as much action as Baker did for the breakout player in 2017, but this could be the season where Baker takes the headlines the way Derron Lee did at outside linebacker. With Raekwon McMillan now off to the NFL, Baker looks like the type of star linebacker successful Buckeye defenses always have.
Will captain Tracy Sprinkle return to full health and make an impact?
Sprinkle blew his knee out one half into the season. The Elyria, Ohio native (GO PIONEERS!) worked his way to being a starter along the interior. Sprinkle is going to fill the Michael Hill role as an interior run stuffer on appropriate down and distance. You won’t see him out there in the “Rush Man” package, but Sprinkle will spend plenty of time battling in the trenches to keep Larry Johnson‘s rotations going as deep as he wants them.
If the defense has another huge year, does Greg Schiano bolt for a head coaching job?
It would be tough to ask him to turn down a good offer in a good program. Schiano was a very successful college coach at Rutgers and helped put that program on the Big Ten radar. While his NFL experience wasn’t great, he has absolutely rebounded while taking over the defensive coordinator job in Columbus.
There’s just something that feels good, though, about Schiano sticking around for more than just the 2017 season. Despite the rumors and the logic behind a Schiano departure, this job has been crucial to rebuilding his reputation after an ugly divorce in Tampa Bay. There are worse jobs than running Urban Meyer’s defense in Columbus. I don’t think Schiano would leave for a decent head coaching job. It would have to be a good job at a good program for Schiano to leave. Might be selfish wishful thinking, but that’s alright.
Ultimately, how will the season end up for Ohio State?
Let’s start with the most important goal of winning the Big Ten. Urban Meyer has exactly one Big Ten title while in Columbus. While Buckeye fans want to make the playoffs and win a National Championship every year, winning the Big Ten is a stepping stone toward that goal.
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Even though Ohio State has made the playoffs without winning the Big Ten, it’s awfully difficult to make the final four without doing so.
2017 looks good for Ohio State to win the Big Ten. Ohio State avoids Wisconsin this season and has Penn State at home. While the season finale returns to the Big House this year, Michigan has to travel to Wisconsin the week before and goes to Happy Valley in October. Penn State looks like the toughest test for the Buckeyes this season.
The Buckeyes have a chance to run the table on the regular season slate. With Oklahoma breaking in a new coach and many new pieces on offense, their trip to Columbus could be tough. Hosting Penn State certainly helps and Michigan is the only other ranked team on the schedule. 12-0 is a real possibility. That sets up a contest with either Iowa or Wisconsin int he conference title game.
As for the playoffs, Ohio State should make the playoffs since it looks like an undefeated season is a real probability. Alabama, Clemson, and USC are all in a good position to make the playoffs as well. But I won’t predict anything beyond the Big Ten season. Too many fates to tempt on that one.