The most dominant college football player on one of the nation’s best teams is a 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end. Although the Heisman Trophy is typically reserved for players who score touchdowns, rather than those who prevent them,1 Ohio State’s Chase Young has made a strong case for front-runner status.
“In a day and age when people get caught up in what’s next, he really wants to leave a legacy here,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day told Yahoo’s Pete Thamel. “That makes him special.”
That legacy will no doubt include last weekend, when Young turned a rain-soaked Saturday afternoon into his masterpiece. In the Buckeyes’s 38–7 dismantling of a Wisconsin program that has become Offensive Line U in recent years, Young tied a program record with four sacks,2 five tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. His position coach, Larry Johnson, told ESPN afterwards that it was the best single-game performance he’s ever seen. LeBron James — no stranger to being more physically imposing than his peers — called Young an “absolute monster.”
Young has 13.5 sacks on the season, 3.5 clear of anyone else in the country. The next time he registers one, it will set a new school record. He is second in the nation in forced fumbles with five. Among Power Five defenders, he’s tied for the national lead in tackles for loss (15.5), tied for second in disrupted dropbacks (14.5) and tied for third in defensive pressures (34).3 .
And while these box score metrics are noteworthy, they fail to encapsulate or appropriately contextualize his influence on a game, which is reminiscent of South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh. Young’s versatility is critical to Ohio State’s success: Against Wisconsin, he lined up at linebacker, defended tight ends in coverage and was moved around on the line. He’s so fast that the Buckeyes don’t even need to blitz to turn a quarterback inside out: Only 11 Power Five teams have blitzed less than the Buckeyes, yet just Pittsburgh has accounted for more total sacks.
Armed with a freakish get-off that Day has called the best he’s ever seen and a mastery of Johnson’s “side-scissors” technique, Young is nearly impossible to block one-on-one. That frequently forces opposing coaches to dial up seven-man pass protections, which in turn has the Buckeyes secondary defending only three receivers. In a pass-heavy economy, that’s no small feat. “A complete game-changer,” is how co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley put it to The Athletic’s Bill Landis. “He allows us to do more in coverage.”
Ohio State is bludgeoning its opponents. The margin of victory in each of the team’s eight wins has been no smaller than 24 points, meaning that Young — perhaps in the interest of opposing quarterback safety — is removed from the field of play well before the score goes final. Among defensive linemen, Young is tied for 290th in defensive snaps, playing 261 total snaps this season. Just 17 of those snaps have come in the fourth quarter. His workload consists of little more than half of Ohio State’s total defensive snaps and just 15.5 percent of the Buckeyes’ fourth-quarter defensive snaps.
Heisman voters are mere human beings, biased by factors ranging from region to conference to position to race. Production is rarely contextualized,4 and the data with which these votes are cast is limited when it comes to defensive players. Sacks, tackles for loss and pressures — all of which Young has going for his candidacy — are only a fraction of on-field production and value.
But while imperfect, parsing Ohio State’s defensive splits with and without Young is instructive in identifying his value. While Ohio State allows a best-in-country 3.6 yards per play, with Young on the field, the Buckeyes allow 3.0 (the best mark through eight games since at least 2004), according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. Nearly half of all opponent plays gain zero or negative yardage when Young is on the field, a rate that drops 10.1 percentage points when he sits. Moreover, when Young is removed from the field, the Buckeyes pressure rate drops nearly 12 percentage points.
It is not enough to say Young is an unstoppable force. Mike Renner wrote recently that he’s doing things Pro Football Focus has never seen in its six years of tracking players. To watch Young bull-rush a quarterback is to watch an offensive line collectively drown. He’s too fast. He’s too strong. He’s too intelligent. His is the kind of impact that causes opposing QBs to, as Day put it, “start to feel ghosts and see ghosts.” Young was asked to replace Nick Bosa, the No. 2 pick in last year’s NFL draft. He responded by becoming the linchpin of a potent Ohio State defense and putting together perhaps the best Heisman candidacy by a defensive player we’ve seen in years.
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