COLUMBUS, Ohio — Now that Ohio State finally got rid of all those liabilities like Joey Bosa, Darron Lee and Eli Apple, the Buckeyes can finally focus on fulfilling their defensive potential.
The Buckeyes lost six of last season’s starters to the NFL Draft — Bosa, Lee and Eli were first-round picks — and had a seventh make an NFL roster despite being undrafted. Without seven players who are now collecting NFL paychecks, it stood to reason that the Buckeyes might experience early-season woes.
Instead, here are the numbers through two games: 120 minutes, 6 points allowed, 21 points scored, seven interceptions, two forced fumbles and four sacks for 41 yards. Ohio State dominated and vexed Bowling Green and Tulsa, two schools known for their offensive prowess. Bowling Green finished fourth nationally last year in total offense and Tulsa was 13th. Against Ohio State they combined for 432 yards.
So how did that happen? Ohio State has been recruiting pretty good players. With a top-10 class every year under coach Urban Meyer — all but one was a top-5 class — there is no shortage of talent in Columbus.
Cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said it’s possible that this year’s defense could produce just as many, if not more, first-round picks as it did in 2016.
More importantly, the Buckeyes try to recruit players who will find the balance between staying patient for their opportunity while also working to make sure they take advantage of it when it comes. Take Malik Hooker, for example. The redshirt sophomore safety was raved about in practice in 2015 but never saw the field other than special teams because Ohio State had two future NFL players at safety in Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell. In two starts this season, Hooker has three interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown against Tulsa.
“Obviously we recruit the right athletes but also the right type of kids,” Coombs said. “I think that’s really, really important. They have to understand that when you come here, you’re going to compete. You’ve got to fight and scratch and claw to get on the field.”
Hooker said he didn’t spend the last two years thinking about how he might be playing at other schools. Instead, he used Powell and Bell as resources who could help him develop into a player of their caliber.
Middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, one of three returning starters from last year’s defense, said he is impressed with the hard work and dedication shown by the younger players, adding that they are focused on getting better instead of dwelling on other factors.
“It’s one of those teams that you love to coach,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “Not that you didn’t love to coach the guys last year, but it was a different group with a different mentality. This is one of those ones you’re really excited about every day.”
Having well-minded players is nice enough, but the talent still needs to be there, and Ohio State has it in spades. After waiting their turn, they’re reaping the rewards of their hard work.
“That’s the way it is at Ohio State,” defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “We have guys behind us that can be starters at other places. They’ve just got to be patient. They know their shot’s going to come, and once it comes at Ohio State you’ve got your career made.”