With seven first-time starters taking the field for No. 3 Ohio State’s defense Thursday, the Buckeyes went deep into their wealth of talent to slow the Minnesota offense.
The Buckeyes were without two starters on defense — cornerbacks Sevyn Banks and Cameron Brown — but relied heavily on their depth to help them get past Minnesota 45-31. Head coach Ryan Day said the decision to play depth was in reaction to Minnesota’s offensive operations, but they’ll still play deep into their bench going forward.
“We wanted to match personnel in that game because we felt like, based on their style of play, that was really important,” Day said. “We are going to play depth. We are going to roll those guys.”
There was no position that Ohio State needed to reload more than linebacker, where the Buckeyes replaced all four starters from the 2020 season.
Led by senior linebacker Teradja Mitchell, Ohio State’s new-look linebacking corps played five different guys to fill their two spots in the 4-2-5 defense. Mitchell led all Buckeye defenders with 70 snaps.
Senior Dallas Gant and sophomores Tommy Eichenberg and Cody Simon rounded out the linebacker rotation — each getting over 35 snaps Thursday. Sophomore running back-turned-linebacker Steele Chambers also found the field against the Golden Gophers, picking up nine snaps.
Simon, who picked up a crucial sack to close the first half, said each player is expected to be ready at all times to get on the field and make a contribution.
“We trust our coach. He’s going to put whoever he needs in at the right time,” Simon said. “You always have to be ready to make a play when your name is called.”
With Banks and Brown sidelined, Ohio State’s secondary also moved guys around throughout Thursday’s contest.
The Buckeyes turned to freshman cornerback Denzel Burke, who started in his Ohio State debut. In 63 snaps, Burke amassed four tackles and three pass breakups.
Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs pointed to the work Burke put in during the offseason as a reason for his rise to starter in Week 1.
“He had a really good spring, so we knew we had something,” Coombs said. “He competes. He’s got a lot of growth and a lot of improvement ahead of him. But he had a great camp. He had a great night Thursday night.”
Sophomore defensive back Ronnie Hickman and senior safety Josh Proctor also played in 63 snaps in the Ohio State backend.
Rounding out the Ohio State secondary rotation was sophomore safety Lathan Ransom, redshirt sophomore Bryson Shaw and redshirt freshmen defensive backs Ryan Watts and Lejond Cavazos — all of which played in double-digit snaps.
Despite the moving pieces in the defense, Ransom said they’ve still built up a strong chemistry with one another.
“I think that our defense has so much chemistry and it’s just building. We rotate so much at practice,” Ransom said. “I think that when you go in, you make the best of your opportunity. When you’re not in, you support your brothers and you hope that they do their best, too.”
While the linebackers and secondary relied heavily on youth, the defensive front used their veteran presence as a strength Thursday.
Junior defensive end Zach Harrison played the most of any defensive lineman, collecting three tackles and a strip sack of Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan — which was scooped up by senior defensive tackle Haskell Garrett for a touchdown — in 65 snaps.
On the interior, Garrett, redshirt junior Taron Vincent and graduate Antwuan Jackson held it down.
Garrett said they built chemistry throughout preseason camp, which made rotating with their depth easy.
“We actually had a full year and a full camp. We developed that camaraderie and that chemistry amongst each other,” Garrett said. “So it’s new faces but still the same defense.”