COLUMBUS – They played hard but often not very well. They took some big hits, some of them on the field and some of them off the field from their critics.
Ohio State’s defense was the weak link on a football team that finished 13-1 last season and was ranked No. 3 in the country but still heard that it was a disappointment.
Now, with nine returning starters, four new defensive coaches and a new scheme, OSU’s defensive players say things will be different this year.
“Last year wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t the year we wanted at all. So this year is for redemption and to prove everybody wrong,” safety Jordan Fuller said.
“It was really frustrating. We heard that we’re better than this, and we have to tighten everything up. But things kept happening. It was bad vibes all around. It wasn’t fun. You wanted to play well. Every week you prepared, but it wasn’t panning out for whatever reason. It was a whole bunch of reasons,” he said.
Ohio State ranked No. 51 nationally in scoring defense, No. 72 in total yards allowed, No. 86 in passing yards allowed and was the most penalized FBS team in the country.
Probably the most glaring deficiency was the regularity with which the Buckeyes’ defenders gave up big plays.
It started in the season opener, when Oregon State’s Artavis Pierce had touchdown runs of 80 yards and 78 yards, and it never got fixed.
To list just a few of the other big plays, TCU’s Darius Anderson had a 93-yard run, Penn State’s Trace McSorley threw a 93-yard touchdown pass, Maryland’s Anthony McFarland had runs of 81 yards, 75 yards and 52 yards, and Northwestern’s John Moten had a 77-yard run in the Big Ten championship game.
Add it all up, and Ohio State allowed 38 plays of 30 yards or more last season.
The problems started with Nick Bosa’s season-ending groin injury the third week of the season. Several of the other defensive linemen, such as Chase Young and Robert Landers, played hurt for much of the season.
That put more pressure on the linebackers and defensive backs. And whether it was poor coaching, lack of talent or bad on-field decisions, they struggled and struggled and struggled.
While they are driven to do better, OSU’s defensive players say they learned something last year but won’t dwell on what went wrong.
“Last season was last season, and as much as we would like to change things and make things look a little better, it happened,” defensive end Jonathan Cooper said. “The best thing we can do is just learn from those mistakes, not really pay attention to the numbers, per se, or say, ‘Oh, we gave up this. Oh, we gave up that.’ Just learn from our mistakes and how we can prevent them from happening again this season.
“We don’t look back and say, ‘Oh, you messed up here. You messed up there.’ We just say that wasn’t the standard of the Ohio State defense. We have to do better. We know that. That’s why we have this chip on our shoulder. I’m positive you will see a different defense than you saw last year,” he said.
Cornerback Jeffrey Okudah said OSU’s defensive backs have “an attitude of redemption.”
Damon Arnette, the other starting cornerback, said, “I feel this year is like the reset button for real, especially for me since it’s my last year. It’s all or nothing for real. The question is are we going to play to the talent level and not let distractions come between what we know we can do on the field.”
If the Buckeyes don’t deliver that improvement, they’ll hear more things like the message Arnette got from a fan last season.
“I got a Twitter message one time that said I need to go back to high school and pick a different sport. I was like, ‘Damn,’ Arnette said.
But another time Arnette had to admit at least one of OSU’s problems on defense was so obvious that a fan could identify it.
“They were saying, ‘Why aren’t the corners looking back for the ball?’ In my head I’m thinking, ‘Why the hell aren’t we looking back for the ball?’” he said.
What OSU coach Ryan Day is looking for is improvement from the defense but says it doesn’t have to be perfect.
“Is it going to be perfect? No, it isn’t going to be perfect,” he said. “We’re going to solve the problems as they come. How quickly we can solve those problems will indicate what kind of defense we’ll be.”
Day did not hesitate to make changes on the defensive coaching staff when he took over for Urban Meyer. Legendary line coach Larry Johnson is the only one of last year’s defensive coaches who is back this year.
Longtime Michigan assistant Greg Mattison and San Francisco 49ers defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley will be OSU’s defensive co-coordinators, and Hafley will also coach the defensive backs. They replaced Greg Schiano and Alex Grinch.
Al Washington, another former Michigan assistant, will be the linebackers coach, replacing Bill Davis, and Matt Barnes will be the assistant defensive backs coach, replacing Taver Johnson, whose title last year was cornerbacks coach.
Those new coaches have brought a different approach to Ohio State’s defense and the players have embraced it.
“It’s just a whole new scheme of how our defense is. I like it because it is simpler. It’s just having us play hard and play fast. See ball, get ball,” Cooper said.