The Buckeyes have to reload on defense more in 2011 than any year since 2006. If you remember back, the 2006 defense had to replace all time great A.J. Hawk amongst many others. The task was daunting, but players like James Laurinaitis and Malcolm Jenkins quickly emerged as the next great Buckeye defenders. A defense full of newcomers helped lead the team to a perfect regular season and a trip to the national title game.
Will Etienne Sabino be the next Laurinatis? Will Travis Howard be the next Jenkins? If anything, the players this season have more experience under their collective belts than the 2006 group did, which bodes well for the silver bullets.
Jim Tressel has received plenty of criticism on offense over the years, but on defense there is not much to complain about. The Buckeyes have been a top ten ranked D annually under Tressel regardless of attrition each year, and this season should be no different.
Here are the players to watch in the spring game who will look to continue the defensive tradition of excellence.
Although there are plenty of young players in the defensive line rotation to watch this spring, it never hurts to keep track of the proven veterans as well. Simon and Williams have been doing work in the trenches for a long time now, and they will be looked to as leaders and play makers this season.
Between the two of them, they will cause plenty of chaos in opponent’s backfields, and with the Buckeye offensive line still moving players around, they should be plenty disruptive on Saturday as well. They will both be pulled early on to make way for some of the younger, unproven players, so catch them early while you can.
Even though spring practices have established that Klein and Bell are unlikely to be the starting linebackers in the fall, they will still be pushing for playing time every day. They will see plenty of action in games regardless of whether they start or not.
Klein is relatively deep into his Buckeye career, but Bell is a rising star and the future on the weak side. Having great starters is important, but having great depth is the difference between good teams and elite teams that can make it through a BCS conference schedule.
Bell and Klein make the depth at LB outstanding for the Buckeyes, and it will be fun to see them get plenty of action in the spring game.
Although limited by injury for much of last season, when on the field, he clearly demonstrated why he was such a highly rated recruit out of high school and why he cracked the secondary depth chart almost immediately as a true freshman.
Bryant combines tremendous speed and quickness with a desire to hit that is reminiscent of former Buckeye great Antoine Winfield. His future seems to be at safety or at star, but either way, he is a big time play maker for the defense when on the field.
As the only returning starter in the secondary, a lot will be expected of Orhian Johnson in the spring game and in the fall. He put together a respectable year as a first time starter in 2010, and with that experience under his belt he should be able to take his game to the next level this time around.
He spent most of last season at strong safety but will slide over to his more natural position at free safety in 2011. Experience plus a move to free safety should allow Orhian Johnson to shine in the spring game and beyond.
A freshman early enrollee, Joel Hale made a splash almost immediately this spring. Unsurprisingly, he was a bit behind on the conditioning front, but when it came to practice drills, he has impressed practically everyone who has watched him.
I expect a similar impact from Hale as John Simon had as a true freshman. If this comparison holds up, Hale will be a solid addition to the defensive line rotation in 2011 with a bright future.
As the most experienced linebacker on the team, Andrew Sweat will be expected to continue the linebacking tradition of kicking ass from the weak side.
A returning starter, he likely won’t be in the spring game for more than a few series, so like Simon and Williams, catch him early while you can.
An extremely promising start at strong safety was sadly derailed by a season ending knee injury last year. I was a bit concerned about how he would bounce back this spring (knee injuries can seriously impact explosion and quickness, even after fully recovering) but the fact that he jumped right back into the starting line up is a great sign.
C.J. Barnett reminds me of a slightly smaller Donte Whitner with his speed and nose for contact (check out his pass break up at 1:00 and his hit at 1:18 in this video). If Barnett can provide half the run support that Whitner did while staying healthy all season, he will be a lot of fun to watch.
Adam Bellamy had a relatively quiet season for most of 2010, but an impressive performance in the Sugar Bowl (1:31, 3:00 amongst others here- p.s. it’s hard finding defensive line highlights) has many fans, including myself, expecting big things from him in 2011.
He will primarily be playing at strong side defensive end and has some big shoes to fill. Saturday will be a glimpse at whether or not he is up to the task.
The starting corner position opposite Travis Howard has turned into a heated competition between these three players (Corey Brown is also involved but is injured this spring). Dominic Clarke is holding on to the starting spot for now thanks to a strong performance in the Sugar Bowl. However, Florida State transfer Dionte Allen and Bradley Roby (who is likely the next next big thing at CB) are making a strong push.
The competition here will be fierce and fun to watch. At the very least, the depth should once again be excellent in the secondary.
The difference between Johnathan Hankins as an incoming freshman last spring versus now is drastic and impressive. He was able to make an impact on the field last season, and if his improvement on the field is as drastic as his physical improvement off of it, Hankins could turn into a truly disruptive force in the middle of the defense.
Only a true sophomore, Hankins is without a doubt one of the most exciting (and biggest) defensive tackles the Buckeyes have had on the roster in a long, long time.
One of the most physically gifted linebackers on the roster, Etienne Sabino has successfully put his stamp on the middle linebacker position this spring. With elite size and outstanding athleticism, he has a chance to be a big time playmaker.
James Laurinaitis was only a true sophomore during his break out season in 2006. As a redshirt junior, Sabino is much more experienced and I really think he will be able to have a similar impact (although he probably won’t have as many interceptions or fumble recoveries).
Having a lock down corner is something that happens so often in Columbus that you can almost take it for granted in any given year. After the graduation of both starters from last season, the Buckeyes have been looking for the next great lock down corner this spring. Travis Howard looks ready to fill that role.
Howard locked down a starting spot so quickly in practice that the discussion soon turned to who would earn the starting spot opposite him. He was a major factor in the secondary at the end of last season, and if he can carry over that success and confidence into this year- look out.
Certain rules in spring games (namely, not smashing the quarterback) limit the ability of the defense to get turnovers. Despite the fact that he might not get a chance to shine on Saturday, he is clearly an emerging star and one of the most exciting players on this year’s D.