Returning pieces

Defensive end Austin Conrad (47) and linebacker Dylan Conner (left) celebrate a play during Ohio’s win a Akron in November 2019. Conrad and Conner are two of nine projected defensive starters scheduled to return for Ohio’s defense in 2020.

For the first time in 15 years, Ohio University didn’t have Jimmy Burrow running the defense in 2019.

There were some changes, mostly minor, with Ron Collins acting as the defensive coordinator for OU for the first time in his eight seasons with the program. There were some disappointments as well.

But, like any Ohio defense under Frank Solich, the group was playing better at the end of the season.

“We did a better job of putting those guys in position to be successful and they bought in and they played up to their ability,” Collins said in December.

Ohio (7-6) did finish the season on an upswing. But the Bobcats’ issues — creating pressure, causing turnovers and late-game steps — were more prevalent before the strong finish.

Taken on the whole, OU’s defensive numbers weren’t bad during 2019. Ohio allowed 26.5 points per game, which is the fourth-highest number allowed by OU in the last 15 years. But, it was also the third-best scoring defense in the MAC in 2019.

The Bobcats gave up 403.7 yards per game, 12 yards more than in 2018, but climbed from seventh to fifth in that stat in the MAC rankings. OU was third in the MAC rushing defense, but gave up an uncharacteristic 4.7 yards per carry. Ohio was 16 yards per game in passing defense, but finished just ninth in the MAC in passing yards allowed.

The inconsistencies didn’t stop there. For instance, Ohio had four fewer sacks in 2019 (from 25 to 21), and saw a similar drop in tackles for loss. Still, the Bobcats improved dramatically on third down; OU allowed nearly 44 percent conversions in 2018, and ranked fourth in the MAC in that stat (39.5 percent) in ’19.

And then of course there were the turnovers. Ohio ended the season squarely in the middle of the MAC pack in turnovers forced and a substandard -4 TO ratio for the season. But through the first 10 games, OU had generated just six turnovers. The Bobcats forced nine in the last three games — all wins — to bring up the numbers with a late push.

“It was a struggle for us all year with turnovers,” safety Javon Hagan said prior to the Potato Bowl in early January. “We kept working at it, kept pushing it, and it didn’t pay off until late.”

In a season marked throughout by close games, it was that inability to generate extra possessions, or get key defensive stops in the fourth quarter, that left OU short of its preseason goals.

Against FBS teams — the opener against Rhode Island excluded — Ohio’s stop rate in the fourth quarter of games through the first 10 contests was just 35.7 percent. It means OU forced a turnover (none), forced a punt (9 times), held on fourth down (none), or blocked a field goal (one) 10 times on 28 fourth-quarter possessions in games 2 through 10. Ohio was just 3-6 in those nine games.

In a 33-31 loss at Marshall, the Thundering Herd had two fourth-quarter possessions — one resulted in a 75-yard touchdown drive and the other in a drive that took off the final 5:42 of the game clock.

Ohio trailed 31-25 with six minutes against Louisiana a week later, but the Ragin’ Cajuns ripped off 32 yards on a third-and-three play en route to a clinching touchdown. Louisiana added another TD on its next possession for a lop-sided 45-25 final.

OU failed to get any fourth-quarter stops two weeks later against NIU, and the Huskies kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired.

Against Miami, the RedHawks broke a 14-14 tie with a three-play, 75-yard drive early in the fourth quarter. Then Miami won it with a 10-play, 40-yard drive that resulted in a 53-yard field goal with 3:46 left in a 24-21 OU loss.

Western Michigan had fourth-quarter touchdown drives of 75 and 62 yards en route to a 37-34 overtime win in week 10.

But, things improved dramatically in the final three games. OU had a fourth-quarter stop rate of 77.8 percent in those games, including consecutive red-zone defensive stops against Nevada in a 30-21 win in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

“It showed we got better,” said safety Jarren Hampton. “We kept fighting, kept battling. We didn’t get those early in the year, but we found a way late.”

The question for Ohio now is can that late-season improvement carry over to the start of 2020? OU’s turnover ‘luck’ should revert back to a more normal level next season — Ohio had 32 turnovers forced in 2018 for example — and the Bobcats will be returning most of the defense next season.

“You can’t take away the reps you get in football. It’s huge,” Collins said. “That’s what we’re gaining from this.”

Here’s a look now at what Ohio is losing, and returning, across the defense as 2020 begins. Ohio is set to return nine of the 11 starters defensively from the bowl game, and will return 18 of the 24 players listed on that two-deep.

Defensive line

Ohio will lose four players from the its defensive line rotation, including one starter. Cole Baker (31 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks) was an integral part of the DL from his tackle position and one of the most disruptive players in the front seven. Brian Arp (24 tackles) began the season as a starter, and was a firm rotation player throughout.

Also departing are backup defensive ends Sam McKnight and Chukwudi Chukwu, who both played multiple seasons as contributors.

The list of returners is headed up by returning starting defensive ends Austin Conrad (6.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks) and Will Evans (7.5, 1.0). Conrad led the team in sacks and QB hurries, and Evans was the team leader in TFLs. Also back in junior DE Amos Ogun-Semore (3.0, 2.0 sacks), who was supplanted by Conrad early in the season.

On the interior, Kai Caesar (31, 2.0, 1.0) replaced Arp as a starter by the midway point and showed flashes. Marcus Coleman came on at the end of the year, and both Kyle McCracken and Jeremiah Burton got needed part-time work.

Junior DT Denzel Daxon and senior DT Zach Burks are two players who will likely join the rotation inside this spring. On the outside, OU is hoping players like Vonnie Watkins and Bryce Stai can take the next step and join the rotation.

Linebackers

Departed senior Eric Popp (52, 2.5 TFL) missed the last couple of games with injury, but it did allow redshirt freshman Keye Thompson (51, 5.5 TFL) to become a starter. Thompson showed a knack for impact plays and OU’s overall run defense seemed to improve as a result.

Popp is expected to be the only loss for a unit that is as deep as any on the roster. Starting strong linebacker Dylan Conner (83, 5.5 TFL) was second on the team in tackles and due back for a third-straight year as a starter. Middle linebacker Jared Dorsa (80, 6.5 TFL) was third on the team in stops despite a midseason injury and will also return for a third-year as a starter.

And there’s good depth. Redshirt freshman Bryce Houston was coming along, but lost most of his year with a knee injury. Redshirt freshman Jack McCrory became a third-down specialist and appeared in 11 games. Strong side LB Jeremiah Wood and weak side LB T.J. Robinson were regular contributors.

Cornerbacks

Ohio won’t lose any CBs who played this season. And should have good depth.

Seniors-to-be Marlin Brooks (1 INT, 5 pass breakups) and Ilyaas Motley (1 INT, 6 PBUs) were the starters at season’s end, but Ohio played several throughout the season. A third senior, Xavior Motley, was part of the regular rotation. And young corners in John Gregory, Tariq Drake and Justin Birchette all got valuable experience.

And Ohio played the final nine games without junior Jamal Hudson in the mix. A hip injury sideline Hudson before MAC play began, and he earned a redshirt.

It means Ohio will have four four-year players at the top of the two-deep for the cornerback spot in 2020, and enough depth to ensure there remains quality options off the bench. With the Bobcats’ penchant for cover 4 defense — and the man coverage that entails — it’s a good situation to have.

Safety

Ohio will lose one of the best in the program’s history with Javon Hagan — a two-time First Team All-MAC pick — moving on. Hagan led the team with 102 tackles this season and seven pass breakups. He was the cornerstone of the secondary, and OU will need to find a new leader in the back end.

But Hagan is the only loss for the entire secondary. Senior-to-be Jarren Hampton played opposite Hagan in 2019, and finished fourth on the roster with 71 tackles and had five pass breakups.

Juniors Alvin Floyd and De’Vante Mitchell served as quality backups for a second straight season and each figures to have a chance this spring to earn a spot as a starter.

Ohio is hoping sophomores Jamison Collier, Isaac Gill and Michael Ballentine — the last two parts of the walk-on program — can take the next step this spring. Redshirt freshman Jett Elad will be a factor as well.

In any case, Ohio will be looking for more plays from the secondary. The Bobcats had just five interceptions on the season, and only three from players on the two-deep.

Email at jarkley@athensmessenger.com; follow on Twitter @JasonAmessenger

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