COLUMBUS, Ohio — When it comes to Ohio State’s scoring prowess as a defense, it’s all about the players and the plan.
The Buckeyes have scored four defensive touchdowns in three games this season – all on interceptions – and the next score will break the program record for defensive touchdowns in a season. While plenty of variables are involved in that achievement, above all else there is the fact that Ohio State’s defense is chock full of athletic playmakers who can outrun offensive players not used to tackling.
Take, for instance, the three defensive starters to score this season: safety Malik Hooker is a former basketball player who used to deliver showstopping dunks, cornerback Marshon Lattimore once outleaped a preposterous amount of people to block a high school field goal and linebacker Jerome Baker made an outstanding one-handed catch just this spring.
“We just have some really good athletes out there right now that can take the ball and run with it,” cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said. “I think it’s just gifted athletes who end up with the ball in their hand. They know where the end zone is, and they go really fast to get there.”
It’s not just raw ability or instinct, however. Once one of Ohio State’s defenders snags an interception, the Buckeyes call a play of their own.
“We have one offensive play (on defense), and that’s called sideline return,” Coombs said.
So what goes into escorting a defender-turned-receiver into the end zone? First and foremost, the Buckeyes deal with any opposing wide receivers in the area of the catch. Interception returns often end before they start, and one-third of the Buckeyes’ picks this season didn’t feature a return.
After that, the key is for the returner to get to the nearest sideline as quickly as possible. This has proven to be easier said than done, as Hooker said his instinct is to look for open space. In fact, Coombs (only half jokingly) lamented that the Buckeyes might have five or six touchdowns had the returners followed that advice on every interception.
It’s something coach Urban Meyer said the Buckeyes practice nearly every day, so it should be ingrained into both the returner and the blocker to get to the sideline. If everything goes to plan, the returner will have several teammates near the sideline to help his cause.
“Everybody knows where the ball’s going to go when we get it,” Coombs said. “The rest of the team knows to go set blocks there.”
Once that happens, its up to the defenders to clear the path for their teammate. Were assists a thing in college football, Hooker may have gotten one for pancaking a Tulsa offensive lineman during Lattimore’s touchdown return in the second game of the season.
His contribution went unnoticed in the stat sheet but not on the scoreboard.
“That’s just wanting the best for your teammates,” Hooker said.