Editor’s Note: This is the seventh in a nine-part series outlining the 2019 Ohio Football roster, and the last focusing on the Bobcat defense. The series will break down nine parts of the program in the coming weeks, with a look at who returns, what’s changed, and what’s to come at each position. The series continues today with a look at the Ohio’s defensive backs.
This story appears in the Sunday, June 30 newspaper on Page B1.
One a molecular level, it’s easy to identify the formula that Ohio has tried to employ in crafting its defensive backfield.
Take a healthy dose of Florida speed, athleticism and attitude, mix in some of that Ohio toughness, and let experience handle the rest.
The recipe, the Bobcats hope, should reach peak effectiveness in 2019. Ohio returns three starters in the backfield, nine players with substantial experience from last season and has a chef in charge of the whole operation.
“We need to be better this year. And we will be,” said fifth-year senior safety Javon Hagan, the aforementioned chef, during spring camp.
Hagan has cooked up three impactful seasons in a row at the back end of the Ohio defense. He’s credited with being a driving force behind the ‘Turnover Belt’ — a totem that helped prod the Bobcats into 32 turnovers in 2018. Hagan, with 77 tackles, two interceptions, four pass breakups and a fumble recovery last year, was named to the 2018 All-MAC First Team.
It’s clear it’s his group to lead now. And he doesn’t want to squander the chance.
“We came a long way last season,” Hagan said. “We got better I feel like throughout each month.
“Now we just need to start the way we finished.”
Ah yes, that start. It was, well, not great. The Bobcats gave up 153 points in their first four games in 2018. Every third down was seemingly converted, and the passing yards and completions came by the cart load.
But Ohio got better. The Bobcats allowed just 167 total points after swooning in September. For the season, the ‘Cats allowed a respectable 24.6 points per game.
The early onslaught made season-long averages in passing statistics tough to take at face value. But no defense in the MAC was better at the end of the year. Ohio allowed just 20.9 points per game in MAC play, and then posted a shutout in a victory in the Frisco Bowl.
“It kept coming. By the end, we were in a pretty good place,” said new Ohio defensive coordinator, and safeties coach, Ron Collins.
That improvement was especially evident in the secondary. First-time starting cornerbacks Marlin Brooks and Jamal Hudson were often victims during the season’s first half, then started turning the tables by season’s end. Brooks was physical on the edge — 41 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries — while Hudson became sharp in coverage. Hudson had 13 passes defended.
Hagan started playing like, well, Javon Hagan, and departed safety Kylan Nelson was the steady influence that didn’t let the unit get off track after a rocky start.
Hagan, Brooks and Hudson all return. Also returning are corners Ilyaas and Xavior Motley, and Tariq Drake, and sophomore safety tandem Alvin Floyd and De’Vante Mitchell. The only new starter will be junior safety Jarren Hampton, a walk-on who started the 2018 opener with Hagan was out with injury.
Of those nine players, all played in at least nine games a year ago. And that mix? Hagan, Brooks, Hudson, Floyd and Mitchell all bring a Florida background. The Motley’s, Drake and Hampton are all home-grown products of the Buckeye state.
“It’s the kind of mix you can do great things with,” Hagan said.
Ohio has fewer questions it must answer in the secondary as the 2019 season approaches. A year ago there were potential growing pains in view in numerous spots on the depth chart.
If the Bobcats’ defense is able to pick up where it left off in 2018, the defensive backfield will be a key reason why. The group, collectively, wasn’t happy with how it performed in 2017 and last year the improvement came at a pace that was frustrating to endure.
“We were great with turnovers, but there’s a lot of areas where we still have to be better,” Collins said. “Third-down percentage wasn’t great. We gave up too many big plays.
“So yeah, we expect to be better. We have players, the experience, where we absolutely think there’s more to achieve there.”
2019 Ohio Football
Starters — S Javon Hagan (R-Senior, 6-1, 210), S Jarren Hampton (R-Junior, 5-11, 190), CB Marlin Brooks (Junior, 5-10, 167), CB Jamal Hudson (Junior, 6-0, 197).
In Hagan, Ohio will have one of the best defenders in the conference at their disposal. A First Team All-MAC pick last season, Hagan will starting games in a fourth straight seasons and would seem poised for his best yet. Hampton was a rotation regular last year, and started the 2018 season opener. A former walk-on, he’s been quick a find. Brooks and Hudson took their licks early in 2018, but as both improved — and became starter — Ohio’s defense blossomed.
Gone — S Kylan Nelson, CB Jalen Fox, CB Cameron Gunnels.
Nelson is big loss; He played big reps, added special teams value, ranked third on the roster in tackles (60) and totaled 9 passes defended. Fox began the 2018 season as a returning starter, but injury and the development of Brooks and Hudson left him sidelined much of the final month of the year. Gunnels was primarily a special teamer, but a multiple-year contributor as a walk-on.
Backups — S Alvin Floyd (R-Sophomore, 5-10, 193), S De’Vante Mitchell (R-Sophomore, 59-190), S Isaac Gill (R-Freshman, 6-1, 195), CB Ilyaas Motley (R-Junior, 6-0, 175), CB Xavior Motley (R-Junior, 6-0, 170), CB Tariq Drake (R-Sophomore, 6-0, 170).
Ilyaas (12 games), Xavior (10 games) and Drake (11 games) all got plenty of work last season on the defense, their first real action as college players. The Bobcats, in theory, should have good depth at CB. Floyd sparkled at points in 2018 and poised for a bigger role. Gill, a walk-on, had a terrific spring and might have put himself in contention for playing time.
Depth — S Jamison Collier (R-Freshman, 6-1, 185), S Michael ballentine (R-Sophomore, 6-0, 185), S Alex Wolff (R-Junior, 5-10, 225), CB Markel Davis (R-Junior, 5-11, 172), CB Justin Birchette (R-Freshman, 5-8, 172), CB John Gregory (R-Freshman, 6-2, 180).
Davis should have a chance to play after converting over from WR in 2018. Birchette and Gregory both had developmental years last fall and should be more ready to compete. Collier was close to being used in 2018, but Ohio was able to get his redshirt to stick. Ballentine basically lost all of last season and this spring because of injury.
Incoming — S Jett Elad (Freshman, 6-0, 190), CB Keniuel Gates (Freshman, 6-0, 195).
Elad, a native of Canada, was a standout at power program Cleveland St. Ignatius in 2018 and a three-star-recruit. He’ll be thrown into the fire in August with a chance to earn playing time.
Gates was the first commit of the 2019 class (April of 2018), but was not on the updated Ohio roster posted on June 27. Gates, and top-ranked DT tackle recruit Denzel Daxon, were the only members of the 2019 class to not appear on the updated roster. It doesn’t mean either won’t be in fall camp, but does indicated there are at least questions surrounding their availability this fall.