Defense finishes spring on high note


As Ohio State continues to search for answers at premier positions on the offensive side of the ball, what defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is able to do in year two in Columbus figures to be especially critical to the team’s chances of returning to championship form after missing out on the Big Ten Championship Game each of the last two seasons.

The Silver Bullets showed significant strides over the course of 10 weeks a season ago before allowing a tidal wave of big plays against both Michigan and Georgia that ultimately undermined a once-promising season. Now with a year of experience in Knowles’ system to build upon, far more will be demanded and, if spring practice has been any indication, the defense could be well on its way to meeting those demands.

“When you leave the spring, you get a feel for where things are, and when you start the spring, it’s hard (to evaluate),” head coach Ryan Day said following Saturday’s spring game. “You hear me or the coaches say, ‘When we get through the spring, we’ll have a better feeling.’ Coming out of the spring, I do (feel confident).

“I think the first thing was the back-end explosive (plays). You saw today, we didn’t really give up a lot of explosives. Maybe just a couple in the second half, and that’s important for us. We expect to score a lot of points on offense, and if we can avoid explosive plays, that’s a recipe for winning …As we come out of the spring, we’ll evaluate it and go through each position, but there’s reason for optimism for sure.”

Ohio State figures to once again boast a strong defensive front with a plethora of talented defensive linemen returning led by J.T. Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer, and Mike Hall. Add in the returns of linebackers Steele Chambers, Tommy Eichenberg, and Cody Simon, as well as the emergence of former five-star recruit C.J. Hicks, and Ohio State has the requisite foundation in place to make the leap.

If Ohio State is to truly turn around the troubling defensive trend, however, the secondary will need to be vastly improved after struggling against every offense with a pulse last season. Through 15 spring practices, Day said he’s seeing the right things consistently out of the secondary, albeit against an offense still finding its way due to injuries and open competitions at certain positions.

“You try to look at it through the whole 15 practices of what you’ve seen,” Day said. “If you’re starting to see the secondary get their hands on some balls and then, all of a sudden, it doesn’t happen for a few days, it’s probably not real. But we’ve seen it for almost 15 practices, what we saw today, so that was really good. I think the challenge will be increased in the preseason when we’re at full strength, but you can see the discernment. Everything is faster, they’re seeing it, and I think being year two in the system, adding Davison (Igbinosun) there, you’re starting to see the secondary move faster, make more plays, and be more decisive.”

Experience certainly won’t be an issue for the Ohio State secondary, particularly in a safety room that is deep with the returns of Lathan Ransom, Cam Martinez, and Josh Proctor. With sophomore Sonny Styles, another former five-star recruit, continuing to flash his play-making ability at a rate that makes it increasingly likely he forces his way onto the field in the fall, Ohio State sits in a good spot at the position as it heads toward fall camp.

One specific player who figures to play a significant role in whether or not the secondary can take a step forward is junior cornerback Denzel Burke, whose production fell off dramatically last season while dealing with a string of injuries following a strong showing in 2021. Now healthy, Burke appears ready for a solid bounce-back campaign after turning in a quality spring he capped off with one of the better performances during Saturday’s spring game.

“I feel a lot different out there, health-wise and mentally-wise,” Burke said following the game. “The game is a lot easier for me … and slower. I pick things up quicker. It’s probably the most fun I’ve had in a while.”

In addition to Burke, fellow junior cornerback Jordan Hancock has also returned to full health after injuries derailed what was expected to be a breakout season for him a year ago. Add in Igbinosun’s arrival from Ole Miss and the flashes of playmaking ability from Ryan Turner and Ohio State should feel better about its depth at corner than it has in several years.

“I feel like we’re really a tight group this year,” Burke said of the group. “(Cornerbacks) coach (Tim) Walton is an amazing coach. He teaches us the mental side of the game. He’s really been a big supporter in my career and the rest of the room.”

Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.

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