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At Ohio State, Greg Schiano will coach the Buckeyes' defense much like Chris Ash did

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The Buckeyes lose most of their defense and have a new coordinator, but the system hasn't changed.

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

When Ohio State won the first College Football Playoff at the end of the 2014 season, the Buckeyes' meteoric rise down the stretch of the year was driven, in large part, by a young defense hitting its stride.

Urban Meyer had made a key move the previous offseason to shore up the defense, when he hired Chris Ash from Arkansas as a co-defensive coordinator. Although he was considered a bright young mind, Ash had a mixed resume, and his most recent defense at Arkansas had struggled mightily. However, at Ohio State he brought serious and steady improvement and quickly had the unit playing at a top-10 level. His first season was 2014:

Year S&P Rank Rushing S&P Standard Downs Passing S&P Passing Downs
2013 42nd 58th 79th 61st 42nd
2014 11th 42nd 18th 8th 11th
2015 8th 17th 8th 4th 5th

Despite grabbing the reins of a defense that was losing Bradley Roby and Ryan Shazier to the NFL, Ash brought massive improvement. In 2015, the Buckeyes returned most all of the young players that made a leap over the course of 2014, and the unit continued to improve in just about every category of defense.

Naturally Ash cashed in on this resume boost and accepted the head coaching job at Rutgers. So, naturally, Urban Meyer replaced him with former Rutgers head man Greg Schiano.

Schiano will employ the same press-quarters 4-3 scheme the Buckeyes ran under Ash.

He might be more aggressive with the blitz and tweak some of the techniques, but the basic cover 4 scheme with single-high man-blitzes will remain the same. The system has the Meyer mandate, after Ash was brought in to install it in the first place two years ago.

So, the question in Columbus won't be how well the new system translates, but whether Schiano can continue to plug and play with the tremendous defensive talent that Meyer regularly brings to Columbus. Ohio State's defense took major hits from graduation and the NFL Draft this offseason and returns only four starters on defense, although there's still plenty of talent. Schiano's job is to match Ash's success, and the Buckeyes have offered some hints as to how he'll do it.

First ingredient: dominant DL play

The Buckeyes' absurd access to dominant in-state players in the trenches on either side of the ball is an under-appreciated facet of their program's long-term success. Ohio is filled with great athletes (and big ones) every year, and since this is The Ohio State University, the Buckeyes are usually the first choice for the state's blue-chip prospects.

A forgotten triumph of the program in its Playoff title is that seven of the team's 11 defensive starters (including one co-starter) were Ohio natives. Here's how the program's talent acquisition on defense has gone in the last five recruiting classes:

Year Blue-chip DL Blue-chip LBs Blue-chip DBs
2016 3 2 1
2015 2 3 3
2014 2 3 3
2013 4 2 5
2012 4 3 3

*Blue-chip prospects are ranked four stars or on the 247Sports Composite.

Ash was loading up the defensive tackle spots with defensive ends the Buckeyes were spinning down to convert into athletic DTs, as they had done with current draft prospect Adolphus Washington. Their 2016 group includes Michael Hill, who's already played a lot of snaps for them, paired with a diverse cast that includes some explosive athletes such as Dre'Mont Jones, Davon Hamilton and Nick Bosa (Joey's brother), all likely to contribute this fall.

The style of play has been pretty aggressive up front for some time now, with the Buckeyes opting for penetration inside while counting on their linebackers and safeties to clean up anything that gets through. While there are fewer known quantities for Schiano to work with here, there are plenty of young candidates who've been working under line coach Larry Johnson for the past two years.

On the outside, the Buckeyes would seem to be facing a drop-off with Joey Bosa leaving, but the future NFL pick was actually third in sacks amongst Ohio State ends last year (5) while first-place finisher Tyquan Lewis (8) and second-place Sam Hubbard (6.5) both return. Not having Bosa won't help their matchups, but they can pick up the slack.

Add in Schiano's more aggressive use of blitzes, and you have the makings of another fierce and disruptive Buckeye front.

Second ingredient: pressing corners

Ohio State embraced Michigan State's variety of "press-quarters" under Ash and seems to be maintaining that technique under Schiano, even as the Spartans have had to back off. This is probably the most difficult aspect of the Buckeyes' scheme, since the corners have to be able to survive on the sidelines without safety help.

During their spring game, the Buckeyes were playing Michigan State's "solo" coverage against a trips formation:

ohio state scheme

How this works: the boundary corner and linebacker play man coverage on the boundary receiver and the running back, while the rest of the defense rolls over to get "four over three" and squelch any kind of route combination the offense can get going with their three receivers.

Buckeye Solo

This works great for shutting down the quick game, as you can see in the clip above, but the cornerback playing over that "Z" receiver on the right (and at the top of your screen) is basically being asked to hold down the fort by himself for the rest of the team. If he's going up against Amara Darboh and Michigan or Travis Rudolph and Florida State in the Playoff, that'll be a tough assignment.

This may not be as big of an issue on a typical Saturday in the Big Ten, which doesn't currently seem loaded with ultra-fast receivers. But Ohio State's team goals will force them to stop at least a few difficult passing attacks.

Third ingredient: a savvy and versatile interior five

Much of the reason for Ohio State's defensive dominance over the last few years has been that its lineman and corners have carried the water for an interior group of safeties and linebackers that didn't necessarily need the help.

The reason that Michigan State's quarters defense has been so popular around the country and so successful at Ohio State is that it allows the interior five of the back seven to focus on controlling the grass between the hash marks that every offense needs access to, while the cornerbacks put their receivers on something close to lockdown.

Within that system, the most valuable attribute for the interior five (after a certain baseline of athleticism) is experience and chemistry. If the safeties and linebackers know how to trade off routes and work together to respond to different route combinations they can become pretty dominant regardless of whether everyone runs a 4.8 or not.

This is no doubt why Schiano has been focusing on the safeties, where the Buckeyes are losing both strong safety Vonn Bell and free safety Tyvis Powell to the NFL. The experience and cohesion matters at each position, though, as the modern spread era has made it so that a coverage is only as good as its weakest link.

When the Buckeyes pulled starting middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan in the spring game for back-up and future all-name team candidate Tuf Borland (No. 32) the lack of experience was quickly exposed on one passing play.

ohio state scheme 2

The Buckeyes are back in their "solo" coverage, which means that the weakside linebacker has to match the running back. However, Borland allowed TE Marcus Baugh (No. 85) to get inside of him, apparently with the thought he would get help from his linebacking partner. He didn't, and J.T. Barrett made them pay with a first down strike over the middle.

A more cohesive and experienced interior five would deny that throw and force a check-down or scramble, and that's what the Buckeyes will be hoping to build in time for the fall.

One of the strongest aspects of the 2014 and 2015 Ohio State defenses was the way in which strongside linebacker Darron Lee and strong safety Bell played off each other. Ash had zero fear about playing Bell in deep coverage with a big linebacker underneath him, or bringing him down to play coverage on the slot receiver when Lee was blitzing, because of Bell's athleticism and coverage ability.

In order to match Lee's ability to run and be a physical presence in space, the OSU staff has spun down former safety Chris Worley to man his spot at linebacker and shifted cornerback Damon Webb to play the strong safety position. It's hard to believe Worley will bring the same thunder Lee brought to their pass rush (12 sacks in two years), but between him and Webb, the Buckeyes will continue to have versatility to bring blitzes and physicality on the edge.

Schiano inherits a system that doesn't need much tweaking. His players are not overflowing with experience, but they've been groomed to execute what the Buckeyes want. If Schiano can teach, oversee and adapt like Ash did, Ohio State should be able to maintain its traditional place as one of the country's stronger defenses.