Buckeyes' dream pass rush combo cut short
Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson has seen eight of his players drafted into the NFL since he arrived at the university in 2014.
It’s a large enough collection of prospects that Johnson at times muses about hypothetical pairings.
“There are so many examples,” he said.
Some are farfetched, like a Bosa brothers tandem, a scenario that involves Joey Bosa remaining for his senior season in 2016 to play with his younger brother, Nick, instead of turning pro — he became the third overall pick.
Others are more plausible. Including one last fall.
Had Nick Bosa not suffered a core muscle injury after three games, ending his junior season, he would have lined up as a defensive end opposite Chase Young, then a sophomore. After undergoing surgery, Bosa withdrew from school and prepared for the NFL draft.
The premier pass rushers never started together for a full season.
“It would've been special,” Johnson said, “but it wasn't meant to be. All we can do is dream about it.”
It remains one of the great “what if” questions surrounding Ohio State football this decade, one with only heightened intrigue following their sack showings last weekend.
On Saturday, Young tied a school record with four sacks in a rout of Wisconsin, an eye-popping performance that ignited a flurry of chatter about his case to win the Heisman Trophy. Then on Sunday, Bosa, with the San Francisco 49ers, became the first player in the franchise’s history to total three sacks and an interception in a win over the Carolina Panthers. Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman touted Bosa for the league’s defensive MVP award afterward.
Over the past year, OSU players have pondered the possibility. It’s a tantalizing thought.
“We talk about it all the time,” Young said, “how crazy it could’ve been.”
It likely would have been an unprecedented combination of talent in this era of college football. There is no instance over the past two decades when one team boasted two future top-five NFL draft picks on the same defensive line.
Young, a draft-eligible junior, is widely projected as a top-three selection in the draft next spring. Bosa was picked No. 2 overall by the 49ers in April.
“It would have made a vast difference on the success of that defense,” said former Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry, now an analyst for the Big Ten Network. “Last year, they struggled a lot with explosive runs, and I don't know how big of a difference two great (pass rushers) make in run situations, but any time those quarterbacks had to drop back last year, it becomes a different game.”
The Buckeyes, who allowed eight runs of 50 or more yards last season, the third-most in the Football Bowl Subdivision, had a number of well-documented struggles on defense, pronounced enough that Ryan Day overhauled the staff before his first full season as coach. Johnson was the only defensive assistant retained.
An improved defense might have bolstered OSU's case to make the College Football Playoff last December. Though Ohio State won the Big Ten, the selection committee raised concerns about an inconsistent defense, which surrendered a school-worst 25.5 points per game, including 49 points when it was upset at Purdue, its sole loss.
The Buckeyes ultimately landed at No. 6 in the final Playoff ranking and ended up in the Rose Bowl.
The presence of Bosa, had he stayed healthy, paired with Young, would have been a boon to the defense. Though he never missed a game, Young was hobbled by sprained ankles last season.
“Having those two guys would certainly help everybody else,” said Dane Brugler, a draft analyst for The Athletic, who has studied both players. “It'd be a ripple effect that would affect the corners, the linebackers, the safeties. There’s no question.”
Brugler then went into specifics. Cornerbacks could have played tighter coverage, and safeties could have lined up closer to the line of scrimmage. All could have been more aggressive with opposing quarterbacks under heightened duress while facing a fast pass rush. More turnovers might have ensued.
The challenge of blocking a Bosa-Young pairing would involve a numbers game.
Perry thinks teams could only realistically double-team one of them, leaving the other in a 1-on-1 matchup against an offensive tackle.
If they double-teamed both, it likely meant their offense was using as many as seven of the 11 offensive players as blockers, with only three possible pass catchers.
“It’s a little bit of chess,” Perry said.
And a game that didn’t favor offensive coordinators.
“If you have one (elite) pass rusher, then you can do a lot of rollouts and (bootlegs) and get to the opposite side of the field, away from that pass rusher,” Brugler said. “You can scheme different things. But when you’ve got two of those guys, it just becomes much, much tougher.”
Like most teams, the Buckeyes also rotate defensive linemen. Even this season, Young, who has 13.5 sacks in eight games and is one shy of breaking the school single-season record, occasionally comes off the field, as Bosa did during his college career.
With both on the roster, they could have often kept at least one on the field.
Instances of them together on opposite ends of the defensive line, though, were likely to have produced the most highlights.
“From a casual college football viewer, it just would have been really fun to watch,” Brugler said. “Aside from Ohio State fans, I think everybody in college football, as long as they weren't playing their team, would've enjoyed watching.”