Ohio State’s defense was historically bad in 2021. Taking one position group from the past to fix it is not easy, but the linebacker position is a solid place to start.
This week, Land-Grant Holy Land writers will be comparing current facets of Ohio State teams and comparing them to those of the past: Comparing THIS year’s Buckeyes to those of THAT other time. Welcome to LGHL’s “This or That.”
In the 2021 season, the Ohio State Buckeyes were historically bad defensively, and head coach Ryan Day made wholesale changes to the coaching staff because of it. For the Buckeyes, the defense was never able to find their footing under Kerry Coombs, and as an entire staff never seemed to gel together.
Combine that with a long list of new starters on defense in the secondary, linebacker room, and on the defensive line and the results speak for themselves. Now the Buckeyes have revived their staff with the addition of new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, safeties coach Perry Eliano, and corners coach Tim Walton while keeping Larry Johnson on the defensive line. This should lead to a major turn around on momentum shift, as all three new coaches have had success at their past stops.
Even with full confidence in the new staff, some question marks remain on the defense. The Buckeyes are still fresh faced at linebacker, the defensive line doesn’t have a dominant force coming into the season, and the secondary is being reworked for the third time in under a year. That being said, if the Buckeyes could take one unit from the past to replace a current one, which one would have the most immediate impact?
If you take the 2014 linebacker unit and put it on this team, you answer the biggest question mark and guarantee marked improvement in 2022.
2014 Unit vs. 2022 Unit
In 2014, the Buckeyes had quite few question marks coming into the season. They needed to replace one of the best linebackers in school history in Ryan Shazier, but they had two talented players returning. They also had the benefit of continuity with Luke Fickell in his ninth year as a defensive coordinator at Ohio State. All these played a part in how well this unit performed on a year over year basis.
Looking at the 2014 unit first, they returned two starters in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry at the position. Perry improved his production and Grant had another solid year as a senior. The emergence of Darron Lee (who changed positions from quarterback in high school) and freshman Raekwon McMillan took the group from solid to elite. The addition of those two players to the rotation made the group even better than the previous season.
When you look at the units from 2014 compared to 2021 there are some similarities. With hindsight being our greatest advantage though, we know exactly how 2014 turned out. This year, there is a lot of projection going into how much this unit will improve. Jim Knowles is in his first year with the program and has had success at other places, but rivaling that continuity makes this even harder to project.
Steele Chambers switched positions and had an immediate impact leading the linebacker unit in tackles. Tommy Eichenberg started the season off struggling, but developed weekly, culminating in a dominant second half in the Rose Bowl. They seem have the Darron Lee and Joshua Perry roles. C.J. Hicks comes in with a similar excitement to Raekwon McMillan, and if he can provide immediately this group will be a lot better off.
Looking at the stats, you can see that there was a definitive lack of production from last year’s unit compared to 2014. With zero 100-tackle players, this is the main reason for the switch to 2014’s unit. The Buckeyes struggled against the run against well coached teams as you can see by the tackle totals. The on holdover is two of the most productive players in 2014 put up zero stats. This shows that a group can be a surprise and become one of the best units in the country.
For the Buckeyes and fans everywhere, the questions heading into the year at linebacker are still the most pressing. By bringing in a savvy, explosive group of linebackers, one of the biggest questions is answered. Now, this doesn’t mean Ohio State can’t have great linebackers in 2022, but there is significantly less mystery involved.
Why the 2014 linebacker unit?
The main reasoning behind this switch is the known ceiling of the 2014 group. Ohio State’s linebacker room at the moment is all potential, and knowing their ceiling is incredibly difficult. Steele Chambers and Tommy Eichenberg have a high floor, but can they play at the national championship level needed?
We saw an all-time great group emerge in 2014, and the defenses in the early Urban Meyer years were incredible — starting with the linebackers. Historically, Ohio State’s best teams are elite at that position and having an elite group like 2014, which won a national championship, that eliminates the run threat is a great place to start. If you have elite linebacker play it allows the rest of your defense to work freely. The group, on top of being elite, still has the athleticism all over to play in the more modern RPO based game.
Adding Darron Lee, Joshua Perry, Raekwon McMillan, and Curtis Grant takes this defense back to the Silver Bullet level that is expected. Knowles just has to put the players in position and this group would give him the flexibility to help get the most out of the defensive line as well. Now with the coaches fixed, this group would guarantee a top-10 defense in 2022.
The 2022 group can still be awesome
Ohio State is looking at a group that is incredibly similar to the 2014 unit. You have similar paths to the position, a blue chip prospect looking to make an immediate impact, and some veterans who are looking to be tone setters. If you just look at the comparison on paper, the group should be capable of netting a similar result.
Eichenberg led the position group in tackles and did his best work late. Grant is a solid comparison to the past group, being a returning starter with solid production. Chambers moved to linebacker last year after starting his career as a running back, and ended up being one of the most exciting defenders on the defense. Hicks is a five star recruit who’s coming in and can have an immediate impact like Raekwon McMillan. Now they just need to find who will be their lead backer like Joshua Perry.
This group has an established floor, and with improvement other places, they should improve. Being in a new scheme will come with growing pains, but the 2014 team also lost early in the year to come back and win a championship. I’m not saying the Buckeyes are going to lose, but the success did not happen over night.
With as much returning production as the Buckeyes have, on top of the recruiting class in addition to transfer Deamonte Treyanum, this room brings potential. The gained experience should set them up for success in 2022. If they can find a way to reach the 2014 level, the Buckeyes can be playing in the middle of January.
Overall, the groups do have similarities, but the 2014 team was arguably the last group that truly met the standard set at Ohio State. If you add them to this roster, the remaining sense of doubt on this defense is gone.
The 2014 group had an incredibly high ceiling and it took time to get there, so there is reason to believe that under Knowles this team can reach theirs. The one issue that wasn’t mentioned is the question about general toughness. The 2021 group was pushed around and teams took advantage of the fresh faced group all season long. The 2014 group brings toughness in droves, and that tone being set alone would massively improve the defense.
Knowles will not have the luxury of the 2014 showing up, but he has the blueprint of what his defense should look like at Ohio State. The defensive line is loaded with potential and the secondary has a good mix of talent as well as experience. If the linebacker group can be tough, organized, and nasty Ohio State could end up with one of the best defenses in the country – much like 2014.
Even though the 2014 unit is not walking into the Shoe come September, this group can embrace the challenge to be the next great linebacker unit to win a national championship.