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Ohio State Football: 3 Players Who Have Surprised Us in 2015

David Regimbal@davidreg412Featured ColumnistSeptember 30, 2015

Ohio State defensive end Sam Hubbard plays against Western Michigan during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

Ohio State has fielded one of the most explosive offenses in the country during Urban Meyer's tenure in Columbus, but three breakout defenders have the Buckeyes playing some dominant defense this season. 

Co-defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Chris Ash returned seven starters to a unit that surged down the stretch of the 2014 title run, but one returning starter, one new starter and one key reserve are fueling the key turnaround. 

Gareon Conley

Ohio State had three starters back from a secondary that made huge strides in Ash's aggressiveyet simplified4-3 scheme a season ago, but the hole the unit had to fill with the departure of senior cornerback Doran Grant was a big one.

The leading candidates to replace Grant—sophomores Gareon Conley and Damon Webb and redshirt freshman Marshon Lattimorewere talented but inexperienced coming into the season. 

Conley emerged during spring practice after a forgettable freshman campaign, when a lack of confidence plagued his ability to make the impact he was capable of. He locked down the starting spot in fall camp, and through four games, he's been one of the Buckeyes' top defenders. 

“Last year I was a thinker,” Conley said, according to Austin Ward of ESPN.com. “I thought a lot about making mistakes and worrying about what-if this, what-if that. Now I just play to my ability and I know that my coaches and my teammates are confident in me."

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BLACKSBURG, VA - SEPTEMBER 7: Gareon Conley #8 and Damon Webb #7 of the Ohio State Buckeyes tackle Cam Phillips #5 of the Virginia Tech Hokies at Lane Stadium on September 7, 2015 in Blacksburg, Virginia. Ohio State defeated Virginia Tech 42-24. (Photo by
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

There's plenty of reason for that confidence. Conley has been sensational in coverage this year with three pass breakups to go along with an interception. He's been the perfect addition to a secondary that already features rising cornerback Eli Apple and a pair of ball-hawking safeties in Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell. 

His emergence has fueled the Buckeyes secondary, which has allowed just 131.5 passing yards per game this seasona mark that ranks eighth nationally. 

Sam Hubbard

Ohio State was dealt a heavy blow when it announced that consensus first-team All-American defensive end Joey Bosa was suspended for the season-opening showdown with Virginia Tech.

The defensive line was already replacing defensive tackle Michael Bennett and weak-side defensive ends Steve Miller and Rashad Frazier, and now it was facing its toughest early-season opponent without its best player. 

But that suspension allowed Sam Hubbard to step up, and the redshirt freshman responded in a big way.

Ohio State defensive end Sam Hubbard
Ohio State defensive end Sam HubbardGeoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Splitting time with Jalyn Holmes against the Hokies, Hubbard showed what he was capable of, registering a sack and racking up four total tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss. But what's most impressive is the improvement he's shown in the defensive line rotation with Bosa back in the fold.

"You see him making huge improvements, really, every day he goes out there," Ash said, according to Craig Merz of the Associated Press. "From Week 1 against Virginia Tech to where he was this last Saturday, a completely different player.

"It's hard to explain his development because it's been off the charts, to be honest with you."

Adolphus Washington

Of all the players who have made a leap this season, arguably none has made a bigger impact than defensive tackle Adolphus Washington.

The 6'4", 290-pound standout came to Ohio State as a 5-star defensive end, according to 247Sports, but he has transitioned to the interior over the course of his collegiate career. Last year he lined up at nose tackle for the Buckeyes, playing out of position to allow current Jacksonville Jaguar Michael Bennett to play the true defensive tackle position. 

Now in his preferred spot, Washington has become a one-man wrecking crew for the Buckeyes, disrupting the flow of opposing offenses and occupying bodies for the linebackers.

“He’s eating up everything in front of me,” middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan said of Washington, per David Jablonski of the Dayton Daily News. “He lets me play free."

Ohio State defensive tackle Adolphus Washington
Ohio State defensive tackle Adolphus WashingtonJamie Sabau/Getty Images

Washington ranks fifth on the team with 18 tackles, but it's not just his pass-rushing and run-stuffing abilities that have been on display. Against Western Michigan last Saturday, the senior sniffed out a screen pass, read the quarterback perfectly and picked off the pass before returning it 20 yards for a touchdown.

Washington's emergence has been huge for a Buckeyes defense that's only getting better.

David Regimbal is the Ohio State football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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