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Repackaging A Defense

Packages. Get used to hearing that word when there is talk of the new Ohio State defense. Packages. Co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison spoke recently of all the different looks the revamped Buckeye defense will give opponents this season, “There's a nickel package, regular package, bullet package, penny package, there's all kinds of things.” More packages than Santa. I really like this idea…as long as it works. I don’t want another season of seeing a defensive coaching staff beat their heads against the wall with the same defense that does not work week after week. I had enough of that last year. The Buckeyes are going to adjust to what their opponent is showing in different situations this year.

Mattison says there will be two inside linebackers; a middle (Mike), and a weakside (Will). But, this is what makes that interesting to me: he says they will be interchangeable. Malik Harrison, who appears to be the likely starter at Will again, could play the Mike position at times. The linebackers are not going to be tied to just one position. Again, who is on the field at any given time will come down to what the offense is showing.

One thing Buckeye fans are going to have to get used to this season is the bullet position. It’s a hybrid linebacker/safety who can add run support, or be comfortable in coverage. Because of his size (6’2” and 215 pounds) and speed, Brendan White is the perfect fit. I always considered the hybrid player in a 4-2-5 defense more of a safety, but Mattison considers the bullet in his defense a strongside linebacker (the Sam position); he said it adds a lot of quality depth to the position. All of this means Pete Werner, last year’s starter at the Sam, and the frontrunner this year as well, will probably see a decrease in the number of snaps he plays in 2019. Mattison really likes Werner, and speaks highly of his abilities. I know what you’re all thinking, and I’ll address his 2018 struggles in another blog before the season begins.

Jeff Hafley

Another thing Buckeye fans will have to get used to with this revamped defense is the absence of the in-your-face, man-to-man pass coverage. Gone is the single-high safety alignment we’d all gotten so used to seeing. Welcome to the Jeff Hafley era of pattern match coverage. I’ll be perfectly honest and say I was not familiar with it at all until the Buckeyes played Washington in the Rose Bowl. Receivers are covered with man-to-man technique, but it looks like a zone. It can really confuse a quarterback. Which defender covers a certain receiver is determined by what route the receiver runs. Hafley explains it this way: if you’re teaching the slot cornerback, you tell him the inside receiver can only do three things. He can go up, out, or in. What that inside receiver does will determine if the slot cornerback stays with him, or drops into a zone and looks for a different receiver. Yes, it can get very complicated, but Hafley tries to keep it simple. I’m really anxious to see how this all works. No longer will we see Pete Werner cover an outside receiver after a shift. I nearly fell over the first time I saw that happen. But, quite possibly the biggest change Hafley is making is having his defensive backs turn and face the ball when it is in the air. Hallelujah! I’m so happy I don’t have to look at Buckeye cornerbacks watch receivers make catch after catch while their back is turned to the ball.

If there is one part of the defense where you probably won’t see many changes, if at all, is along the defensive line. You’re probably going to see a much bigger rotation of players, but as far as roles and assignments, I don’t think you’ll see major changes. The line was the strength of the defense in 2018. It doesn’t need fixing.

The one thing I’ve heard from many members of the defense is how the coaches are turning them loose, and letting them play this year. This is especially true of the linebackers. Too many times last year they were slow to react because of the reads they had to go through, and they were also getting caught up in traffic at the line of scrimmage because of their alignment. By all accounts that has changed, and I really believe you’ll see a much better unit this year. Mattison wants players flying to the ball. You can’t do that if you’re trying to go through a series of reads. The Buckeyes have a lot of speed and athleticism. It really looks like the new defensive staff is implementing things to take advantage of that. If everything works out as planned, this could be a year where it is every bit as much fun to watch the defense as it is to watch the offense. That certainly was not the case last year.

Random Stuff

Justin Fields has been named the starting quarterback for the Buckeyes. No surprise here. Although Ryan Day said there would be an open competition for the position, it would have been a big surprise if Gunnar Hoak had beaten out Fields. Day said Fields separated himself from the rest in the last week, but is still not where he needs to be.

Day named Jordan Fuller, Tuf Borland, J.K. Dobbins, Jonathan Copper, K.J. Hill, C.J. Saunders, and Chase Young captains for 2019. I love seeing his teammates elect Saunders. He joined the program as a walk-on defensive back before making the switch to receiver where he has gotten his share of playing time.

Branden Bowen and Nicholas Petit-Frere are still battling to be the starter at right tackle. Day said both will play.

Demario McCall is the current frontrunner to be the backup to J.K. Dobbins; true freshman Marcus Crowley has had an excellent camp, and will probably see playing time. Saunders and Jaelen Gill are neck and neck to be number two at H-back behind Hill.

Five more have become official members of the Buckeyes. Second-year quarterback Danny Vanetsky, along with true freshmen defensive end Noah Potter, linebacker Craig Young, running back Steele Chambers, and safety Bryson Shaw had their black stripe removed. Shaw is one of those overlooked three-star recruits who, along with Chambers, is competing for playing time on special teams. Don’t be surprised of you see Shaw on the field in the opener against Florida Atlantic; you know the Buckeyes’ track record with three-star players. Potter, who wears number 97, bears a striking resemblance to Joey Bosa in the way he’s built.

ESPN came out with another set of their seemingly endless rankings. They named the Buckeyes the third best college football program over the last 150 years (yes, college football has been around that long). Alabama was first followed by Notre Dame. At least ESPN explained how they ranked the teams, and while it may grate on some to be third behind two detested programs, at least the Buckeyes are ahead of Michigan. Also, the network named defensive end Chase Young the 14th most exciting player in college football. He is one of only two defensive players on the list.

Young is also a part of Todd McShay’s initial list of the top 32 prospects for the 2020 NFL Draft. The ESPN draft “expert” has the junior defensive end listed fifth, but he is not the highest ranked Buckeye. Cornerback Jeff Okudah is fourth on the list. McShay loves Okudah’s versatility because he can play outside, or line up on the inside against the slot receiver. As for Young, McShay said he has the ability to convert to outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. The draft is still a long way off, but I thought these were interesting observations.

Buckeye commit Paris Johnson, Jr. has officially shut down his recruiting. He had said when he received his acceptance letter to Ohio State his recruitment would be over. Considering he has a 4.0 GPA I don’t think it was ever in doubt he’d be accepted to OSU. The top-rated recruit in Ohio is also the number one offensive tackle in the country. He made Buckeye fans a bit nervous by continuing to take visits to other schools, but the Buckeye coaching staff did a great job to hang onto his commitment. Johnson, Jr. plans to enroll early. This is really a big deal for the Buckeyes to hang onto a player like this even after going through a coaching change.

Dwayne Haskins threw his first NFL touchdown pass for the Redskins last week. After catching a TD pass for the Cowboys, the comeback of Devin Smith appears to be going well. Ok, let’s have a show of hands of everyone who isn’t surprised Nick Bosa is injured, and missing San Francisco’s entire preseason……….yeah, that’s what I thought. Not a lot of Buckeye fans are astonished by this. Don’t be surprised if Bosa misses the opening of the regular season as well.

True Colors

We all know Michigan’s official colors are that ugly, drab maize and blue. Lately their head coach, Jim Harbaugh, has been giving us a good look at his true colors. It all began when he took a sour grapes swipe at Urban Meyer during Big Ten Media Days saying controversy has followed the former OSU coach everywhere he’s gone. A fair enough statement, but as I said a few weeks, it comes across as very petty on Harbaugh’s part. But, last week Harbaugh really gave us a good look at his true colors.

During a recent interview Luke Fickell, the current head coach at Cincinnati and a former OSU coach, let it be known he is not happy with Harbaugh’s refusal to help former Michigan player James Hudson get a waiver for immediate eligibility from the NCAA. Hudson left the Wolverines, and wanted to transfer to Fickell’s Bearcats. The NCAA denied the waiver. What has incensed Fickell is Harbaugh’s refusal to help Hudson in any way. The NCAA ultimately decides if a waiver will be granted, but the school a player has left can help in the process. Fickell makes it clear both Ohio State and Alabama have helped players gain immediate eligibility after transferring to Cincinnati for this season. Michigan has not done a thing for Hudson, and Fickell said Harbaugh was completely uncooperative when he called to inquire about help for the kid.

It gets even better. Harbaugh has even questioned the validity Hudson’s claim of mental health issues as the reason he wanted to transfer. Wow. It takes a lot of guts in this day and age of mental health, and suicide prevention awareness to question a person claim of mental health issues. Harbaugh also claims Fickell tried to coach him on what to say to the NCAA about the waiver. Fickell is having none of it, and says he has notes from the from the phone call that he’s willing to share. BUT, it gets even better-er (or something like that). When Hudson filed a second waiver, Michigan went to the NCAA claiming Hudson was seen leaving an Ann Arbor liquor store with a bag. Hudson’s mother said the story is a lie. So, a kid tries to transfer away from your program, and you do this to him? Come up with some ridiculous hearsay story? If you want to know anything about Harbaugh’s character, this story says a lot. Michigan continues to claim they did nothing to undermine Hudson’s waiver. Fickell is not saying they did; he’s rightfully claiming the school did nothing to help Hudson. And he’s not happy. REALLY not happy. I promise you haven’t heard the last of this.

High school football begins in just over a week. I remember when you had to go through two full weeks of two-a-day practices before you had a scrimmage with another school. Now they scrimmage after just a week. I’m quite bitter about! Also, actor Peter Fonda passed away recently. Most remember him from the movie East Rider, but he also starred in one of my all-time favorites: Race with the Devil from 1975. Enjoy the week everyone.

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