The Ohio State football team gets spring practice underway March 7. With that in mind, key holes must be filled in various spots across the Buckeye defense. What follows is a position-by-position breakdown of what to watch for when OSU takes the field for spring ball.
Defensive Line: Given that Ohio State will have all of its starters along the defensive front from last year returning, the D-line could very well be the strength of the defense in 2017. The Buckeyes got a huge boost when defensive end Tyquan Lewis decided to come back for his fifth season. The Tarboro, N.C., native lead the team with 10½ sacks and eight tackles for loss in 2016. Mirroring Lewis at the other defensive end spot will be fourth-year junior Sam Hubbard and senior Jalyn Holmes, with sophomore Nick Bosa – younger brother of former OSU defensive end Joey Bosa – likely backing up everyone. As for the interior of the D-line, the Buckeyes will be fielding a group of defensive tackles who saw significant playing time in 2017. The group includes third-year sophomore Davon Hamilton, fifth-year senior Michael Hill and third-year sophomores Dre’Mont Jones and Robert Landers.
Linebacker: With the departure of Raekwon McMillan, the Buckeyes have a glaring gap to fill in the middle of their defense. The former middle linebacker and team captain led OSU in tackles the last two seasons (119 in 2015 and 102 in 2016). Possible candidates to replace McMillan this coming season include junior Jerome Baker, fourth-year junior Dante Booker and fifth-year senior Chris Worley – all of whom started as outside linebackers last year. That doesn’t even include sophomores Tuf Borland, Malik Harrison and Keandre Jones, third-year sophomore Justin Hilliard, who is returning from surgery, and fellow third-year sophomore Nick Conner. Five-star freshman Baron Browning, who enrolled early in January, has tremendous athletic ability and presents a viable option for playing time as well. Though the middle linebacker spot may be a bit of a question mark at the moment, Ohio State certainly has plenty of options to choose from to fill the void.
Cornerback: If there’s any position group on the Buckeye defense to keep locked in on this spring, it’s the cornerbacks. Starters Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore both declared for the upcoming NFL draft with at least one year of eligibility available, leaving a pair of first-string spots open. Third-year sophomore Damon Arnette and junior Denzel Ward appear to be the frontrunners for the starting roles this fall, considering they both saw routine game action a season ago. The two certainly have competition, though, as Buckeye head coach Urban Meyer and his staff brought in five highly-talented cornerback prospects in the 2017 recruiting haul. The newcomers include five-stars Jeffrey Okudah and Kendall Sheffield, who played for Blinn College in Texas last year, and four-stars Amir Riep, Shaun Wade and Marcus Williamson.
Safety: Unlike the cornerback position, only one safety left early to embark on his NFL career, and that was Malik Hooker. With Hooker out of the picture for this spring, that likely leaves one starting safety spot up for grabs. Returning starter and senior Damon Webb will likely occupy the other safety position. Fellow senior Erick Smith and sophomore Jordan Fuller may come to mind as potential replacements for Hooker. Junior Eric Glover-Williams could have been a feasible option as well but he has converted to a receiver since the end of last season. While OSU may appear to lack a little depth in the back end of its defense, four-star freshman safety Isaiah Pryor can be a capable backup for the Buckeyes in 2017.
Punter: Believe it or not, Cameron Johnston will not be back as Ohio State’s punter. The four-year starter for the Buckeyes has graduated and is now pursuing an NFL career. His exit gives sophomore Drue Chrisman a chance to make a name for himself. The Cincinnati LaSalle product didn’t punt at all last year with Johnston in the fold, so 2017 will be quite the experience for him. Chrisman replaces a punter who ranked fifth nationally and first in the Big Ten with a 46.7-yard average per boot in 2016. Johnston, a 2016 Ray Guy Award finalist, also led the conference in punting three out of his four seasons with OSU and set school records for punts inside the 20-yard line for a career (109) and season (31 in 2015).
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