Watching Ohio State’s defense routinely gashed for big plays last season was miserable for all parties involved. The unit finished the season ranked 53rd in the entire country in total defense, a far cry from the standard of defensive play that has been a staple of the Ohio State program for decades.
Wholesale changes were made to the defensive coaching staff in the offseason as Ryan Day took over for Urban Meyer. Greg Mattison was hired away from Michigan to co-coordinate the defense along with Jeff Hafley, who joined the staff after spending the last seven seasons in the NFL. Al Washington joined Mattison in leaving Ann Arbor for Columbus to coach the linebackers for Day.
Not surprising, defensive line coach Larry Johnson was the only defensive coach left standing from Meyer’s staff by the time Day was finished rounding out his staff.
The new defensive staff was tasked with erasing the dreadful 2018 season and getting the unit back to a level consistent with a standard set long ago by the past greats who are honored all throughout the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
But skepticism remained throughout the offseason about how a coaching staff could right all the wrongs that were on display time and time again last season with a defense that was largely returning the same depth chart.
Some changes to schemes were made. Hafley, who coaches the secondary, talked in the offseason about working in more zone coverage to switch up the looks quarterbacks would see; in recent years, the Buckeyes predominantly played press-man coverage.
One consistent theme reiterated throughout the defensive staff was the emphasis on simplifying things to allow the defense to think less, which would, in turn, allow them to play faster.
Combined, all the changes and subsequent praise of the defense by the coaching staff was encouraging at face value, leading to a common question being asked throughout fall camp: Are the Silver Bullets back?
The answers to that question at the time were prophetic, given the fact the defense hadn’t yet taken the field against an offense other than their own, in a situation other than a controlled practice. But many players embraced the question all the same, making the claim that the Silver Bullets were, in fact, alive and well.
Through two games this season, the Ohio State defense has made good on that claim, most recently shutting out a Cincinnati team that won 11 games the year prior and had won its opener against another Power Five opponent in UCLA.
Anyone questioning the strength of their performances against overwhelmed opponents, while warranted, need only go back to last year’s season opener against Oregon State, another overwhelmed opponent who still managed to gash the Ohio State defense for big plays in what would turn out to be an obvious foreshadowing of the blunders to come.
As the Buckeyes prepare to open up Big Ten play, albeit briefly, at Indiana in their first road of the game of the year, the jury is still out on whether the Ohio State defense is truly back to playing at the high level it is accustomed to. But one thing is certain: the edge that was missing from last year’s unit has been restored, and it is growing with every performance.
“I would say we have more swagger to us,” linebacker Brendon White said during Tuesday’s player availability. “I think we have more confidence to us, too, allowing us to just be out there and be athletes, just play football, and find the pigskin. When we do that, you can see we have that swagger, we’re stopping the run, and we’re making offenses pay.”
White said the confidence began to take shape at the beginning of fall camp as guys began making plays and shutting the offense down. He said that “swagger” wasn’t as prevalent throughout the unit last season because they were thinking too much within the defensive scheme.
“We definitely have talent here, and when the coaches allow us to just play ball, the talent showed the past two games,” White said.
Defensive back Shaun Wade said on Wednesday, “I felt like we were just thinking too much last year … This year, we’re playing faster, everybody is shooting like a gun out there, like a silver bullet is supposed to shoot.”
A better test is expected for the Silver Bullets on Saturday against an Indiana team that has given past Ohio State defenses fits. Hoosiers quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has been listed as a game-time decision. If Penix can’t go, redshirt junior Peyton Ramsey should take control of the offense with plenty of confidence after throwing for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns against the Buckeyes last season in Ohio Stadium.
With plenty of talent to throw to, and a returning 1,000-yard running back in Stevie Scott III, whoever plays quarterback for Indiana will have the weapons to hurt the Ohio State defense if anything less than the swarming unit that has been on display the past two weeks takes the field in Bloomington.
Linebacker Pete Werner cautioned on Tuesday that while the defense is playing well, it’s not yet where it needs to be if the defense hopes to accomplish the goals it laid out before the season.
“We need to do a lot of things better,” Werner said. “We need to just improve on the things we have already done, just at a different level. Our defense, right now, is not good enough to do what we have in mind to do.”
The defense entered the season with plenty of questions surrounding it. Were last year’s failures much to do with scheme and philosophy? Is individual growth and development the biggest factor in the increased level of play early on? Are the Silver Bullets truly back?
While Saturday’s game won’t provide a definitive answer to those questions, further clarity should at least be provided.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.