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Projecting a way-too-early Ohio State football depth chart: Defense

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
With returning players including Antwuan Jackson (52), Taron Vincent (6) and Tyreke Smith (11), Ohio State's defense figures to be tough against the run in 2021.

As the Ohio State football team turns the page to the 2021 season, the Buckeyes have more to do than settle on a new quarterback.

They also face pressing questions on the other side of the ball.

The Buckeyes’ defense in 2020 ranged from dominant to overmatched. Against the run in particular, Ohio State was stout, giving up only 3.3 yards per carry. But the pass defense was often exploited. Indiana threw for 491 yards. Alabama seemingly did what it pleased against OSU in the College Football Playoff championship in a 52-24 rout.

Read more:Projecting a way-too-early Ohio State football depth chart: Offense

Of course, last season was hardly a normal one because of the coronavirus pandemic. An aborted spring practice, cancellation and then reinstatement of the season by the Big Ten, and then three canceled games made it difficult to find a groove. Still, some of the numbers were ugly. Ohio State ranked 122nd among 127 teams in Football Bowl Subdivision in passing yards allowed per game.

The Buckeyes will lose several key starters from last year’s team, including Jonathon Cooper, Tommy Togiai, Shaun Wade, and their four top linebackers. But plenty of foundational pieces remaining, as well as young players poised to make their mark.

Here’s a look at how things might look in the fall:

Defensive end

Starters: Tyreke Smith (senior), Zach Harrison (junior)

Backups: Tyler Friday (senior), Javonte Jean-Baptiste (junior), Noah Potter (redshirt sophomore), Jack Sawyer (freshman)

The skinny: The loss of Cooper as both a player and a leader is big, but the Buckeyes are solid at this position. Smith came on strong at the end of last year and seems poised for a big senior season. He’s the most natural pass-rusher of the bunch and improved against the run. Harrison didn’t have the breakthrough he wanted as a sophomore. At this point in his career, he’s still more potential than production, but the potential is vast.

Defensive end Zach Harrison (9) has been a solid player for Ohio State but has yet to reach his full potential as a consistent pass-rusher.

Friday and Jean-Baptiste were rotational players last year and will push for even more playing time this year. They’d start on most Big Ten teams. Potter started pushing for playing time a year ago and should have a larger role.

Sawyer might be the wild card in the bunch. Coming off a knee injury, he opted not to play his final season at Pickerington North. But he’s the highest-rated player in Ohio State’s recruiting class and one of the top overall prospects nationally. If Ohio State wins the J.T. Tuimoloau sweepstakes when he signs this spring, the prospect of him and Sawyer as bookends will make Buckeyes fans salivate.

Defensive tackle

Starters: Haskell Garrett (fifth-year senior), Antwuan Jackson (fifth-year senior)

Backups: Taron Vincent (junior), Jerron Cage (senior), Ty Hamilton (redshirt freshman), Jaden McKenzie (redshirt freshman)

The skinny: Garrett and Togiai emerged as stars in 2020, turning a question mark into an exclamation point on the interior of the defensive line. Togiai is off to the NFL, but Garrett’s return can’t be overestimated. He was a consistently disruptive force as a 3-technique tackle despite having his season jeopardized when he was shot in the face in August.

Defensive tackle Haskell Garrett (92) became a bona-fide star in his fourth season with the Ohio State program.

Jackson, Vincent and Cage will battle for the nose guard spot, though it almost certainly will be a rotation system. Both Jackson and Vincent have battled injuries throughout their careers, but have the ability to be difference-makers. Cage started the Alabama game when Togiai couldn’t play because of COVID-19 protocols. The Buckeyes are also encouraged by the promise of Hamilton and McKenzie.

Linebackers

Starters: Dallas Gant (senior), Teradja Mitchell (senior), K’Vaughn Pope (senior)

Backups: Craig Young (junior), Tommy Eichenberg (redshirt sophomore), Mitchell Melton (redshirt freshman), Cody Simon (redshirt freshman), Reid Carrico (freshman)

The skinny: This unit will have a new look after the departures of decorated seniors Pete Werner, Tuf Borland, Baron Browning and Justin Hilliard. At this point, it’s really just a guessing game as to who replaces them, so we’ll give a slight nod to the seniors. All three of them have seen some playing time, particularly Gant and Mitchell, and the hope is that having to bide their time will make them hungrier.

Dallas Gant (19) is one of a number of veteran linebackers at Ohio State who haven't been able to break through for extended playing time.

Gant might be better suited for middle linebacker, but it’s likely there will be considerable mixing and matching at the spots among all the contenders. Another name to watch is Kourt Williams, who missed his freshman year with an injury but could be ideal if the Buckeyes opt to go with a hybrid linebacker/safety.

Cornerbacks

Starters: Sevyn Banks (senior), Cam Brown (junior), Marcus Williamson (fifth-year senior)

Backups: Lejond Cavazos (redshirt freshman), Tyreke Johnson (junior), Ryan Watts (redshirt freshman), Cameron Martinez (redshirt freshman)

The skinny: Ohio State loses Wade from this unit, which did not play to recent Buckeyes standards in 2020. Banks made strides as the season progressed and he could make an even bigger jump next year. He has all the tools to join the long line of top OSU corners but must become more consistent.

Sevyn Banks (7) will be counted on to make a big step and become a lockdown cornerback on Ohio State's defense.

The loss of Brown to an Achilles tendon injury in the second week of the season was a big one for the Buckeyes. Assuming he’s healthy, he’s likely a starter. Williamson played the slot last year and could be in the mix for an outside cornerback role.

Johnson hasn’t been able to break through, and Cavazos, Watts and Martinez all will make a strong push.

Safeties

Starter: Josh Proctor (senior)

Backups: Marcus Hooker (junior), Ronnie Hickman (redshirt sophomore), Lathan Ransom (sophomore), Kourt Williams (redshirt freshman), Bryson Shaw (redshirt sophomore)

The skinny: The Buckeyes’ defense scheme used one deep safety at times and the more traditional two-safety look at others. Ideally, the Buckeyes would prefer the one-safety model — if it has someone capable of filling the role as Jordan Fuller did in 2019. But the play at safety was inconsistent.

Safety Josh Proctor (41) is a big hitter who covers a lot of ground in Ohio State's single-safety scheme.

Proctor has range and packs a wallop when he hits. But he needs to be a more consistent tackler and improve his hands. He let more than one interception slip through his fingers.

Hooker and Hickman got their chances in 2020 and showed both promise and inconsistency. Ransom got playing time late in the season and made a strong impression. It’s just a matter of time before he gets an expanded role, and the same is probably true for Williams.

Punter

Starter: Jesse Mirco (freshman)

The skinny: Mirco has big shoes to fill after Drue Chrisman's stellar career. But he comes out of the same Prokick Australia program that produced Cameron Johnston, so the Buckeyes are confident their punting game will be in good, well, foot.

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch