These 3 Buckeyes must step up to replace OSU's defensive stars
Gone is Joey Bosa, our highest-graded edge player for two-straight seasons and No. 1 overall prospect in the 2016 NFL draft. Gone is Adolphus Washington, the fourth-highest graded defensive tackle in the country and Buffalo’s third-round selection. Darron Lee, Joshua Perry and Eli Apple — the second cornerback taken in this year’s daft — are now in the NFL as well, as are Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell. Add in DT Tommy Schutt, and the Buckeyes must now replace eight starters from last year’s No. 2-ranked defense.
While Ohio State is sure to have some struggles on the defensive side of the ball this year as a consequence to so much attrition, the cupboard has not been left bare. Depth may be limited, but the Buckeyes have at least one player at each level that looks poised to breakout and establish himself as one of the best players at his position in the conference.
ILB Raekwon McMillan
Not only is Raekwon McMillan the clear leader of the Ohio State defense, he’s the best player on either side of the ball and possibly the best inside linebacker in the country. His film shows an aggressive, instinctive front seven player capable of defeating blocks and making plays behind the line of scrimmage, and our analytics back the eyeball test.
His 2015 overall grade ranks him eighth in the country among returning FBS ILBs, and he is near the top of nearly every tackling metric we have — most notable run-stop percentage (he ranks second) and tackling efficiency (10th). He also owns the fifth-highest coverage grade among returning players at his position.
His intelligence and versatility will be critical to the success of the Buckeye defense, as it will need maximum output on all three downs from its three returning starters.
DE Sam Hubbard
Sam Hubbard’s unique story is likely to be repeated ad nauseam on Ohio State’s broadcasts this season, and if last year’s production on limited snaps is any indication, he’s due to break out in a big way.
In just 346 snaps in 2015 (186 were pass rushes) he poste d seven sacks and 15 other pressures, giving him a pass rush productivity score that ranks him 29th among returning FBS 4-3 defensive ends. This is a remarkable feat considering last year was his first full-time season at defensive end, after playing safety in high school at 225 pounds.
His movement skills are apparent on film, but what’s more impressive is how he is already able to use his hands effectively to keep blockers off of him at the line of scrimmage. As he continues to grow into his body and develop his skill set, he is sure to show some growing pains this season, which should be his first as a full-time starter, but he clearly has the tools necessary to be the next great Buckeye defensive lineman.
CB Gareon Conley
Gareon Conley is not only the sole returning starter in the secondary, but he is the only defensive back with more than 50 coverage snaps last season (481 coverage snaps, 892 total). Ohio State has a rich history of outstanding defensive backs, and Conley’s +8.4 coverage grade from 2015 (ranking him 23rd among returning CBs) suggests he’s capable of being the next in line.
Listed at six feet and 190 pounds, he has very good size for his position, and opposing QBs had just a 44.3 completion percentage and 71.6 NFL QB rating when targeting him last year. He did show himself susceptible to the big play last year, as he allowed six pass plays of over 25 yards. While he obviously needs to be able to prevent the disaster plays going forward, his five pass breakups, two interceptions and 40 tackles as a red-shirt sophomore are impressive, and he should improve upon those numbers this season.