The Ohio State defense has nearly been an impenetrable blockade for opposing offenses so far in 2015.
Through four weeks, the Silver Bullet unit ranks sixth in the nation for total defense, having allowed opponents to cross the goal line just six times while holding them to an average of 253 yards per game.
A considerable chunk of the defense’s early success can be traced to the transformation and emergence of redshirt freshman Sam Hubbard — whose road to becoming a key rotation piece at defensive end for the defending national champions has been long, winding and far from conventional.
Prior to arriving at OSU, Hubbard was a two-sport standout for Cincinnati’s Archbishop Moeller High School, playing safety on the gridiron and midfield on its lacrosse team. He was already planning on going to college for athletics, but neither at OSU nor for football. Rather, he had already given his verbal commitment to play lacrosse for Notre Dame.
He might have stayed on that road had OSU coach Urban Meyer not waltzed through Hubbard’s gym class during his junior year in high school and seen him playing dodgeball.
“We were all just playing like a normal day in class and he walked in with his leather jacket and everyone was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s Urban Meyer,’” Hubbard said.
Meyer was there to see Moeller’s football coach, John Rodenberg, who is also the gym teacher.
Hubbard admitted to giving extra effort, but said he didn’t think much of it until his coach introduced him to Meyer after class.
From there, their relationship began, and by early April 2013, Hubbard decommitted from Notre Dame and pledged to play football in Ohio’s capital.
After the football season, Hubbard decided to forgo his final year of lacrosse to spend the winter gaining an extra 15-20 pounds to prepare for enrolling in Columbus, as he would no longer be a safety.
Hubbard was recruited to be an outside linebacker, and he went through camp at the position. Shortly after, however, the coaches decided to try him at tight end to utilize the former lacrosse player’s athleticism.
That experiment would only last a few weeks before he was back to working as a linebacker.
Soon thereafter, his road took another turn when coaches told him he would be heading to defensive line coach Larry Johnson’s position room.
“I just sat down in the back of the room and just had no idea what he was talking about for the first four or five weeks,” Hubbard said.
Despite the lack of familiarity, Hubbard’s ability shined through during his first few weeks, impressing the coaching staff, including Meyer — who considered pulling Hubbard’s redshirt after a few weeks but deemed it “unfair” due to how late into the season it was.
The strong finish to his redshirt campaign, combined with a spring practice effort that earned effusive praise from Meyer, resulted in high hopes for Hubbard’s regular season debut wearing scarlet and gray.
Game reps at last
Hubbard, who now tips the scale at 265 pounds, was just supposed to be in the rotation at defensive line for OSU, but junior Joey Bosa’s suspension for the season opener meant an increased role in his first live action.
On just the game’s ninth play against Virginia Tech, he registered his first career sack before corralling three more tackles and one quarterback hurry.
Since the win, Hubbard has continued to excel, which is a key reason for the Silver Bullets’ dominance. The redshirt freshman has amassed multiple tackles in each game — including 1.5 sacks against Northern Illinois — to bring his season tackle total to eight.
After the three position switches, Hubbard said he finally feels like he belongs.
“I didn’t feel like a defensive end until I got into the game and actually played against Virginia Tech,” he said. “After I saw those game reps I realized that I did belong where I was.”
It must be noted that a certain portion of his early success stems from the fact that a consensus top-10 pick in the NFL draft plays on the opposite side of the defensive line in Bosa.
Hubbard doesn’t refute that claim though, admitting that Bosa was seeing double and triple teams throughout the game. However, he won’t be complaining.
“I’m thankful for it,” Hubbard said.
Despite the additional blockers Bosa commands, Hubbard committed to the switch and worked hard to get this far down the road so swiftly.
“He’s a hard worker,” sophomore linebacker and fellow class of 2014 recruit Raekwon McMillan said. “During the offseason he was working hard, showing the older guys that he can go out there and do it out on the field.”
The season is young, with the Buckeyes having eight more regular season games still on the docket. But despite Hubbard’s immediate impact, his growth and development — which safeties and co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash called “off the charts” — still has a long way to go.
But he knows that.
“I haven’t even been at this position for a full year. I’m just gonna keep taking all the coaching in, knowledge and more experience I get the better,” Hubbard said. “It’s only up from here.”