Time To Hit

Apr 06, 2019

I've watched maybe 30 Lovie Smith practices? Maybe more than that? And I've never seen them tackle this much. This was a full-blown, maybe-100-plays scrimmage where even the QB's were being tackled. Lovie has always taken it easy at practice, especially in the spring when the roster numbers are low, but today it was time to hit.

I don't know enough about the "why" here, but hopefully it was "this defense needs to learn how to stop people, and to do that, they have to hit in practice". I'm hoping that was the case. For two reasons: 1) I like watching practices where we're hitting, and 2) I want to see us win football games.

There's a lot to get to here. I'm not sure how to organize my thoughts. Maybe I'll start with a list of three takeaways. Nah - I hate lists like that. But I need to focus these thoughts. OK, a list.

1. The defense won the scrimmage, and the defense won the scrimmage because we were missing two offensive linemen.

That's pretty much the only takeaway here, really. The defense had a great scrimmage. But I think the main reason the defense had such a good scrimmage was because Vederian Lowe and Kendrick Green were held out of the scrimmage (minor injuries), and we had two backups working with the first string. With just that change, the first string offensive line really struggled at times. As did the second-string offensive line since they were playing third stringers. Depth is important in college football? Depth is important in college football.

That probably unfairly diminishes what the defense accomplished today, especially the first string defense, because they played well. But when the left side of your line breaks down on a play, leading to a rushed pass, or a sack, or a busted-up running play, it's hard to say that happens with Vederian Lowe and Kendrick Green in the game.

And the scarier part of that is "man, the offensive line really breaks down when the starters are out". We're not going to have another season where all five linemen start all 12 games. This is football. So if someone asked me my biggest concern today, it's probably offensive line depth.

2. All of the quarterbacks still appear to be a year away from being Big Ten-ready.

Sometimes I wonder what it's like to watch an Ohio State practice. Like, if I was at an Ohio State practice last spring, I would have been oohing and aahing over Dwayne Haskins, saying things like "not only is he ready to take over the starting job, he's probably the best QB in the Big Ten". And then I'd also say something like "but Tate Martell - he could probably start anywhere else in the Big Ten right now". That's what happens when you recruit a Haskins and develop him for a few years while JT Barrett starts. It looks like you're ready for Big Ten play.

It doesn't look like we're ready for Big Ten play.

I will say that these quarterbacks are further along than I thought they'd be at this point. After Cam Thomas left the program, I think my reaction was "so now we won't have a single third, fourth, or fifth-year quarterback on the roster in 2019. Rule #6 in college football is "always have several third, fourth, or fifth-year quarterbacks on the roster". With Thomas gone, we were going to go into 2019 with three second-year guys and one first-year guy. That was frightening at first, but with Rivers' performance as a true freshman last year and Robinson's performances in practice, the situation feels better than I thought it would.

But still, there's no true Big Ten starter on the field yet. All of the quarterbacks have certain strengths and weaknesses, but none are "that guy's ready to be the guy". Yet.

3. The defensive changes are quite interesting.

I'm not going to get into scheme stuff. I'll only talk roster changes because the idea that one word of this could be used by the Akron coaches would devastate me. So I'll just say this: moving guys like Delano Ware and Dawson DeGroot to linebacker is quite interesting.

The idea (which Lovie talked about in the postgame press circle): get more speed at outside linebacker. Take a safety, move him to linebacker, and he's probably going to be able to stick with a tight end a little better. Sure, you're going to maybe lose something in the run game, but maybe not if you can scheme it in a way where that guy's speed is a benefit.

Don't think that this is some "Lovie is completely overhauling his defensive scheme" thing. There will be packages, and the defensive package against Nebraska will look different than the package against Wisconsin. To stop the offenses you face you need to be flexible. This whole "Delano Ware, starting linebacker" thing is just one piece of that puzzle.

But it's certainly an interesting piece. A guy who was a nickel corner last year is a linebacker this year. That's not something you see very often.

OK, so many more thoughts so let's just get into some plus signs.

+ How about a list of guys who stuck out to me today?

  • MJ Rivers' favorite receiver during the scrimmage was probably walkon Jordan Holmes. Holmes played a fair bit last year (which was a ton of PT for a true freshman walkon wide receiver), and it appears we'll see the same thing this season. If I had to guess the order of most-catches to least-catches for this season, right now, I'd probably go 1. Ricky Smalling 2. Dominic Stampley 3. Trenard Davis 4. Jordan Holmes 5. Donny Navarro.
  • With Jake Hansen in a green jersey (which means he didn't participate in the hitting portion of the practice), sophomore linebacker Khalan Tolson got a lot of snaps with the first string (and played well). You can best evaluate linebackers when they're tackling, and he made several nice run-stuffing tackles. If I had to guess right now, there will be a rotation of five linebackers - Jake Hansen, Dele Harding, Delano Ware, Milo Eifler, and Khalan Tolson.
  • The guy who maybe put together the best performance in the scrimmage portion was Calvin Avery. He was running with the second string defense, which means he was teeing up on some walkon offensive linemen who had moved up to the second string offensive line (three offensive linemen were held out - Lowe, Green, and Jake Stover), so take that into account, but he was still so disruptive.
  • Both kickers battling to replace Chase McLaughlin deserve a shoutout. I've watched three spring practices now and I've seen 32 kicks attempted (from a range between 27 yards and 54 yards). Combined, James McCourt and Caleb Griffin have made 26 of those 32 kicks. Today, McCourt was 4-5 (he missed from 53) and Griffin was 5-6 (he missed from 50 but then came back at the end of practice in the two-minute drill and hit a 54-yarder as time expired).
  • I know he's "my guy" and he won my Asamoah Award but Quan Martin gets his hands on so many passes in practice. Was an inch from two more interceptions today. I have so much confidence in the sophomore cornerback.

+ How about a quick two-deep off the top of my head?

QB: Rivers/Robinson
RB: Corbin/D. Brown (Epstein sitting out spring)
TE: Barker/B. Walker (Don't know if Ford will be eligible)
LT: Lowe/Cerny
LG: K. Green/Brown
C: Kramer/Stover
RG: Petitbon/Myers
RT: Palczewski/Slaughter
WR: Smalling/Reams
WR: Stampley/Holmes
WR: Davis/Navarro

WDE: Shogbonyo/Mondesir (both Carney and Gay are sitting out the spring)
DT: Oliver/Woods
DT: Milan/Avery
SDE: Roundtree/Oladipo
WLB: Hansen/Tolson
MLB: Harding/Hollins
SLB: Ware/Eifler
CB: Hobbs/Wyatt
SS: S. Brown/Joseph
FS: Adams/Green
CB: Martin/N. Walker

I don't want to pick a kicker because right now it's a tie. Hayes will be the punter, Tabel will be the longsnapper. I think the punt returner was at practice but was on the sidelines - Marquez Beason. Kickoffs better be Dre Brown.

+ The prevailing thought today was that the defense looked better. It was impossible not to after last year's performance, so that's not saying much, but the unit as a whole looked better. I'll put it this way: I expected improvement (how could it not?), but this was a little better than my expectations. A lot of that was the patchwork offensive lines they were facing, but still - improvement.

But it's still thin on the "trust" scale. Right now I trust one defensive end, four defensive tackles, two linebackers, two cornerbacks, and three safeties. For us to trust the defense again (and I'm not talking top-20 defense, just top-50 defense), I'd say we need to increase that list to... I'll just make a list.

  • I trust one defensive end (Roundtree), need to trust four.
  • I trust four defensive tackles (Milan, Oliver, Avery, Woods), which is enough.
  • I trust two linebackers (Hansen and Harding), need to trust five.
  • I trust two cornerbacks (Hobbs and Martin), need to trust four.
  • I trust three safeties (Adams, Brown, and Green), need to trust four.

That was easy. The task for me at practice between now and Akron: find three defensive ends, three linebackers, two cornerbacks, and a safety. Not easy: fiding those guys on the roster beyond the names already listed above.

OK, I need to leave this Arby's and drive home so I can get there before my wife goes to bed. Not gonna edit, so I'm apologizing now for the typos you just winced through above.

And yes, I stopped at Arby's to write this. They have the meats.


Nashvegas Illini on April 06 @ 08:43 PM CDT

How did Verdis look on the O-line?

IBFan on April 06 @ 09:39 PM CDT

Thanks Robert for all the info. Just curious was the crowd any better? Was the atmosphere? Vibe? Is the excitement palpable even though everyone is trying to remember the road ahead? Also with the players that are coming in this fall, transfers and recruits, plus the injured that should be back, most of your missing pieces may be there? Cooper at LB, Beason maybe in Charles Woodson mode, etc. The hitting is intriguing. The hitting of QBs is crazy. Rod must have a ton of confidence in that room or the piece that is coming in. Hopefully some Tom Cruises need distributing this coming week.

deadguy on April 07 @ 08:54 AM CDT

Really great write up Robert. Also, the periscope you did was really insightful.

The hitting to me means that it's winning time. We just don't have time to wait for these guys to develop anymore. We have to get to 6 wins and it's not going to happen with the Defense we saw last year. Like you said, if this defense can get into the 70s or 60s then we will have opportunities to win more games.

Ware a SLB is interesting. He just turned 18 and is one of the fastest guys on the team. He should help in coverage and looked solid at SS/NB last year. I would hope they give him more time to learn the position but if he's better than Eifler right now then so be it. Good to hear that Tolson also lookied good yesterday. I'm actually feeling better about the LBs than I expected.

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