PRE-SPRING FOOTBALL DEPTH CHART PROJECTION: DEFENSE

With spring practices set to ramp up in early March, it’s a good time to take a look at where Ohio State’s roster currently stands and attempt to project forward ahead of some key position battles. After running through the offense last time, now we can take aim at the defense, where the Buckeyes bring back nearly all of its starting production while also adding a huge name through the transfer portal.

Defensive Line

DE: Jack Sawyer, J.T. Tuimoloau

DT: Tyleik Williams, Ty Hamilton

DE Depth: Caden Curry, Kenyatta Jackson, Eddrick Houston, Mitchell Melton

DT Depth: Hero Kanu, Tywone Malone, Kayden McDonald, Jason Moore

Ohio State could’ve been in a pretty precarious position along its defensive line had Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau elected to enter the NFL Draft. Instead, both starting ends return for another season in Columbus, with only one loss from last year’s starting front four as Mike Hall Jr. went pro. This gives the Buckeyes a ton of experience at the position, but it is also a group that will have to improve upon some less than stellar pass rushing numbers over the last two seasons.

Larry Johnson’s unit has not had a player even come close to reaching double-digit sacks since Chase Young’s 16.5 in 2019. In fact, they’ve only had two players record more than five sacks in a season since Young, with Haskell Garrett leading the team with 5.5 in 2021 and Jack Sawyer recording a team-high 6.5 this past year. It is also worth noting that three of those sacks for Sawyer came in Ohio State’s bowl game against Missouri, just about doubling his 2023 total.

The Buckeyes ranked 10th in the Big Ten this past year with 28 total sacks across 13 games. For a program with seemingly endless talent, led by a pair of five-star defensive ends at the top, that is just not going to cut it. The defensive tackle group has been solid, taking care of things in the run game and even getting some good pressure on opposing QBs at times, but Ohio State will have to get more out of its ends in the sack department in order to make a great defense an elite one. Luckily, with both Sawyer and Tuimoloau back for another year in addition to rising talents in Caden Curry and Kenyatta Jackson, that should be doable.

Linebackers

WILL: Sonny Styles

MIKE: Cody Simon

Depth: CJ Hicks, Gabe Powers, Arvell Reese

Linebacker is really the only position on the defense that sees significant turnover, as both of last year’s starters in Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers are now gone. Luckily for James Laurinaitis, Ohio State brings back Cody Simon, who has played over 600 snaps at linebacker for the Buckeyes over the past two seasons. However, outside of Simon, there is little to no experience returning — at least among guys who have been linebackers to this point in their career.

I say this because there is a very real and likely scenario that Sonny Styles moves down from his safety position to linebacker. The former five-star prospect, who skipped his senior year of high school football to enroll early at Ohio State, played the most snaps of any non-Josh Proctor safety in 2023, but with his frame and skillset, in addition to the team’s needs, it makes far more sense for Styles to play at linebacker in 2024. The ability to put a player like Styles in the box to help make plays in the run game and also as a potential extra pass-rusher makes far too much sense to not give it a shot.

Of course, there are others in the room who can contribute as well, and that conversation likely starts with CJ Hicks. A former five-star prospect as well, Hicks played just 75 defensive snaps a year ago after playing only on special teams as a freshman. Now entering year three, it is time for him to show off the talents that made him such a highly touted recruit coming out of high school. Hicks has struggled a bit when thrust into action, but there’s a good chance he was pressing in his limited opportunities. With a full spring to finally get some consistent reps with the ones, the Dayton, Ohio native could make a big impact this season.

Corners

CB1: Denzel Burke

CB2: Davison Igbinosun

CB Depth: Jermaine Mathews Jr., Calvin Simpson-Hunt, Aaron Scott, Bryce West

On the complete opposite spectrum of the linebackers, Ohio State brings back its entire cornerback room, led by somewhat surprising return of Denzel Burke. The three-year starter was a freshman All-American in 2021, and bounced back from a just-okay 2022 campaign to be named first-team all-conference by Big Ten coaches this past season. Burke likely would’ve been an early-round pick had he decided to forgo his senior season to enter the NFL Draft, but instead he will anchor the nation’s top passing defense from 2023 for another year.

Returning by his side is Davison Igbinosun, a former Ole Miss transfer who performed more than admirably this past season opposite Burke. Igbinosun was one of the team’s best open-field tacklers last year, finishing third on the team with 59 total tackles to go along with 1.5 tackles for loss and five pass breakups. With opposing teams’ unwillingness to throw a Burke, Igbinosun was tested pretty regularly, and was more than up to the task at hand despite some intermittent penalty issues.

Behind the two returning starters, Jermaine Mathews Jr. will certainly see the field in a rotational role to keep everyone fresh. Named a freshman All-American by College Football Network, Mathews was the No. 6 CB in the 2023 recruiting class, and looked every bit the part in limited opportunities this past season, even recording a 58-yard pick-six against Western Kentucky. In addition to Mathews, Ohio State brings in a loaded 2024 class at the position, highlighted by Aaron Scott and Bryce West.

Safeties

Nickel: Jordan Hancock

Free Safety: Caleb Downs

Strong Safety: Lathan Ransom

Nickel Depth: Lorenzo Styles Jr., Jayden Bonsu

Safety Depth: Malik Hartford, Cedric Hawkins, Ja’Had Carter

Despite all the other talent across the defense for Ohio State, there is no position that is more loaded than at safety, and that only got even better this offseason with the addition of Alabama transfer Caleb Downs. With Josh Proctor the only exit from the room, the Buckeyes can insert Downs alongside a pair of other studs in the defensive backfield in Lathan Ransom and nickel Jordan Hancock, both of whom were excellent in 2023.

Downs was one of the best defensive players in the country as a freshman with the Crimson Tide this past season, leading the SEC with 70 solo tackles (107 total) to go along with 3.5 TFLs, two picks, four pass breakups and a punt return TD on special teams. The younger brother of Colts wide receiver Josh Downs, Caleb was the guy that everyone had their eyes on as soon as Nick Saban announced his retirement. His move to Ohio State can take an already impressive defense to the next level.

Ransom and Hancock are coming off pretty impressive campaigns of their own. Ransom played in only eight games before injuring his foot against Wisconsin, and would end up missing the rest of the year, but has been a real force at the back end of the defense each of the last two seasons. Hancock, meanwhile, shined in his first season as a starter, taking over the nickel role and leading the team with a pair of interceptions, including a 93-yard pick-six against Rutgers.

Those three are going to get the lion’s share of the reps at the safety spots, but Jim Knowles and Matt Guerrieri are fortunate to have some really strong depth behind them as well. Guys like Cedric Hawkins and Malik Hartford have been pushing for playing time early in their careers, while Lorenzo Styles Jr. — Sonny’s brother — is an intriguing player having transferred to Ohio State after playing wide receiver at Notre Dame. Ja’Had Carter could see the field in a rotational role as well, having transferred in from Syracuse prior to last season, where injuries played a large part in keeping him from making a real impact.

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