COLUMBUS, Ohio — For the Ohio State defensive line, expectations heading into the 2017 season are clear.
“We want to be remembered as the best defensive line. Like, a complete defensive line,” defensive end Tyquan Lewis said during spring practice. “We want to be remembered as that defensive line that everybody talks about and goes down in history. Like, ‘That was the best defensive line.’ That’s what we aspire to be.”
Lewis — and some teammates — didn’t unleash that statement without careful consideration. He’s one of the most deliberate and thoughtful interview subjects on the team. There’s good reason for him to think this pass-rushing unit could be the most talented Ohio State has produced. Three ends — Lewis, Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes — passed up a chance to enter the NFL draft to return.
Lewis and Hubbard are widely projected as first-round picks in next year’s draft. Nick Bosa will likely be a first-rounder when he’s eligible in 2019. Like Bosa, fellow sophomore Jonathon Cooper was a 5-star recruit. And while losing nobody, the line added Chase Young, the No. 2 defensive end and No. 8 overall prospect in the Class of 2017.
That’s so much talent that defensive line coach Larry Johnson is talking about using five ends for the third-down Rushmen package. And that doesn’t account for improvement at tackle. The Buckeyes get Tracy Sprinkle back after a season-ending injury in 2016, and Dre’Mont Jones and Robert Landers have shown improvement.
But despite that talent up front, the Buckeyes managed just 28 sacks last season. That was the lowest total in Urban Meyer’s five years at Ohio State. In 2014, the Buckeyes racked up 45 sacks — two shy of the program record for a season. That declined to 38 in 2015.
Part of last season’s decline could be attributed to trading sacks for interceptions. The Buckeyes picked off 21 passes in 2016 and returned seven of those for touchdowns. Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano told Bruce Feldman of FoxSports.com that was in part because of a drill that taught linemen to sometimes disrupt the pass instead of going for a hit. They were trained to match their hand with the quarterback’s arm when he started the passing motion. Ohio State’s intercepted 12 more passes in 2016 than in 2015, but had 10 fewer sacks.
“Our big thing is you want to disrupt the path of the ball,” Schiano said. “Sometimes you tap it, and sometimes the quarterback changes his angle. It’s one of those deals where, like, if you change the compass on a boat one degree. If it goes a mile, it doesn’t really change it that much, but if it goes 50 miles you’re gonna be off course. Same thing with a pass. If you can change it at the point of departure, it can be [two feet offline], and that’s how you make interceptions.”
Still, the Buckeyes should have produced higher sack totals. Johnson put each player through a film session at the end of the season and noticed that his players weren’t getting off the ball fast enough. That was giving quarterbacks an addition fraction of a second to get rid of the ball.
“What you saw in common is that we weren’t taking that first step fast enough across the line of scrimmage,” Johnson said. “Our emphasis this spring is to attack the line of scrimmage faster, and that’s what you’re seeing. You’re seeing guys really jumping off the ball.
“At the end of the day we have to get the quarterback on his back. That’s been our goal in spring ball. We have to rev up our pass rush.”
The Buckeyes’ depth — Johnson said as many as 10 linemen could play in any given game — will help, although Ohio State had similar depth last season. It’s not just the fact that the Buckeyes have many quality players — it’s that they should be better.
Ohio State tried not to overload Bosa last season because he was a true freshman coming off an ACL injury. Obviously, neither of those obstacles exist this season. Meanwhile, Hubbard, Lewis and Holmes have another year of experience to match their top-end talent. Johnson believes the tackles will be better. And Young will arrive in June to push the veteran ends.
“The thing that we have got to be careful about, that even if we have four guys returning, those four guys have got to work to keep their jobs, keep their status,” Johnson said. “It is going to be an open process, always have the ability to play the best players on the field.
“If [Young] walks in and is ready to go and has got a chance to help us, then there is a good chance that we are going to find a way to use him.”