Ohio State’s defense has been one of the most consistently excellent units in college football over the last decade.
Sadly, the 2011 season was a major bump in the road for the defense and the team. Needless to say, the Silver Bullets will be looking to get back on track in Urban Meyer’s first year as head coach.
There are some new faces on the defensive coaching staff to help out in that regard, but some familiar ones as well.
Luke Fickell is the primary holdover from the previous staff. He was the co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach under Tressel. He will basically be assuming the same roll under Meyer- with perhaps a bit more emphasis on being the primary coordinator.
The best case scenario will be if Fickell can continue to implement the defensive system that has worked so well over the past decade and combine that with some fresh ideas from the new staff to take the defense to an even higher level of excellence.
The talent is in place to do that this season, but depth is a major concern everywhere outside of the trenches. Additionally, the transition to new position coaches could create some unexpected problems in the first year.
Here is a look at some of the things to watch for at each position as the spring game approaches and the depth chart is sorted out.
The defensive line is in great shape heading in to next season.
The starting four from the first day of practice were Garrett Goebel at nose tackle (1-technique), Johnathan Hankins at tackle (3-technique), Adam Bellamy at strong side defensive end, and John Simon at LEO.
Simon and Hankins are legitimate stars (they “disrupt everything” during practice according to Meyer) that will both likely be on an NFL roster next season. They will be the anchors of the entire defense.
The major concern with the group is the same as last season- pressuring the quarterback. Given that this is the same starting four, that really isn’t a surprise.
This weakness becomes clear when you look at Simon playing LEO- which is the primary speed rush position on the D. While more than capable of playing there, Simon would almost certainly be better utilized at strong side defensive end or even the 3-technique tackle.
The problem with Simon at LEO is that sometimes the system requires him to drop back in pass coverage or to spy… which is basically just him standing around waiting for the QB to break the pocket so he can chase them down.
Simon ‘spied’ a lot as the LEO against Michigan last season and it frustrated the hell out of me. Taking your best defensive lineman and having him stand around not doing much of anything as he waits for things to happen isn’t really maximizing his skill set.
On the list of things John Simon is good at doing, running down people in open space isn’t at the top. ‘Speed rusher’ isn’t high up on the list either.
So why is Simon still playing LEO this spring? Part of the reason is that Nathan Williams continues to rehab from a season ending injury and will not be back until the fall.
Losing Nathan Williams for the year was possibly the biggest hit to the defense in 2011 and directly contributed to their struggles- which, once again, primarily stemmed from not pressuring the QB.
Williams’ return will almost certainly shake up the starting four, and barring complications during his recovery he should jump back in as the starting LEO if healthy.
In the mean time, one thing to watch for this spring is if Steve Miller can impress enough to solidify himself as the LEO and allow Simon to move back to a more natural position for him. Miller showed promise last season in practice, but he will need to continue growing to become a consistent contributor on the field.
J.T. Moore is also in the mix at LEO- but he failed to impress during limited action last season and will need to show improvement if he is going to crack the two-deep.
Freshman phenom Noah Spence will be in Columbus this fall and I expect him to instantly jump up the depth chart at LEO. Spence can provide an elite speed rush on the edge and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him make an instant impact next season.
If someone can step up and relieve Simon of playing LEO before the season, that will help out tremendously with the rotation and depth at the other three positions along the line.
If that doesn’t happen this spring, we will have to wait for the arrival of Williams and Spence in the fall.
With or without Simon, outside of LEO the depth along the line is in good shape. Joel Hale and Michael Bennett both saw the field last season as true freshmen, and Bennett in particular looks like a star in the making. I expect them both to be solid parts of the rotation this year.
After adding 45 pounds in the off season, redshirt freshman Kenny Kayes will also be looking to make a major impact in the rotation- likely at strong side defensive end or possibly at the 3-technique (think Doug Worthington).
Finally, Chase Farris is an unknown as a redshirt freshman so we will see what kind of impact he can have.
Overall, this is easily the strongest unit on the defense.
This is where things get thin.
You can pencil returning starter Etienne Sabino in as the strong side linebacker. We have been waiting for years to see his potential show up out on the field… and we are still waiting for the most part.
Sabino did have a decent season in 2011, recording 62 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks, but his potential is much higher than that in my opinion.
In this day of early NFL entries and transfers, it is rare to see a player develop at Ohio State over the course of five seasons. It would be fantastic to see Sabino take his game to the next level in his final year- which would obviously help his draft stock.
After showing a tremendous amount of patience and loyalty to the program to get to this point, I will certainly be rooting for a big money making year for Sabino.
The other returning starter is weak side linebacker Ryan Shazier, who burst on to the scene last season with 57 tackles, 5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks as a true freshman.
Despite being somewhat undersized, Shazier was arguably the most impressive linebacker on the team. His speed and quickness were unmatched and, while he did make freshman mistakes from time to time, his instincts and nose for the football were impressive as well.
With 15 pounds of added weight courtesy of the off season strength and conditioning program, needless to say, the expectations for Shazier are through the roof for 2012 and beyond. Many expect him to be the next star in the rich history of stand-out Buckeye linebackers.
The third projected starter is Curtis Grant at middle linebacker. He was one of the top overall players in the country out of high school, and his potential is immense. Like Sabino, however, he had difficulty adjusting to the college game during his freshman campaign last year.
We can only hope that his adjustment period is much shorter than Sabino’s has been. Early reports out of practice are that he is much improved which is an encouraging sign. Grant might be the player to watch during the spring game- well, at least on the defense.
If Grant can put things together, he could compete with Shazier as the next great linebacker for the Buckeyes(although he is significantly behind at this point based on proven results on the field).
Providing depth is Storm Klein, who will likely get a look in the middle- or possibly on the strong side. Klein is currently limited with an injury which makes Grant the starter by default.
Last season, Klein looked a step slow in space which was a major concern. Pending the results of his off-season conditioning program, that could be a big factor limiting his playing time.
After Klein, the Buckeyes are looking at true freshman to fill out the depth chart. Conner Crowell was on the team last year, but a leg injury made him a non-participant in practice so he is basically a true freshman based on experience.
Between those six players the depth chart will have to be filled. The experience is literally non-existent and this is basically one huge question mark.
Being Ohio State, there is plenty of talent, so things are not all doom and gloom. It is very possible that one of the youngsters can pull a Ryan Shazier and make an instant impact in their first year.
The chances of all of them doing that are unlikely, which makes depth a potential problem.
Like the line, the safeties are in relatively good shape this season when it comes to experience and depth.
Barnett has All-Big Ten potential (he led the team with 75 tackles last season and added 2 interceptions) and if Bryant can play with a little more control (not go for big plays on D only to give up bigger plays to the O) he has the ability to be very good as well.
The two-deep will likely be rounded out by Orhian Johnson and Corey Brown.
Orhian Johnson provides the best depth of any position on the team (32 tackles, 3 interceptions last year). Corey Brown is a tremendously talented player that hasn’t put it together at the college level- he is running out of time to do that but he is in a good position to make an impact this season.
Zach Domicone is injured this spring and a non-participant thus far. Even when healthy his ceiling is limited, but he does have plenty of experience and will at least contribute on special teams.
Devan Bogard arrives in the fall and may be a factor at STAR.
This group could certainly use an infusion of young talent, but for the time being they are in decent shape heading into this season.
This is where things get really thin.
Both starters return from last season, so that is good news to begin with.
Bradley Roby was perhaps the biggest surprise on the team as a redshirt freshman last year. He looks to build on his outstanding breakout season with a solid second campaign as the starter.
Becoming the next first-round DB from Ohio State is a very real possibility for Roby if he continues to perform at such a high level.
It is a testament to how well Roby played when you consider that teams targeted returning starter Travis Howard on the other side of the field.
Howard did get picked on last year by opposing offenses, and he was out of place more often than you would like to see- but there is no doubt that the talent is there if he can put things together and eliminate the lapses.
Like Etienne Sabino, this will be Howard’s money year to show NFL scouts what he can do. Once again, I will be rooting for him to improve his draft stock… which will, of course, directly contribute to the overall quality of the defense.
Interesting side note, Howard and Sabino were teammates in high school at Dr. Krop in Miami.
Depth will be provided primarily by sophomore Doran Grant.
Like most of the young players, he is short on field time but long on potential. The experience he gains this season will be very important for him down the line, as he will almost certainly be one of the starters at CB as early as next season.
That’s. About. It.
This is clearly not an ideal situation at corner, but if some of the younger players emerge from the trial by fire this year, it could pay big dividends in the future.
The defense has plenty of talent- as you would expect from any Ohio State squad, but proven depth at linebacker and corner is non-existent.
Some true freshman will be thrown into the fire, which may ultimately benefit the team a few years down the line- but it would be surprising if it didn’t lead to problems this season.
The true freshman that enrolled early for spring practice will have an advantage and help smooth the transition, but it will be quite the task filling out the depth chart before the first game.
The saving grace could be the defensive line. If they can dominate (as I expect them to), the growing pains at linebacker and corner might be masked… or at least that would be the hope.