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Football: Revamped defense shows change, new looks during spring game

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Senior wide receiver Xavier Johnson (10) gets tackled during the Ohio State Spring Game Saturday. Ohio State Scarlet team won 34-26. Credit: Katie Good | For the Lantern

Ohio State overhauled its defensive coaching staff this offseason, hiring three new coaches and bringing in Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State as defensive coordinator.

With new ideas and unique schemes, the spring game offered opportunity for the Buckeyes to put concepts in action. Knowles said the Buckeyes’ defense was “very vanilla” at the start of spring practice, but the spring game Saturday showed how far they’ve come in taking his ideas and schemes and applying them.

“Going into the game, I felt great about how far we have come, what we’ve accomplished, how much we got installed, how the players took to it,” Knowles said. “It was as good or better than I could have wished.”

The spring game began with thuds before transitioning to tackling for the rest of the intrasquad scrimmage, and quarterbacks couldn’t be tackled.

Ohio State noticeably used three safeties in formation for much of the spring game, as junior Ronnie Hickman and graduate Tanner McCalister anchored the secondary and freshman Kye Stokes flashed — finishing with nine tackles and two pass breakups.

Head coach Ryan Day said the Buckeyes didn’t get overly complex during the spring game, which he described as “very, very basic” to enforce fundamentals, but he made positive takeaways.

“What I liked was just the physicality and guys running around, tackling. That was something that we wanted to get done in this game,” Day said. “It was good to see those guys run around and tackle. We’ll take a look at the film and see, but it was more about fundamentals of tackling and playing with effort today.”

The Buckeyes also displayed some of the “Leo” hybrid linebacker position Knowles is known for applying during his time at Oklahoma State.

Sophomore defensive end Jack Sawyer spent time at the “Leo,” standing up prior to snaps before rushing across the line of scrimmage. Sophomore linebacker Mitchell Melton also played at the hybrid linebacker before exiting due to injury in the second quarter.

With an early look at how Ohio State could use the “Leo” next season, Knowles said he’s going to study practice and spring game film to enhance its ability.

“I want to be able to sit down and look at it and see how we can blend the whole thing together, start to meet with those guys individually, see who’s ready for the challenge of kind of doing everything,” Knowles said. “I thought we came a long way in just a few practices.”

Knowles and Day both have said they’re impressed by the defensive line’s talent and depth, and the unit totaled six sacks. Sophomore defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau said the Buckeyes have “started to get a feel” for the new defensive strategies over the course of the spring.

“I just think with the whole change and stuff, I think we just came together,” Tuimoloau said. “A lot of the older dudes stepped up and took a lot of the younger boys under their wing. After that, we just continued to come with a different energy and continue to push each other and hold each other accountable was a big thing for us this year, too.”

Sophomore quarterback C.J. Stroud, who was sacked once and completed 14 passes for 120 yards and a touchdown, said spring practices were a good opportunity to go head-to-head with a new-look defense.

“The defense has been challenging the offense, of course, we’ve been challenging them. It’s been good to see back and forth,” Stroud said. “Our D-line looks amazing. Our DBs are doing really well. Linebackers communicating well, so hats off to them and the defensive side of the ball.”

Juniors linebacker Tommy Eichenberg led all tacklers with 10 and defensive lineman Noah Potter totaled a pair of sacks. Sophomore defensive back Cameron Kittle recorded the lone interception of the spring game in the fourth quarter.

Ohio State saw production from new and young contributors during the spring game, and has taken steps to address its defense that finished ninth in total defense in the Big Ten Conference. With plenty of areas to build on after the spring game entering the summer, Tuimoloau said the Buckeyes have momentum building as their progress continues adjusting to Knowles and the new defense.

“I think since we got a feel for it now, I think all that is just taken up a notch,” Tuimoloau said.

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