CHICAGO — Ohio State’s coach and defensive players kept using the words “chips” and “salt” at Big Ten football media days.
They weren’t referring to a snack.
Instead, they were describing chips that remain on their shoulders and salty feelings that linger from last year’s defensive struggles.
“There's a group of guys over there who are salty, who have a lot to prove,” coach Ryan Day said Thursday.
The Silver Bullets too often missed or clanked off opponents last year instead of penetrating through them. The 2018 Buckeyes surrendered the most points and yards per game in program history. Some of that was because Ohio State’s high-powered offense scored so quickly that they were on the field more than usual, but there’s no denying that the defense was often a sieve.
The Buckeyes vow to change that. Day revamped the defensive coaching staff after taking over for Urban Meyer, keeping only line coach Larry Johnson.
Co-coordinators Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley have installed a new scheme. Zone pass coverage will supplement Ohio State’s hallmark press man-to-man. Linemen will be asked to go north-south and disrupt rather than merely neutralize blockers, as they sometimes were tasked to do last year. The Buckeyes converted their strong safety into a “bullet” position, which will be a hybrid safety/linebacker.
Last year’s failures were a combination of scheme, communication and personnel.
“It was really frustrating,” safety Jordan Fuller said. “You heard that we’re better than this and we have to tighten everything up, but things kept happening. It was bad vibes all around.
"It wasn’t fun. You wanted to play well. Every week you prepared, but it wasn’t panning out for whatever reason. It was a whole bunch of reasons.”
Asked to explain what went wrong, defensive end Jonathon Cooper chose his words carefully.
“There was … something in the defense that was resisting us from playing the way we were supposed to play,” he said. “All I know is that is going to be fixed and we’re going to play with that chip on our shoulder.”
One simple change this year is that the defensive backs will be in one meeting room instead of divided into ones for cornerbacks and safeties.
“I like it a lot because now I’ll be sitting next to (cornerback) Jeff (Okudah) in the meeting,” Fuller said, “and we’ll be going over something in film and I can just like nudge him and be like, ‘Hey, if I see that in the game, I’m going to give you this,’ so I don’t have to yell in the game. We can have some nonverbal communication. And the same thing he’s hearing in the meeting, I’m hearing the same thing, so we don’t have any wish-washy words or anything confusing us.”
The Buckeyes say they believe in the new scheme, and they should have the players to execute it. Ohio State lost a few key starters, but most of that unit returns.
That doesn’t mean starters are assured of keeping their jobs. Even Fuller, a second-team All-Big Ten selection, isn’t taking his for granted.
“I still have to earn the job,” he said.
Depth should be a strength throughout the defense. The line, which lost Nick Bosa early last year, also will feel the departure of Dre’Mont Jones. But Chase Young headlines a unit that could go three deep at each spot.
The linebackers were spotty last year. Again, there’s experience and young talent waiting to challenge. Day specifically mentioned Teradja Mitchell as someone who’ll press middle linebacker Tuf Borland.
The Buckeyes return almost everyone from their secondary.
“I just want to get back to having fun again, just playing with a swag, talking trash, just playing football and just everything that comes with it when you're playing well,” Fuller said. “It just felt like we didn't have that last year. The chip is big. People are counting us out. And that's fine.”
Day is an offensive coach who has no plans to micromanage on defense. He believes in his coaching hires and in his players.
“I think we have good players, a good staff, a good scheme,” Day said. “When I go to bed at night, I think we should be pretty good. I don't know if there are better players out there in the country.”